PM#3 – Use e-mail properly

E-mail can be a hinderance for three reasons:

  1. Unless you are very strict, most folks find themselves checking e-mail more than three times per day. This is especially true if your e-mail application has a notification facility whereby you see and/or hear new e-mail arriving. It’s very difficult to resist the urge to go and read new e-mail. Worse, in open plan environments, it’s possible to hear other peoples’ new e-mail arriving.
  2. E-mail, as an application, has history, it has etiquette, it has a modus operandi. Very few people, in my humble opinion know how to make good use of e-mail. This is especially true for “newcomers”, i.e. those folks who have joined the e-mail bandwagon late and don’t realise that there are written and unwritten rules that should be understood (notice I don’t say ahered to, rules can be broken if the timing is right, but that’s another posting!)
  3. E-mail has no real means of helping us manage our to-do list, it doesn’t help us manage those e-mails that require us to respond to, nor does it help us manage those e-mail for which we are awaiting a response. As project managers, we find ourselves dealing with collections of issues, requests for information, decisions, etc. How do we solicit such data? We use e-mail. How do we track who has responded and who hasn’t? Suddenly it becomes very difficult.

One of the e-mail rules that I like to adhere to however, is one that is all too often broken by others. If you find yourself in the CC section of an e-mail, i.e. not in the TO section, this typically means that the e-mail, for you, becomes a FYI…for your information. Your response, unless solicited directly in the e-mail, is not required. Should you choose to offer a response, you should apologise for interjecting from a CC.

Managing by e-mail is also rather difficult. I know some folks work on a “zero in-box” policy whereby e-mails are converted to tasks (we’re talking about Outlook here) and thus you have a prioritised list of things to do. This works, however I think the problem of information management, and e-mail falls into this category, is a much more difficult arena, and one that is not served by a killer application. Of course, managing all this properly brings with it the need to classify, attribute, associate, infer, etc. links between items, prioritise items, and so on. Whilst work is being performed in this area, all we can do today is learn to use e-mail properly.

Don’t let e-mail rule your life – you don’t need to check your e-mail more than three times per day (if somebody tells you that they have just sent you an e-mail that requires your attention, you may of course check your e-mail in between times!)

Do try to keep your immediate in-box cleared down to a reasonable size, I prefer to have less than 20 items “in my face” when my e-mail client(s) start up. Use folders and colour-coding (if available) to help you sort’n’prioritise – not to the point that it overcomes point 3 above. Generally speaking, I’ve noticed that I have very few e-mails whose lifespan is more than 7-10 days – as such, I have a folder “older than 10 days” which can be used as a manual dumping ground, or automated via a rule. Your threshold may vary, but try it, you may be surprised.

You don’t need to keep all trivial e-mails, move them to a “trivial” folder, or better still, delete them.

I will often include myself in the CC list of an e-mail. This allows me to clear out my sent items folder fairly frequently. If your e-mail client offers you “sent item”-specific features, such as delivery/open tracking, this might not be an option for you (but only if such tracking is required).

In this series:
PM#11 – Management By Shouting Loudest (MSBL)
PM#10 – The truth is best…admit it…
PM#9 – Avoid duplication of effort
PM#8 – Multi-tasking is evil
PM#7 – High workload means lower productivity…
PM#6 – You were right and I was wrong
PM#5 – Whose schedule is it anyway?
PM#4 – Start it…finish it
PM#3 – Use e-mail properly
PM#2 – Focus on the project
PM#1 – decision making