How to Spend Less Time on Email

Continuous Improvement
February 15, 2021
Why Challenger Still Matters
February 15, 2021

How to Spend Less Time on Email

I aim to start weekdays around 5:15, focused on a singular task: clearing emails.

I cleared my inbox completely a few mornings ago and then got our kids ready and our son off to school. After dropping him off, I glanced at my phone to see a full screen of replies.

Most leaders I know find that keeping up with email is a continual struggle. That’s why I found it helpful when I saw Romain Ehrhard’s post his strategy for how he manages email on Coaching for Leaders Mastermind forum. Romain is a software executive in Paris, France who, like many of us, navigates through tons of email each day.

I asked Romain if he’d be up for passing along his strategies to the larger community as well and he very graciously agreed. Here are strategies from both of us to spend less time on email.

1. How to Set Email Expectations

From Romain: I’ve asked my 8 direct reports to change the way they write their emails. I request that they write two lines at the beginning of the email explaining what I must know. More detail is available for me under, if I need it.

I don’t respond to open questions via email. If they want a quick answer, I ask them to frame it as a Yes/No question. This encourages them to propose solutions. For instance, instead of, “What do we do for problem A?,” I ask for, “I’m planing to do this to solve problem A. Is this ok with you?”

From Dave: Unlike Romain, I don’t have a large team of direct reports, but I still get tons of emails from clients and colleagues. I set expectations by handing email at a few intervals each day, rather than sitting on email all day long. As such, people have “learned” over time not to expect instant answers/dialogue over email.

Like Romain, I avoid lengthy email discussions whenever possible. As soon as more than 2-3 message go back and forth on the same topic, I typically suggest a call so we can dialogue fully and save each other time.

2. What to Notice and What to Ignore

From Romain: I have a rule in my mailbox which highlight emails written to me, vs. those where I am only cc’d. I read those addressed directly to me first.

From Dave: I’ve developed a habit over the years to immediately look at who an email is addressed to. If I am cc’d on the message, I assume it’s only an FYI and no response is required. I’ve disciplined myself to rarely respond to cc’s.

3. How to See Urgent Stuff

From Romain: We use Office 365 at work. I have activated push notifications in the Outlook app which allows me to see the titles of emails on my lock screen. Thus, I can see at a glance if my team needs me or not.

From Dave: I use the VIP setting built into iOS and Mac OS X to screen for messages from key people. When one of my VIPs sends me an email, a banner flashes on my iPhone/iPad for a few moments and also “stars” them in my inbox. I keep my VIP list extremely short, so it’s rare for me to get more than 2-3 VIP alerts a day.

4. How to Navigate the Inbox

From Romain: I don’t open my mailbox unless I have at least 15 minutes free. When I start, I do things quickly: fast answers and quick decisions. Subjects that require me to read things go to Pocket or Evernote.

Each email I read leaves my mailbox. That’s a rule. My mailbox must not be a to-do list, so there is no, “I will see this later.”

I don’t sort my emails. I have only 3 folders in my mailbox: HR, Executive, Everything. I used to sort, but I spent too much time wondering where to put things. Now there is no question at all. Email client search engines are so powerful these days.

From Dave: I don’t sort emails anymore either. When David Sparks was on the show awhile back talking about email, I realized how much time I was wasting moving emails into folders that I rarely revisited. I now just have a “processed” folder and a small number of other folders that fill automatically with server-based rules.

Email rules make my life so much easier. Bonni and I run our personal lives and podcast accounts on Fastmail*. One of the great things about Fastmail is that we can set up tons of powerful rules at the server level to reduce what comes into our inboxes. This is vastly superior to rules on the email client itself, since it doesn’t matter which device I’m on when emails come in.

A few examples of this: Whenever we get a voice mail on our listener line (powered by Google Voice) I have a rule set so that my email account automatically forwards it to Bonni as well. I also have rules so that when I get certain people’s newsletters, Fastmail automatically forwards them to my Instapaper account, so they never need to clutter in my inbox.

5: Achieving Zero Inbox

From Romain: To me, the best way to reach that state of zero inbox is to close subjects or to “share the monkey*.” When you delegate something via email, be sure to give up front all information needed and explain what you want and what kind of feedback you need. For instance, “I want you to contact this person and see if you can help him/her solve the problem. Come back to me only if things go wrong”.

In preparation of this article, I also gave a shot to Sanebox. I think that the tool is very powerful as David Sparks says. However, it’s very creepy to see a third party messing up with your emails…I think that in order to have it work well, I need to spend few hours to understand its power. It will also mean that I have to change my email workflow…and I’m not ready for that. I stopped the experiment before the end of my trial.

From Dave: My aim is generally for zero inbox, but I try not to be ridiculous about it. If a few emails sit in my box until the next day, I don’t worry about it.

I’ve heard great things about Sanebox as well and looked into it, but I haven’t tried it for two main reasons:

  • I don’t think my volume of email yet justifies the cost.
  • I’m leery of any third party having access to my email credentials.

Thank you to Mastermind member Romain Ehrhard! We welcome your contributions and feedback on the above.

Monday’s Show

Practical Storytelling That Isn’t Awkward

228: Practical Storytelling That Isn’t Awkward

Most of us have heard that good leaders should be storytellers. What we haven’t heard as much is how to do that well without being awkward. That’s why I’m glad David Hutchens returned to the show this week.

David is the author of Circle of the 9 Muses: A Storytelling Field Guide for Innovators and Meaning Makers*. We discussed the importance of stories, how to tell them, and what to do with them afterwards. Quotes from David and the notes are posted on the Coaching for Leaders website.

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