Please, Be Polite And Respond To Your Email.

This one might be controversial, it might even seem a little contrary to what I usually write about email, but I think it is an important part of being a professional, polite human being and so I will write about it.

When someone sends you an email, replying with the answer to a question you have asked, or sending you the file you asked for, always send a one or two line thank you email. Yes, I know this means you are adding to someone else’s inbox load, but a single line saying “thanks for the file, Jim” can very easily be deleted and can be seen from the lock screen of a mobile device. It doesn’t have to be opened.

There are a number of very good reasons for doing this, and just basic common decency is one of them, but for me the most important one is that those little niggling questions in my mind “did they get the file? Was it the right file?, Did I answer their question correctly?” Have now been sent away. I can forget about it and I can move on to the next world changing problem I am solving. The loop has been closed as they say in GTD speak.

That other time a quick response would be nice is when I ask a question and you need a little time to get the answer. Please, a quick email explaining it will take a few days to get the answer, or find the file would do a lot for my feeling of relaxation and Zen like existence. It also means I am not going to bombard you with reminder emails all day asking if you received my email — such a waste of effort for both of us, don’t you think?

I know we are all very busy in our own little worlds, but that does not excuse us from basic good manners. It is these basics that has enabled our civilisation to live in general harmony throughout our 200,000 year existence and has allowed us to develop ourselves from crude, neanderthals into decent, polite human beings.

In my professional experience, I have found the people who always say thank you are the people at the top of their organisations. The CEOs, the professors in the large hospitals and the Managing Partners of large law and accountancy firms. Strange that. We always think these people are the busiest people, and they are, yet they still find time for good manners. Perhaps one of the reasons they got to the top of their respective fields is because they took the time to remember to be polite and show good manners.

So come on, let’s all make the effort to be polite, well mannered people and send those little, simple responses. There’s enough stress in our working lives as it is.

Have The Courage To Declare Email Bankruptcy

For many people email inboxes have become a graveyard for old newsletters, reference emails and many other types of email. The thought of going in to their inbox just scares the life out of them. And as these emails have been collecting over a number of years and months tying to find anything older than 3 weeks is nay on impossible.

Back in the days before email, when the post (mail) arrived, it was dealt with. We didn’t open the letters, look at them and stuff them back in our mail boxes. To do so would have appeared weird and would probably have elicited complaints from our postman. In the UK, where letters were posted through our front doors, it would have looked even stranger to open the letters and then just throw them back on the floor once we’d read them. It would not be long before we would have been struggling to open our fronts doors because of the weight of opened letters behind the door.

There are two ways of dealing with this problem. The first is the fastest and most dramatic way: just select all the emails in your inbox and hit the delete key. Now you have a clean, fresh inbox. Yes, it’s dramatic, but it works and once you get over the initial fear of deleting something important, you feel a sense of freedom and clarity. The second method is a little less dramatic. this is what I call a “soft email bankruptcy”. Before you do anything, create a folder and name it “Old Inbox”. Then select all the emails in your inbox and move them into the Old Inbox folder. Now all you need do is go through your ‘old inbox’ when you have a few minutes spare and delete the emails you no longer need.

There are other ways of doing this of course, but I find these do not really address the problem. You could for example create smart folders and set up a number of different ‘rules’ for emails to be sent to the appropriate smart folder. This, to me at least, is a complex method of dealing with something straight forward — that is an inbox full of crap you no longer need whether you realise it or not. Creating smart inboxes also has the added complexity of requiring you to check more than one inbox. Far better to get in to the habit of treating your inbox as sacred and not allowing anything to remain in there once you have read it.

Once you have a nice clean, empty inbox you need to keep it that way. When an email comes in, decide immediately what you are going to do with it and do it. Merlin Mann’s Inbox Zero methodology is a great way to learn what to do when an email comes in. This site is well worth a read. When you receive an email, you have four choices:

Do it — if it will take less than 2 mins

Delete it — if it has no value to you

Defer it — If it is going to take you longer than 2 mins then put it off until you have more time to deal with it.

Delegate it — If someone else can better deal with it, pass it on to them.

Never leave it in your inbox!

For deferred emails, set up a folder and call it something that will always catch your attention: Something like Winston Churchill’s “Action This Day”. Then all you need do is send any deferred emails into this folder. Likewise you should do this for the delegated emails. This way you have a place you can easily check to make sure emails you delegated are being acted on. I find having a separate folder called “Delegated” gives me a place I can check to make sure these emails have been dealt with.

Like almost anything else to do with productivity, you need to get into the habit of never leaving an email in you inbox once it has been dealt with. Archive it or move to an archive folder. From now on your inbox is sacred.

So much has been written about organising email and there are many apps on the market today that claim to make emailing easy. But the fundamental problem with email is that we leave read and unread email in our inboxes. Over time this laziness means our inboxes fill up with crap. And yes, it is just laziness. An email is either important to us and therefore we need to do something with it, or it is not important to us. If it’s not important delete it or archive it, just don’t leave it in your inbox.

Too often we think a problem is complex, and we then search for a complex solution. More often than not, the problem is not complex at all. Email overload is nothing new. In the days before email we got a lot of mail every single day. People did not complain then, they just got on and dealt with it. Throwing away unimportant stuff and replying to important stuff. And that is all we have to do with email. Move the important stuff to an appropriate place (Evernote, a folder or some other place) and just delete the not important stuff. Simple.

I Hate Email Auto-Reply!

If you want to reduce the amount of email you receive, you could start by sending less email, and that includes turning on auto-reply much less often.

With the holiday season over, and a new, exciting year beginning I’d like to talk about email auto-reply.

Last Thursday I sent out a standard discussion document to my clients, as I always do on a Thursday, so that they have time to prepare for the class before Monday. There were six people on the list.

Within a few minutes of pressing “send” my email inbox filled with six auto-reply responses telling me that my clients would be away on Friday 1st January, not returning to the office until Monday the 4th. Well, hello? I’m not stupid. I know offices are not open on the 1st January — pretty much the same in most countries around the world. Yet, these people still turned on their auto-reply.

Every week my clients tell me about the madness of their email inbox overload, and they complain about walking in the office every morning to an inbox of 100 plus emails. Sadly, these guys just don’t get it. The more email you send, and that includes auto-replies, the more email you are going to get. They complain about receiving too many emails, yet they are partly the cause of this email overload.

Back in the day before email, when we sent typed letters, we never replied with a “I’m sorry I’m out of the office until …” letter. That would have been a bit overkill. Yet, for some reason we send them out now — just because we can. I can understand the convenience of sending out auto-replies when you are taking a personal holiday, or if you have international clients / suppliers / partners and your country is having a special national holiday (an Independence Day for example), but for New Year’s Day? Really?

So for the new year, please can we start with a little common sense, and start thinking about what we are sending via email? It would be fantastic if we all could unite in agreeing that sending an auto-reply on an internationally recognised holiday is not necessary and that for other times, perhaps adding a little PS at the bottom of our emails informing your clients, partners and colleagues you will be away on a specific date a week or so before is all we need to do.

If you want to reduce the amount of email you receive, you could start by sending less email. Turn off your auto-reply!

Email Is Not Broken. The Way We Use It Is.

I’ve been giving a lot of thought to email in recent weeks and I have concluded that, despite what many are saying, email itself is not broken. The way we use email is broken.

When email was first introduced to the business world, the vision was email would replace the paper based letter. And this is exactly what happened. Unfortunately, over the following years we humans went and blurred the lines to the point where email started to be used as a sort of ‘formal’ text messaging service and a replacement for a simple telephone call.

These ‘additional’ uses have led to an increase in the amount of email people get. A business professional in 2015 is getting on average 50 emails per day. Back in the 1990s we did not get 50 letters per day, but we did get more than 50 communication inputs spread among letters, internal memos, text messages (which were usually only from our friends), telephone calls and in the late 1990s MSN Messenger / Yahoo Messenger. So, in my non-scientific theory, communication between business people has stayed relatively static, but the way we are communicating has narrowed to one or two methods. It is this change in the way we communicate that is causing us to feel overwhelmed by email.

As a consequence of this, people are looking for new tools to deal with email. I don’t see how that is the solution. Recently I have been looking at some alternative email apps to see what they are doing and what they are trying to change. When you begin from the principle that email itself is not broken, you begin to see those advocating a change are looking at the problem from the wrong end. Most are working on the principle that if we shuffle around email messages, we will have an easier time dealing with it. No! That is just shuffling messages around. It is not dealing with email. Having the ability to move an email until tomorrow with a simple swipe of the finger does not solve the problem. It just kicks the problem down the road. The email still has to be dealt with. Another ‘solution’ I have seen is to change the way our messages are shown, somehow this will make us feel better. Err… no. That does not solve the problem either. Just because my message list looks good does not mean I will have any less work to do.

Google’s attempt to ‘reinvent’ email by putting them into categories (Google Inbox) again does not solve the problem. Just because I no longer have all my email in one ‘inbox’ does not deal with the problem at all. Now I have to go through multiple inboxes to see all my new mail. Of course some will argue that pre-sorting email into categories helps, but I just do not see how. The email, whatever category it is in, still needs reading and a decision still needs making.

The solution is to go back to the days before email went mainstream and we were still communicating via traditional letters. Back then, we received two lots of post per day (we did in the UK anyway) one arrived around 8:00am, and the second post arrived sometime before lunch. When the mail came in to the office it was sorted and handed out to the relevant person and then placed in their physical inbox. Throughout the day letters got processed, replied to (if required) and filed in the relevant file. By the end of the day, our inbox was empty — or at least that was the goal.

Following this simple method, all we need is a good old fashioned email inbox that checks for email two to three times per day. Once an email has been dealt with, we remove it from our inbox and place it in the appropriate file, or delete it. By the end of the day our inboxes should be empty.

Quick, urgent requests should be communicated in a different way. If a file was urgently required in the 1990s we would telephone our colleague and ask them to send the file to us. Back then it would take a day or so to arrive by mail, or we could fax a copy over. Today, we have email and the document can be sent as a PDF file directly to the person requesting the file.

If someone emails something that we feel should be dealt with by telephone then we could pick up the phone and call them. I know this might be difficult with people working across time zones, but we can make the call when our international partners are awake. Likewise, if an email comes in we feel should be handled with a text message, we can take the initiative and reply via text message.

Sometimes, I feel people think technology is the answer to all our problems. Often it is not. Occasionally we need to actually do work to solve the problem, not kick things down the road in the hope it will go away. It won’t. Deal with it now and finish with it. That will solve most of your email problems. New, complex technology is not going to do that for you. It is up to us how we communicate. Of course if a record needs to be kept on an issue, then email may well be the correct form of communication, but a record does not always have to be kept. Confirming the start time of a meeting or conference does not require a record. This can be confirmed via a telephone call or a simple text message.

The simple thing here, as with all communication, is to just deal with it. It is up to you to take control and decide how a particular communication needs to be delivered. You can start a message by the company’s internal messaging service or a telephone call. With email, the delete key is a powerful tool. Most newsletters, flyers and notices can be read, details entered into a calendar and then deleted. Just hit the key.

We need to stop trying to reinvent the wheel and take control of our email system. We will feel so much better and less overwhelmed when we do.

Email Autoreply Template

Many of my students use the autoreply function in their email for when they are out of the office. Sadly, many of these autoreply messages are poorly written and often do not make any sense at all.

Therefore, to help all my students and readers of my blog, I have attached a simple text file to this post that you can copy and paste as your autoreply that should cover you in all circustances.

Word of Warning About Autoreplies

When you activate the autoreply on your email programme, you have no control over who receives your autoreply.

When you are replying to email in the usual way, you get to decide who you are replying to and whether it is safe to reply to a particular email. However, with autoreply, anyone who sends you an email gets the autoreply. That means people who you do not want knowing your telephone number and other details such as your office address, will also receive your autoreply. It is therefore important to only have the basic information in your autoreply.

Never put your mobile telephone number in an autoreply. Instead, put a colleague’s office number and or email address.

Download Autoreply template