How Managers Can Take Control Of Their Email

Managers have to find ways to prevent email from taking over our lives
Managers have to find ways to prevent email from taking over our lives
Image Credit: Jurgen Appelo

How do you communicate with other people? If you are like most of us, you use email. Yes, yes – there are text messages, Zoom meetings, and the like. However, when we want someone to really think about what we have to tell them, we generally sit down and send them an email. The problem with this approach is that all too often, they send an email back. The result of this is that it is far too easy for us to get overwhelmed with incoming email. If we are not careful, our job can turn into one where we just process email all day. We need to come up with ways to get on top of our email.

The Problem With Email

Come on you know that you’ve always wanted to do it – log into one of your work inboxes, selected thousands of unread emails and, with the click of a mouse, remove them from your life. Let’s face it, we all believe that if they’re important, they’ll come back. So many managers spend our days ruled by email: constantly refreshing, wading through detritus, paralyzed by the pressure of crafting a reply to the one note that actually matters. If we are ever able to reach that magical inbox zero state, and few of us ever do, the email ding seems to sounds again.

How can we deal with this problem? Perhaps we need to take a page from the email defectors. You know the ones I’m talking about – those co-workers of ours who are good at their jobs, but don’t seem to care all that much about your email. If they bother to move email messages into folders, it’s with the express purpose of forgetting them forever. They pretty much stick to either Slack or Teams and ignore everything else. Some of these people set up highly specific out-of-office responses such as “I only check email at 9 a.m. and 3 p.m.”;or “I’m with a client today” which they seem to actually mean. They say that they’ll get back to you next week. Meanwhile, they can…get work done?

For most managers checking email feels fast and it feels productive. However, for some reason the stuff that really matters isn’t moving forward. So how can we deal with this issue? We can start by not even going there. We should start our day by writing a list of priorities on a piece of paper. When we do this we need to block two half-hour slots on our calendar to really deal with our email. This is in contrast to scrolling through it constantly and ignoring it the rest of the time.

Dealing With The Email Problem

I think that we can all agree that some jobs take place almost exclusively via our inbox. Some managers might get in trouble with the boss if they let a note languish for even half a day. Some of us just get addicted to seeing what’s new. You never know what you’re going to get is our thinking. We want to pull the handle again to find out what’s there: it could be amazing, it could be terrible, or it could be nothing at all.

What managers need to realize is that people who take control of their inboxes become calmer, happier, more productive and better at hitting their work goals. The key for us is making a plan. An example of an email plan would be pledging to log off after 6 p.m. and on weekends. In order to make a plan like this stick we need to publicly declare it. This does mean that we need to talk to our boss to find out what’s acceptable and what’s not. Be prepared to negotiate if you have to. Often just by asking your manager to verbalize specific guidelines makes it clear that no one expects a reply to an email within two minutes from you.

We need to keep in mind that our liberation can go awry. When we clear out our email inbox, there is always the possibility that we are throwing away something that is actually important. What we need to be doing is reading our emails but rarely respond; when we do it’s with a couple-word answer. Something else that we can do is to implement a 15-minute delay for incoming messages so we aren’t constantly inundated. The best part: the less email we put into the world, the less the world sends back to us.

Managers need to realize that filters and folders can help ensure fewer useless emails clog our inbox. If we move things like newsletters into a separate folder for less important emails, consider these to be the ones that require a scan, not a response. We need to set a weekly appointment to read those. Then route emails from the top five people at your job – your big client, your boss – into a folder that you check hourly. If you want to then you can get even more granular by flagging emails that have your name in the body, or by assigning ones where you’re just cc’ed a less important label. We need to realize that there is no need to spend five hours on a Sunday creating some elaborate system. Just sort as you go, and try to keep it simple.

What All Of This Means For You

I think that all managers can agree that we have an email problem. We’ve got too much of the stuff and try as we might, more and more just seems to come in. We make attempts to get to the bottom of it, but even if we are successful it seems as though all too quickly it can fill up again. How can a manager get on top of their email problem?

In a perfect world we could just go into our email and throw it all away. However, most of us can’t do that. A good thing to do is to take a hint from our coworkers who don’t allow themselves to get shackled to their emails. These are the people who will get around to responding to us, but they do it on their own time. Some managers spend so much time with their emails because it makes them feel productive. Some jobs are performed via emails. But for all other jobs we need to take control of our inboxes. We need to have a talk with our boss to find out what is acceptable email behavior. We have to understand that some emails may be important. In the end, we need to set up a system that works for us to deal with our emails.

Email is a part of our lives. It’s not going away anytime soon. Managers need to understand that it’s simply a tool. We can’t allow this tool to occupy too much of our time because we have many other things that we need to be working on. Creating a way to process all of the email that we receive and find the few pieces that are actually important is a critical part of being a successful manager. Master your email and you will master your job!

– Dr. Jim Anderson Blue Elephant Consulting –
Your Source For Real World IT Management Skills™

Question For You: How does a manager know when they have an email problem?

Click here to get automatic updates when The Accidental IT Leader Blog is updated.
P.S.: Free subscriptions to The Accidental IT Leader Newsletter are now available. Learn what you need to know to do the job. Subscribe now: Click Here!

What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

Managers are starting to realize that more and more often the teams that they are managing are not always going to be collocated. This means that they need to understand how to use their manager skills to deal with the challenges of a virtual workplace. This is not an easy thing to do and most of us don’t have any manager training on how to accomplish it. Managers need to learn how to build relationships with colleagues they’ve never actually met, work across multiple time zones, deal with technology that doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to, etc. If they end up handling any of these key items incorrectly then any of them can sabotage their team’s chances at success.