Managing Distractions: Tips for Staying Out of Email Jail

by Denny Strigl

In chapter 8 of Managers, Can You Hear Me Now?  We suggest a few guidelines for using email.  As mentioned in the book the guidelines were developed and sent to Verizon Wireless employees a few years ago by Jim Gerace who was then our vice president of corporate communications.  I won’t repeat here what is written in the book, but I would like to suggest an additional tip for handling your email.

Do you ever find yourself opening an email, reading it and saving it only to come back to later when you have more time to deal with it?  Do you sometimes find yourself moving to the next email and doing the same thing with it as you did with the previous email?  I’ve found it’s not uncommon for managers to jump around from one email to another to another without handling them to conclusion.  You may even open the same email several times only to save it for another time.  Before you know it you have a “pile” unfinished emails.  You have entered email jail!

Here is a possible solution; one that worked for me.   Remember the FIFO inventory method you learned in your accounting courses?  FIFO stands for first in, first out.  I try to handle my email the same way.  I dispose of emails in the same order I receive them.  It’s hard to get use to doing at first, but once you do, you will find you can save a tremendous amount of time.

In adopting the FIFO method of handling email you may find it helpful to reread the guidelines presented in chapter 8.  Especially important is the guideline which says, “Don’t spend more than five minutes dealing with an email.  When you go over this limit, stop and make a phone call.”

It may sound like I’m over simplifying.  Yes, I may be, but just like the goal of saying things on one half of one side of one sheet of paper, handling every email in the order you received it and getting “rid” of it in five minutes or less should always be the goal.

Here are a couple other email tricks managers may find helpful:  When you receive a lengthy email, return it to the sender and ask what he or she would like you to do or simply ask them to “net it out” for you.  Another technique I used when I was listed, along with others, in the “cc” box on an email was to reply, “What would you like me to do with this?” or “Why do I need this.” Or, an even better alternative might be to press the delete key.  If you missed something “critical,” the sender will undoubtedly let you know soon enough.

Email can be an efficient tool, but only if used in the right way.  All too often we receive emails we don’t need to receive, and send emails we don’t really need to send.  The best way to use email is as a direct link to driving your results.

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