I have a love/hate relationship with email…and to be honest, most days I lean more towards the “hate” side. Don’t get me wrong…I fully understand the advantages email offers and realize there is currently no better alternative for rapid communication at a global level. However, I’ve found that without some governing directives on the proper use of email within an organization, it’s easy to find yourself faced with a flood of correspondence that too often leads to a faulty dilemma. On one hand, you can elect to stay chained to the computer to manage the inbox, which may significantly limit your opportunities to be visibly engaged within your organization. Alternatively, you can take an “I’ll get to the emails when I get to them” approach, and risk missing a critical, time-sensitive tasking that requires your immediate attention. In my mind, neither option is acceptable.
I’ve been in leadership positions where I literally found myself dealing with approximately 150 emails a day. I assumed that there must be a reason for the email, so I felt compelled to read each and every one…every single day. Assuming an average of 2 minutes to read and process each email, it could take somewhere close to 5 hours to simply get through the inbox. If only half of them required action, an average time of approximately 5 minutes to formulate cogent responses could possibly add another 6 hours to the email commitment. If my math is right, that’s an 11-hour day…assuming no breaks, no meetings, no distractions. Over time, I realized that if I wanted to avoid having emails dictate my work schedule, I needed to establish some guiding principles to limit the emails to those that truly required my attention, and to structure those emails in a manner that allowed me to efficiently attack the inbox every day. As you’ll see, the principles themselves are neither novel nor earth-shattering concepts. However, when widely disseminated and enforced, they proved to be very effective. A few of the key principles I found to be useful include:
The subject line should always be prefaced by a key descriptor…For Action, For Information, or As Requested. If the email requires attention within the same day, the preface should simply say “URGENT”. As a corollary to this principle, I tried to place dedicated time blocks on my calendar every day, and these descriptors helped ensure I worked the most important issues first instead of tackling them in chronological order.
Be judicious when including people on the Cc line. If the information being disseminated isn’t required to enable the recipients to be more effective or efficient but is rather a “just for your SA” courtesy, consider trimming the recipient list.
When forwarding an email trail that is over two pages long, summarize the content into an easily comprehensible paragraph up front, and trim the email trail down to only those excerpts which have key points that enable the reader to understand the full context of the issue.
Consider a “no later than” policy for routine correspondence. I tried to establish a 6:00 pm cut-off time for routine emails, which by definition can wait until the next day. My main intent was to let everyone know I wanted and expected them to prioritize family time after the duty day. If someone felt the issue couldn’t wait until the following day, I certainly wanted them to feel free to send it along, regardless of the time. If in retrospect the email could have waited, a “Thanks…enjoy your evening, and we’ll work this tomorrow” response often helped calibrate sight pictures for future correspondence.
These principles aren’t intended to be dogmatic…they simply were ones that worked for me. We all have our preferences for staff work…the key is to determine what works best for you and establish guidelines that enable you to maximize your productivity. That’s it for now…I’m behind on emails…
Maj Gen (ret) Jim “Rev” Jones retired in 2014 after leading organizations at all levels in the Air Force. He is now a partner and senior consultant in Two Blue Aces, a firm with a focus on strategy, leadership and business solutions at the executive level. Visit twoblueaces.com to learn more about how Two Blue Aces can help your company meet its goals and objectives.
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