A few days back, I was listening to Michael Wolf's podcast about the incredible email-centric culture we've created here at Microsoft. Maybe not so much Microsoft as all high-tech, I bet. Either way, it's true that we get tons and tons of email.
Our culture was built on individuals doing their jobs without a lot of personal interaction. Employees are expected to know what to do, or figure it out largely on their own. Teamwork and collaboration are being stressed more vigorously, but email remains the best tool when everyone is working on their own projects.
From the day I arrived here, I was innundated with email. But I recall clearly that 95% of it was from co-workers. No spam (wow!). No document attachments. No funny cartoons from distant relatives. And no heart-felt and utterly confidential solicitations from bank managers from Zimbabwe.
Today alone, I got 284 emails that made it through our spam filters, including only 15 or so I would call spam. 100 or so were sent to alises I've joined, and well over 100 had my name in the TO box, with something for me to respond to or do. No matter how hard I try, I can't keep my inbox under 300-500.
Michael wonders aloud how we can get so much email when all our co-workers are in meetings all day long! You only have to peek your head into any conference room to see laptops and tablets and smartphones and Pocket PCs in front of nearly every attendee.
I'm not complaining. Well, maybe I am, because there have been days when I've been completely overwhelmed by email, disorganized by a "to do list" 500 entries long, unsure of what should be next.
But over time, and hundreds of thousands of emails, I've learned a trick or two. And though I don't practice them all like I should, here are my favorite email tips:
- Remember, your Inbox is your Inbox. It's not your To Do list. You don't use your paper inbox as a filing system, do you? (Okay, maybe you do. So how's that working for you, anyway?)
- Block out time to "process" email. And when you do, "process" it. Don't spend more than a minute or two on an email--and don't start down the road of firing off two or three emails for everyone you get, or diving into a project after you get to email 13 ("oh, ya! I owe him a project plan!" or "I should blog about that..."). Put it on your To Do list, and keep processing your inbox. If you can't do that, there may be other kinds of help available.
- Don't use your email as a filing system. And for heaven's sake, don't rescue a co-worker who is looking for something you happen to have tucked away in an email folder. Let them rescue YOU! If someone else owns a document/plan/conversation, let them store it for you. Chances are if you need it, someone else has it.
- Use SharePoint/fileshares for what they're for. Notice that both words have a common root: "share." You can't share what's stored on your hard drive (well, easily anyway). Don't use email as a content management system.
- Get Lookout or MSN Desktop Search if you're hopelessly hooked on using Exchange and your email folders as a filing system, Don't waste another minute "looking for that file" you know you got back in August.
- DON'T FORGET ABOUT YOUR TASK LIST! (It's the one I have the hardest time with.) Once you've cleaned out your inbox, nicely categorized and prioritized your Task list, don't forget to use it. If you do, you'll soon have a long "To Do" list, and a full Inbox, not exactly an improvement on the situation.
- Ignore Incoming Email until you have time to process it. Can you imagine if snail mail was real-time? Would you wait by your house's mailbox, and open each piece of junk mail as it came in? Thank goodness it only comes in once a day! And even though you pick it up daily, I bet you process that "inbox" only a few times a week. Change your default view on Outlook to open to your Calendar and Task List, rather than your Inbox. Turn off the popup toast and reminder sound when email comes in. Don't respond immediately to each incoming email.
- Pick up the phone once in a while. You'd be surprised at how much you can get done in a phone call rather than on email.
Okay. Now that I've personally broken every one of the rules above today, I should get back to my Inbox. I'm down to 543 emails...