Do you recognise this?
It’s the end of a long working day, you’re leaving the office and realise: I have not finished even half of the items on my to-do list for today. You’re inbox was already stuffed when you came in this morning, you’ve bravely struggled to process as many mails as you could, and still you go home with scores of unread messages. But worst of all: those tasks that you promised yourself (or your colleague, or even your boss) to finish today will still be waiting for you tomorrow. And new to-do’s have been added to the list today, jumping at you from that stream of incoming email. You’re drowning in a flood of email, a tsunami of tiny tasks that eats up all your time and attention.
The Dutch approach
You will have heard about that fabulous Dutch core competence: water management. Since most of our land (yes, I’m a Dutch guy) is well below sea level, preventing the country from flooding is a key concern for us. Now you may ask: so what? why is this relevant to me?
It is, because the way we do water management is very much applicable to the way you can do mail management. In both situations, you don’t want to be flooded. You want to keep your feet dry.
So here is how to solve your inbox problem. All it takes is three simple Dutch steps.
1) Build dams against water coming from outside
2) Build mills against water coming from inside
3) Plan for emergencies: learn how to swim
Lots of people outside your team (or outside your organisation) are sending you uninvited emails. Since the motive for sending them is the sender’s interest, and not yours, you can safely ignore them. Occasionally, there might be an interesting one, but the effort of filtering these out from the deluge of rubbish is simply not worthwile.
Build your dam by creating blacklists and whitelists. The simplest way to do that is to flag all email from senders that are not in your list of contact persons. You can build a rule to move these to a separate folder, that you may safely ignore and from time to time purge.
This is a rather safe way to operate, since most people that are being added to your network arrive via introductions from people that you already know. So you won’t be accidentally purging messages from people that are actually important. All people that are inside your organisation or team can be easily whitelisted by adding the sending domain to your whitelist.
People from inside your organisation or team may also swamp you with email. This is usually caused by ‘hard habits’. One very common hard habit is copying lots of people in a message that is actually only intended for one person. Another hard habit is to use the “reply all” button, when the reply is actually only intended for one person. Together, these hard habits can become a real ‘underground water swell’. There are two rules of thumb that serve as your water mill, pumping out the water coming from inside:
– Tell people to always explicitly mention why I should read their mail. Usually this means that they ask me to do something, or approve something. When you receive an email that does not state why you receive it and what is expected from you after reading the mail, reply to it with a standard message: “please tell me why you sent me this message, since I cannot find out what is expected from me after reading it, other than moving it to the trash”.
– Tell people that the ONLY situation where you want to receive mail when no action is expected from you, is when you explicitly request them to keep you informed of something.
Learn how to swim
There will be situations when your dams and water mills cannot contain the waves rolling toward you. Excessive CC’ing of email could be a sign of insufficient delegation, or of too broad spans of control. Or it could signal very high stakes or risks, where managers want to stay on top of even the smallest thing that goes on at the operational levels. In these cases, you will not be able to build the dams and water mills, and you’ll need to learn how to swim.
You’ll need to decide on the ‘stroke’ that you need.
In turbulent waters, it’s best to practice techniques for drawing and holding your breath, and surfacing from the currents. Orientation and timing are the key words here. Scan your inbox, pick out the really important emails based on the hot topics of the day, and take your time to react to these messages in the appropriate way.
In more stable waters, you’ll need techniques for floating and stamina. Scan your list of contact persons, and decide who has the most impact; make sure to follow up on any and all messages of these stakeholders.
The famous last words
As the lover of 18th century French king Louis XV famously said: “apres nous le déluge” – after us the deluge. Which can be taken to mean: as long as you keep putting in effort, you can keep out the floods; but as soon as you stop maintaining your dams and mills and swimming skills, you’ll surely be swamped again.