A few months ago, we sent a quarterly VIP survey to our exclusive email list.
One particular VIP, responded with this:
…if I could reduce my email by 80%, then I could have 5 minutes to fill out your survey…
I had to admit—she had a point. (And she filled out the survey—thank you!)
As high-achieving business people, we need to save our preciously limited time for high-return activities. Things like:
- Time with family / friends / loved ones
- Creating and selling products and services
- Answering questions about your products and services from prospective buyers and clients
- Managing staff members
- Learning or honing skills that can have a direct impact on your bottom line
- Meeting with partners and suppliers
- Creating proposals
- Cold or warm calling
- And on and on
What’s not on the list? Spending tons of time managing email.
For most of us, mining the daily email avalanche is NOT a high-return activity. Or should I say—a very small percentage of it might be, if that’s how our business deals are getting done. For example, if you run an order desk, processing orders, returns and fielding support questions is critical. In my case, of the 700++ messages passing through my systems daily, maybe 3 – 4 of those represent value activities. (On a good day!) It’s almost become like panning for gold. Maybe one or two messages might be valuable nuggets—or maybe not.
There’s probably not much need to further “sell” you on the idea of managing email. So let’s just dive right in.
The Big Idea
A key email management success strategy is what I call “think rules, not tools.”
It’s so important, I’ll say it again:
THINK RULES, NOT TOOLS
Here’s one more wrench in the mail gears: many of us now use multiple email clients each and every day. My day is comprised of Lotus Notes (client emails), Gmail, Outlook, PostBox (I’ll talk about this way-cool email client in an upcoming show) and various iOS mail (and now Android) tools. I have colleagues who use even more than that!
With such a feast of mail tools, it’s even more important to focus on systems, rules, and workflows. Rules not tools and workflow before software.
So let’s do this email thing!
Step 1: Kill SPAM Before Strategizing
The first step toward our happy reduced-email life is aggressive SPAM fighting. I know this one sounds obvious, but it’s amazing how much SPAM still slips through even the best systems. It’s a never-ending battle between high-volume SPAMmers and SPAM fighter tools. Sadly, that battle will continue as long as email is free and plentiful. (Some are now advocating charging everyone money to send email at all, but that’s another topic…)
Effective SPAM filtering requires multiple layers of defense. (Like your network systems.)
For example, your email client program (Gmail web, mobile mail, Outlook, Mac Mail, etc.) provides some basic SPAM protection. At the next level up, Then there are server-level protections. A layer above that, there are inbound mail services that can stop potential SPAM even before it even hits your servers. I won’t dive into the technology. But for now, the more layers of SPAM removal, the better.
If you still get more SPAM than you should (more than 3 pieces per day is too much), consider adding third-party SPAM management tools. The tools you’ll choose depend on your mail provider, mail provider’s servers, DNS, type of mail clients used, filters, operating system, and many other things. (This is why so many companies are wholesale outsourcing their mail to Microsoft, Google, and other providers. But that’s a topic for another day.)
For the best SPAM-fighting results, I recommend using only 1 or 2 specific computers (including mobile) to check all your email. If you have 50 devices, all pulling from the same servers, each will make different decisions what is or is not SPAM—leading to unpredictable results. Such decisions are time-consuming and inefficient. Plus, limiting your email management to a single device will help keep your efforts focused and manageable.
The downside of aggressive SPAM filtering is, of course, missing something you really do NEED. That’s a separate topic, but something to consider when crafting your SPAM-elimination plan.
SPAM defenses up? Great! On to Step 2.
Step 2: Bring on the Strategy!
Can I go retro on you for a moment?
Take out a sheet of paper / notebook / napkin and a pen (yes, the dusty pen and paper…)
Next, think about the broad categories of mail you receive, and how much of that actually needs your personal attention. For example:
- Business email from an employer or your own business.
- Personal email from friends/family/personal interests/associations.
Within each, subcategorize mail by type:
- “FYI email” where you are on the “CC” line or the “BCC” line
- List distributions of varying importance
- Specific emails sent directly to YOU that require YOUR direct action
We’ve already tackled the evil SPAM monster, so let’s look at what I call “FYI Emails.”
Step 3: Filter on FYI Emails (CC and BCC)
A reader once asked me what percentage of daily mail was "FYI". It was a great question, and the answer is "it depends." In my personal experience, FYI mail runs between 50% and 80% of my total, on any given day.
As a general rule (…hint… rules are coming---did I mention rules?…),
If your email address is on the "CC" or "BCC" line of any message, the message does not---or should not---require any direct action on your part.
If a sender expects direct action, then they should send mail directly to the person doing or responsible for the action. Yes, I understand the world is supposed to work this way---but it doesn't.
In many companies, it's all-too-common for people to ask "did you see that email", or "what did you think of that email", or "did you do xyz" on that email?
If my name is on a “CC” or “BCC” line, I may read it. But probably not until later—if at all. Why? The mail was not made out TO me, and I simply do not have time to take action on such messages. (My guess is you don’t have the time either!)
Using your pen and paper, make a note of the common types of “CC” and “BCC” emails you receive (people / departments / project-related mailings) and what actions you take. Actions might include filing the message, taking some type of action, forwarding the message, etc.)
Once you visualize on paper how much mail is not even really for you, vast free-time potential awaits!
You can now give yourself permission to be polite but firm with people expecting your action on CC and BCC emails. Data is on your side.
If people really need your immediate attention, they can:
- Visit you in person
- Phone you — including texting and related communications
- Email you directly
- Anything else after that
Enforcing this “communications hierarchy” can massively reduce the amount of email you have to read and process. My personal experience has been that when people don’t expect mail responses at the drop of a hat, they won’t bother to get up and visit—or call—you. Win/win for your productivity!
Done listing out “CC” and “BCC” on your paper? Let’s talk about managing email sent from distribution lists.
Step 4: Manage “List Distribution” Mails
In business or personal life, most of us belong to one or more “distribution lists”. Examples include:
- Personal interests or activities (sports / civic / hobbies, etc.)
- Business interests (marketing / finance / etc.)
- “Mandatory” distribution lists within your job or company
With pen and paper still in hand (you didn’t put them away, did you?) think about all the various lists you belong to (whether you ASKED to join or not.) Then, write down which ones are important. For example, daily “project status” emails sent by team members may be important.
Your business or employer may also have “mandatory” distribution lists, such as those broadcast “all hands” emails sent to everyone in the company: early-office closures, holiday announcements, “All Hands — you’re all fired”, stuff like that. (Well, with hope, not that last one…)
The only MANDATORY lists you need to process are those actually REQUIRED by your company or organization. And even most of those can be deleted or filed away with automated mail rules. For example, if you’re an independent contractor receiving a bunch of “employee benefit” emails at your client sites, such messages are perfect candidates for the trash bin.
Next in line are what I call “business interest” lists. Membership is discretionary and entirely up to you. For example, you may belong to lists like the “CorbinLinks.com VIP List” that you feel totally compelled to read right away.
Other list mails, you may want to defer to later.
Personal interest or informational lists may fall somewhere in between “required” and “optional”. If you’re on a list for your son’s baseball team, you obviously NEED to know about game cancelations, rainouts, reschedules, and other news affecting your schedule. Maybe that particular will make the cut. (And actually SAVE you time driving across town, only to find the game has been canceled or moved to a different field…)
Summing up, keep the distribution lists you NEED to process. (I recently unsubscribed from over 40 of them.) Lists you no longer need —or can safely ignore—or read much later—you’ll filter with rules. Or unsubscribe from altogether.
Direct Emails Sent to You
This is the type of email we care most about. (See suggested priorities above.)
Let’s start with two recommended rules:
- If you’re not managing an order queue or SEV 1 emails, medical emergencies, 911 calls and the like, then email is NOT a real-time requirement in your life.
- If family members or co-workers expect real-time response from email, their expectations need major “adjustment”.
Using your pen and paper, make a list of senders who are most important, and often require prompt attention. The list might include:
- Your boss
- Your boss’ boss (and on up the chain…)
- Your spouse or children
- Your child’s school
- Doctors / care professionals
- Team members or stakeholders on projects you’re working on
You’ll probably find the “required” list is much smaller than you thought.
Now, based on this list, how many (roughly) emails sent from each person, require you to actually DO something? For example, if your boss emails you three times a day asking for special reports, that’s a different priority than sharing your latest recipe with Aunt Mae. Not that Aunt Mae isn’t VERY important, but it’s not a right-away / real-time response requirement. You could email her during your “correspondence time” (we’ll get to that).
Before moving on to the next steps, your paper should be roughly organized as follows:
- “FYI” email types received (CC/BCC)
- List / distribution / announcement email types received
- Direct / priority mails received
If your paper is ready, let’s charge ahead. If not, be sure to complete all the exercises first. It may take a little extra time (and should), but the life-quality improvement will be worth it.
Step 5: Master Email Rules 101
If you’re new to email filtering and processing rules—or haven’t put them to good use—now is the perfect time.
Or, maybe you’re already there and have too many rules? We’ll get to that too. I’m going to make the process very simple and easy.
Think of rules this way: there are rules/filters, triggers and actions. Yes, you can get WAY more complex than that, but don’t need to.
Let’s keep it simple:
- Rules (or Filters) are the strategy (the “why”). A rule might be something like “File Distribution Lists in another folder”, or “I don’t want to see employee benefit emails—delete them right away”, or “if my daughter’s soccer practice suddenly moves to another field way across town, send an SMS to my phone.”
- Triggers (or “Conditions” — the “what”) are the details behind the strategy. Or, you can think of them as the tactics. This is where you set up things like “file messages based on a particular address”, or “all emails sent with “soccer game” in the subject line, or “mails where my email address is on the ‘CC’ or ‘BCC’ line.
- Actions — finally, you have the actions (the “how”). This what actually happens to mail that has been through rules and triggers. For example, “send all messages from a particular person to the trash folder”, or “send all messages meeting the trigger to a special ‘Read Later’ folder, or “send all messages from the board of directors emergency meeting panel directly to my mobile phone…”
That’s really all there is to it. CAN you get more complicated? Oh yeah. I’ve seen people with literally dozens of complex email rules. Often they’re very proud of their rules and spent a lot of time on them.
Well, all those rules may be super nifty…until…their mail client system gets upgraded, or software/service vendors change and the fancy rules all stop working. Then they have to rebuild their rules on a new system. (Plus there is the whole “slippery slope” thing of spending more time building and tweaking rules, then processing emails..)
But at BYB, we’re after simple, repeatable, platform-agnostic systems. We want mail rules that are simple, easy to create, and easy to transfer between different systems and businesses.
Try not to get too caught up in the differences between different mail systems and client tools. Different mail clients all have their own “language” for building rules or filters, but the logic and concepts are always the same. Plus, different companies and clients use different tools. Chances are, you may have to re-create your rules anyway, whenever you switch clients or sites.
By this point, you should be totally empowered to reduce the email you have to process by 80% or more.
But BYB is about “exploding your life” and taking things up a notch—or 1000x. What else can we do to make the process even better?
Myth Busting — “Inbox Zero” or “Clean Inbox”
Have you heard about “inbox zero”? Other people telling you your inbox “must be clear and not overwhelming?” People like to say this because the productivity books tell them too. Gurus and co-workers suggest it. Or, maybe the peace of mind that comes with looking at a blank/empty inbox makes life seem magical and dreamlike.
But you know what? For many people, getting and KEEPING a clean inbox is more stressful than having a few (or a few million) emails in it. With email programs getting more sophisticated, it’s often quick and easy to search through your entire mail archive whenever needed. In fact, with today’s cloud-enabled email services and generous space even for free accounts, it matters less and less how much email we have.
If you’ve followed the guide this far, you’ll see it really doesn’t matter (within relative space/system limits of course), how big your inbox is. (I stopped even looking at the size of my inbox 4 years ago.) What does matter—the ONLY thing that matters—is what you actually have to spend time processing.
Not buying in? Still need that empty, “zero inbox” kinda feeling? Then try this: every 1 − 3 months, move all the messages still left in “inbox” to a folder called “Archive”. Low-tech, fast and easy, and problem solved. Concerned about search? Most modern mail clients can rip through thousands of emails and find any bit of text in seconds.
Putting It All Together
Now, you can begin creating rules to automate your work. Let your mail systems be your own personal secretary.
Here is a quick and easy system to implement everything we’ve talked about so far:
Basic Email Rule System
- Create these folders — Archive, FYI, Distribution Lists, Potential SPAM (most email clients will automatically create the basic folders such as inbox, outbox, spam, trash, etc.)
- Rule 1 — “Potential SPAM” — many systems have an option to file emails flagged as “potential” SPAM (might be SPAM, or it might not…). If your system supports a “potential SPAM” category, set up a basic subject-line rule to “file anything marked as potential SPAM into the “Potential SPAM” folder (or “label” if you’re using a label-based system such as Gmail vs. folder-based systems such as Mac Mail.)
- Rule 2 —“FYI” rule—these are the CC and BCC emails we talked about in Step 3. Make this email rule something very simple. For example: “mail received where I am on CC or BCC line, don’t send to inbox, send directly to the “FYI” folder or label. (And you thought this would be complicated!)
- Rule 3 — “Lists” — depending on how many lists you belong to, and how they send mail (to individuals, or cc/bcc), you may need more than one rule. Create the rule based on the priorities listed out on your paper.
- Tune and tweak as needed — Email rules evolve over time. Lists change, senders change, bosses change, etc. I recommend keeping rules simple, checking them every 1 − 3 months, and don’t add more than necessary. If you have more than 4 or 5 rules, it’s time to re-examine your email workflow. (Loop back to the beginning of this article.)
- Move old messages out of the Inbox and into the Archive folder every 1 − 3 months — Your new mail system should render Inbox intimidation obsolete. I’ve got old email accounts with literally 10’s of thousands of messages in the inbox. Does it bother me? Nope. I can search them quickly if needed, and since my system is working for me, I don’t need to stress out about who is mailing what and when.
Tuning the System
Here are a few more hard-won tips from two and a half decades of email processing:
(1.) Don’t start your day with email. I’ve said this for years. Email comes later, AFTER you’ve worked on your daily task list, strategies, family time, green juice, coffee, etc. Sure, that “smart” phone is on your nightstand beckoning you to read it first thing. Resist! Resist! (In fact, your phone should be off and not even IN your bedroom, but that’s a topic for another time.)
(2.) Schedule email correspondence times. Email should be like running errands. Stop at the bank, grocery store, dry cleaners in one block of time.
Take a tip from our ancestors. In the “olden days”, people used to schedule times of the day or during the week that they would do “Correspondence”. There is a famous scene in the movie “Rebecca” which captures this stunningly.
During the “correspondence” or “letters” time, people would sit down, get out the fancy monogrammed stationery, and write letters to people or reply to letters they’d received. Of course time moved slower then and it was common to wait weeks or months for a reply, but the concept still stands. Reducing your mail processing schedule to twice per day instead of constantly can greatly improve your life.
Why not do the same with email? Set aside certain times (see previous note explaining how email is NOT real-time communication) to answer correspondence, and do your real work (or enjoying real life) all the other times.
(3.) Avoid tweaking your email rules too much. Email rules should be simple, few in number, easy to follow, easy to update—and easy to delete. Your email rules should transcend systems and tools, and follow YOUR flow.
(4.) Force yourself out of “real-time” mode. Here’s some backstory on why I’m so passionate about breaking the real-time email habit:
“Back in the day”—before embarking on a major Business IT career—I managed the legal archives retrieval desk for a very large firm. This was eons before Exchange, Domino, Gmail, finger swipes across mobile devices and all that fancy stuff. In fact, all email was text-based then. At the time, I was using an old operating system called “Xenix”. (Look it up online if your inner geek compels you :-))
I had record retrieval requests flying at me all day long. Real-time response was required for most requests (like — “lawyer in court, needs document NOW”, or “judge about to make decision. BRING IT NOW!!!”—that type of thing. Anyway…) I typically ran as a one-man show. In fact, it was a pretty good gig in its own way. As wildly hectic as it was, it was a lot of fun and I met a lot of really cool people.
Unfortunately, I paid a high price in later life. The whole experience totally RUINED my relationship with email for MANY years. I had to be all over any inbound email eight-ways-from-Sunday (whatever that expression means) and respond ASAP. The habit force of real-time response to thousands of inbound requests was ingrained in my blood.
To this day, I still have to fight myself—but now, only sometimes. It’s been a long road to email recovery, and the systems outlined in this article are what saved me.
If you can relate to any of this (remember the days of “Crackberry”?), then won’t you join me for the email equivalent of a 12-Step System and kick the habit? Your life will improve dramatically, and your loved ones will thank you for it.
(5.) If the email message is really, really, REALLY important (based on your custom rule), you can have the message forwarded as a text to your phone. I occasionally do this if I’m on a tough project with a very tight deadline, and the team is globally distributed—as most are.
Priority emails from particular senders I may need to see right away. (Such as a production system going down in the middle of a big software deployment.) In those rare cases, the mail-to-SMS feature is extremely handy. But be very careful with this one. If you’re already mail-obsessive, it’s easy to get carried away. We don’t want to undo all our good work together in this mail reduction journey.
For all its ups and downs, email is an integral part of life. And yes, it does have its benefits. But like everything else vying for our attention, it should be kept in perspective. Remember the days when the (now-infamous) saying “you’ve got mail” meant something? Well, today it means something entirely different. Take charge!
I highly recommend taking the time to do all the pen and paper exercises. It’s tempting to skip that when life is so busy, but the exercise is really helpful — and well worth the time. For more pen-and-paper goodness, check out my article on productivity with pen and paper.
Your turn. What mail handling/wrangling systems work for you? Don’t forget to share them with the BIG Results Consulting community in the comments below.
Until next time,