Getting Your Email Under Control

Do you control your email or does your email control you?  Email is a tremendous blessing, allowing you communicate instantly with anyone anywhere.  To many people, sending and receiving emails is a large part of their work and personal lives.  Missionaries often receive emails from colleagues, team members, headquarters, churches, supporters, family, and others.  Instantly checking and responding to email can be addictive and interrupt family time, normal conversations, and other things.  Email often interrupts actual work for those working at computers or carrying smartphones.  If your email life is out of control, here are some tips to take charge of it before it consumes you.

  1. Check email less – Instead of checking email constantly or as soon as it comes in, only check email twice a day.  I know that this sounds like an unthinkable idea if you are used to getting lots of emails, but trust me, it works.  Unless your whole job is to send emails, it is likely that there are other things that you need to be doing instead of constantly sending emails.  It takes less time to spend 15-30 minutes, perhaps longer, going through a stack of email twice a day than playing email ping-pong  all day long.
  2. Disable new mail notifications – The key to getting things done is concentration, and the key to concentration is elimination.  Turn off the sound, desktop alert, or other notification that new mail has arrived.  This goes for the instant messaging and social networking notifications too.  Would you really want a mail deliverer interrupting you all day, every time a physical piece of mail arrived?
  3. Stop using folders – The time it takes to file an email is simply not worth the value of it.  Also, for this to work, you would need to be 100% consistent, which would mean you would often need to duplicate an email to file it in more than one place if more than one item was discussed.  Instead, search to find your emails.  Outlook, Thunderbird, Gmail, and other email systems have powerful search capability.  Additionally you can search your whole computer or network drive using tools like Google Desktop or the built-in search capability of your operating system.
  4. Start using rules – Rules are filters and routines that your email program runs automatically.  When new email arrives, your email program checks to see if it matches any of your rules, and it so it takes the appropriate action.  Common rules would include: moving mail on which I was CC/BCCed to another folder, moving mail from certain people (supervisors, team members, spammers) to certain folders or starring them, and moving newsletters and things to read at your leisure to another folder.
  5. Understand the CC and BCC – CC means carbon copy and BCC means blind carbon copy.  Some people feel the need to CC their supervisor to show that they are working or CC your supervisor to stress that they need something done.  Excessive use of the CC/BCC is immature and may be a symptom of dysfunction in your team.  Only CC those who really need to know.  This goes for “Reply to All” as well.  If someone else wrote to a large audience and the response only needs to go to them, do everyone a favor and just reply to them.  If you are CC/BCCed on a message, take note of that.  You are not expected to reply, as it was simply for your information.
  6. Send less email – Sometimes we send email when a phone call or personal visit would do the job faster or better.  Often a two minute phone call is better than an exchange of ten emails.  If you often send non-urgent emails to the person or same group of people, consider turning that into a weekly email with several topics, or saving it for a weekly meeting, instead of sending emails constantly.
  7. Send better emails – Try to write emails so that the recipient understands what you are saying and what you want them to do.  Try to clearly explain your thought in the first sentence.   Try to get to the point quickly.  Use numbered bullet points, not paragraphs to outline your thoughts.  Provide relevant background information and suggest possible courses of action.  Then tell the person what you want them to do.
  8. Use the subject line better – Try to get in the habit of using stronger subjects.  Use keywords that will summarize the email.  Prefixes such as “Information: “, “Decision”, or “Action Needed” help the recipient handle the message more effectively.  If the message is very short and you can write it in the subject line and the body is empty, include a pound sign “#” at the end of the subject so the recipient will know he does not have to open the message.



Getting Things Done

Do you want to be more productive with your time?  Do you want to stay on top of everything for which you are responsible?  David Allen’s book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity is about how to do just that.  In somewhat of a contrast to Steven Covey’s top-down approach of time management, Allen presents a bottom-up model for “getting things done” or “GTD,” as it is often called.  His model is comprised of five phases: collecting, processing, organizing, reviewing, and doing.  The basic idea is that everything is gathered in some form outside your head and collected in a paper inbox or email inbox.  Then each item is evaluated to determine what, if anything needs to be done.  Tasks that need to be done at a certain time are placed on the calendar.  Tasks that may be accomplished in less than two minutes are done immediately and the remaining tasks are placed on a “next action” list, grouped by the context in which they must be accomplished – i.e. at work, at home, at a telephone, at a computer, etc…  Each week, the calendar, the projects, and the “next action” lists are reviewed to make sure everything is on track.  The GTD system may be implemented by high tech users with smartphones, PDAs, computers, and other gadgets, by low tech users with paper and pencil, or by a combination of both high and low tech tools.  The principles remain the same.

Key Concepts:

  • Write everything down
  • Enter tasks and projects in a system that you really trust
  • Use do-able language on your next action list (Verb, Subject, Object – “Call Bill about Training”)
  • Organize reference materials
  • Review your lists

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