Ten Things: Slaying the Email Jabberwocky

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:

All mimsy were the borogoves,

 And the mome raths outgrabe. 

Jabberwocky” – Lewis Carroll

I am a fan of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.  So, instead of titling my article slaying the email “beast”- which would be the more conventional path – I am taking a slightly different road and reaching back to a movie from the 1970’s entitled “Jabberwocky” based on the poem by Lewis Carroll and featuring members of the Monty Python troupe.  If you have not seen the movie nor read the poem, do not fear.  No knowledge of either is required to understand this article (though you are missing out on some good laughs).  All you need to know is that the Jabberwocky monster is a terrifying beast that truly needs a serious butt-kicking.  Just like email.

My love/hate relationship with email goes way back.  Like many, once I had a taste of the email-crack, it became the main way I communicated at the office.  And like an invasive species, it quickly replaced written memos, letters, phone calls, and old fashion face-to-face chats.  I realize now this was all a big mistake as, over time, I found myself in a horror movie of my own making.  Like “The Blob,” email soon oozed into every part of my day along with many of my evenings and weekends.  Smart phones only increased its deadly, hypnotic power.  I knew I needed to get email under control and through a lot of trial and error I came across several great ideas and discovered a few of my own – all designed to take back the work day from email.  If you woke up today interested in getting out from under the tyranny of email, you’re in luck.  Grab a cup of coffee and settle in.  This edition of “Ten Things” shares some simple but highly effective ways you can control the amount of email you deal with on a daily basis:

1.  Decide you want to make a change and stick to it.  I once estimated that between 80%-90% of the emails I received were fairly useless, meaning if they went away tomorrow the odds of there being a major negative impact on my life were very low.  Yet, for many years it was a point of pride for me to brag about how many emails I dealt with each day.  Eventually, I realized this was really nothing to be proud of and that I needed to make a change.  Accordingly, the first step in our “ten step” program to get control over email is to simply want to make a change and the desire to stick to it.  Sounds easy, but it’s pretty hard because those old email habits will keep trying to come back to life like the zombies on “The Walking Dead.”   My advice is to start out each day determined to follow your new email regime and if you fall off the wagon, just start over again tomorrow.  Over time, you’ll see a measureable change – for the good – in the amount and type of emails you are dealing with every day.

2.  Send fewer emails.   It’s called the “boomerang” effect – the more email you write and send, the more emails you get back.  It’s a vicious cycle.  The only way to break the cycle is to write fewer (and shorter) emails.  First, decide if you need to send an email at all.  Do you really need to tell someone you “got it” or “thanks” or “hope all is well?”  While all of this is very polite, it typically invites the other person to write back – “great,” “you’re welcome” or “Yes, all is well.”  And then you’re tempted to respond and so on and so on.   Unfortunately, email has become a form of casual conversation – all typed out!  If you do need to communicate with someone, ask yourself whether email is really the best way to communicate.  Instead of email, use Instant Messenger or pick up the phone and call.  Finally, (gasp) walk down the hallway and have a conversation.  Any of these are better alternatives than email.  Make it a goal to send five to ten fewer emails each day and see what a difference it makes.

3.  Unsubscribe!  I continually fight a bad habit of hoarding email information.  There is no limit to amount of information I gather about many topics, including hotel and travel deals, food baskets, list-serves, comics, obscure sports, heavily discounted fashion, or crazy savings on reconditioned electronics.  As I prepared this post, I decide to “unsubscribe” from every recurring email that I did not truly read or rarely opened or otherwise really didn’t care about.  Wow.  It was a lot of emails!  Probably close to 20 – 25 a day of emails that have zero impact on my day, and all things that I can easily find online if and when I truly need to find them.  If I spend just 10 minutes a day glancing at or dealing with such useless email, I can save almost an hour a week by not having them come into my inbox at all.  That’s four hours a month or 48 hours a year and close to a full work week of saved time just by unsubscribing!  You can also use tools like Unroll.me or Unsubscriber to automate the unsubscribe process.  Regardless of how you do it, your goal this week is to find at least five emails to “unsubscribe” from.

4.  Make it clear no response is needed.  Wouldn’t it be great if someone sent you an email and told you that it was “FYI only” or no-response is needed (“NRN”)?  You would know for certain what you needed to do with that email – nothing!  Even better, you would not become the person perpetuating the endless email chain by responding.  Be the first one to start this process at your office or within the legal department.  It will catch on, especially if you spend some time telling people what you’re trying to do and why.  A close corollary here is to let people know that no response to your email is expected/needed right away, i.e., just write in your email that any response can wait until the next day, the start of the work week, or whenever.   This helps with the problem of everyone feeling that email requires an immediate response, disrupting workdays or worse, evenings and weekends.  I like to work odd hours so if I am sending emails out at odd times I try hard to add a note if the email is not urgent or when a response is actually needed.

5.  Review email at set times every day.  This is probably the hardest idea to implement but it is also the one that will restore the most balance to your work day.  Basically, this means you only work emails several times a day vs. checking it every five minutes.  If you do the latter, then whatever email pops up on your screen next is probably going to capture your attention.  It’s very difficult to get work accomplished when you are constantly derailed by the latest shiny object to land in your inbox.  I have four or five times a day that I focus on emails.  Between those times, I do other productive work.  I even schedule the blocks of time to review emails on my calendar.  I also forced myself to turn off the email “pop-up” alert in Outlook, i.e., the little pop-up that alerts you every time a new email comes in.  Turning off the alert helps keep me from getting distracted during my non-email time blocks.  Of course, I have had to reset some expectations.  People that merit a “cut in line” know that if they really need me they can call me, text me, or send me an Instant Message.  Otherwise, they know I will get to their email during one of my windows.  If you’re really worried about missing something critical, there is a tool I have seen but not used that automates this process.  It’s called AwayFind, a plugin that allows you set rules to notify you about “important” emails.  You control which emails you allow through and for what reasons.  Regardless of how you do it, over the next week or so try setting up and using email-review windows and trying it out. You will be shocked at how much more time you have to get things done.

6.  Decide immediately what to do with the email.   Once you get your inbox “right,” you need to focus on overcoming the inertia of just letting things sit until you get back to them.  Adopt a five-point action plan where, for each email, you make one of the following choices immediately:

  • Act – is this something I can take care of quickly or is it urgent and needs immediate attention?
  • Defer – is this something I can/should save for a later time?
  • File – does this email need to get filed in a folder?
  • Delegate – does this email deal with a topic I can properly delegate to someone else?
  • Delete – my new favorite!  Is this something I can simply delete and move on (and should I unsubscribe from this type of email)?

Deferring action may not seem like a good option in terms of getting things done.  I agree – if all you do is leave the email in your inbox waiting to return to it sometime down the road.  A better solution is a nifty free tool I found called FollowUpThen.  FollowUpThen allows you to forward emails and get an email back at a predetermined date/time reminding you to take action.  From the site:

      To start using FollowUpThen, just compose an email and include [any time]@followupthen.com in the “Cc”, “Bcc” or “To” fields of your email. Each is a bit different:

      Use “BCC” and you will receive a followup regarding the email, but we won’t bug the original recipient.

      Use “To” and you will send an email to your future self.

      Use “CC” to schedule a reminder for you and the recipient.

     Example formats include: tomorrow@followupthen.com, nextwednesday@followupthen.com, everyday@followupthen.com, every3rdwednesday@followupthen.com.

Here are some examples of how it is used:

  • “This email is sitting in my inbox, but I don’t need it for 2 weeks!” (Forward it to: 2weeks@followupthen.com, then archive the message).
  • “I have to have a response to this email!” (Forward it to: 3hours@followupthen.com, or bcc 3hours@followupthen.com on the original message).
  • “I need to call someone while I’m in the car.” (Email 10am-sms@followupthen.com with the phone number in the subject-line).
  • Sales Person: “Hi Customer, I understand there’s not a need now. I’ll follow up in a few months.” (Bcc: 3months@followupthen.com).
  • Project Manager: “Please do important task xyz as soon as possible. I need to hear back asap!” (cc: 3hours@followupthen.com).

When you sign up, you get an email explaining how it all works along with a list of pre-populated “followup” email addresses to use.  Once you start forwarding emails, you receive daily reminders about what’s on your “followup” list (and a chance to edit the list or unsubscribe) and you receive the actual reminder on the day and time requested.  I just started using this and it lets me clean out a lot of things from my in-box.

7.  Use the Outlook tool bar.   You may not realize it, but the Outlook tool bar (i.e., that thing that appears across the top of your Outlook email) contains many powerful tools that help you quickly manage your inbox.  If you haven’t done so, it’s worth getting a book or completing some online tutorials to learn how these tools work.  While you have to invest some time up-front, there is a big payoff in terms of really learning the tricks and short-cuts of Outlook. Here are a few:

  • Create rulesyou can easily create “rules” to help manage your email.  If you right-click on an email and select “rules” you can tell Outlook what to do with that type of email (based on sender, content in the subject line, etc.).  For example, I get a lot of emails from scammers about my personal Yahoo! email account being suspended unless I click on something to reactivate.  I know it’s a scam and a waste of time to deal with.  I created a rule that looks for “Yahoo!” and “Email” (and a few other things) in the subject line.  If the filter spots those terms, the email goes right into my trash and I never see it.  On the more positive side, you can create a rule for sending things like newsletters or newspaper headline services into a folder you created called “Read Later.”  This way you can go to that folder when you have time to read vs. working your way through all of those emails in your in-box.  Try creating at least one rule over the next week and see how much time it starts to save you.
  • “Move” it to a folder – in your tool bar there is a folder icon with the word “Move.”  If you click on this icon you will a list of personal folders you created on your hard drive.  You can easily move any email into a personal folder just by clicking – vs. dragging and dropping.  Clicking is always faster than scrolling and dragging.
  • Calendar a meeting – you will also see a little calendar icon named “Meeting.” Click on this and you can turn the email into a calendar invite with all of the information from the email going into the body of the invitation.
  • Tasks – if you use the Outlook “Task” to-do list, you can create new tasks based on an email by clicking on the email and dragging it in the Task icon in the lower left side of the Outlook inbox.
  • Flags – you can “flag” email using the list of preset colored flags and assign colors to mean different things such as “personal” or “urgent” or whatever helps you best manage your inbox.  Just sort your email by flag colors and get to work.
  • “Quicksteps” – you can do much of the above and other tasks by using the Outlook “Quicksteps” feature.  With Quicksteps you can send preconfigured emails (complete with boilerplate text), move emails to a subfolder, create tasks, etc.  Quicksteps comes with several pre-configured “steps” or you can create your own customized steps.

8.  Does zero really matter?  This one has me torn because I have generally been a believer in “Inbox Zero,” i.e., the goal of getting your email completely cleaned out every day or at least to the point where my inbox does not require me to scroll below what is shown on the screen – “Inbox 25.”  While I still think this is a good goal, I have started to ask myself if it really matters whether I have zero emails or 25 or 100 showing in my inbox.  Over time, I think the better goal is more along the lines of what I set out in No. 6 above – deciding what to do with all of the emails in my inbox before the day ends (Act, Defer, File, Delegate, or Delete).  Whether that means I have 10 emails left in my inbox or 60, it doesn’t really matter.  What’s important is that I have “touched” all of my emails during the day and have put into motion whatever it is I need to do with respect to each one.  Letting go of Inbox Zero is one my personal goals this year.

9.  Use collaboration tools.  Email has been the primary business communication tool for so long because there hasn’t been anything better out there.  This has changed dramatically over the past few years in terms of collaboration tools that allow employees to communicate with each other individually and as project teams within the confines of the tool – eliminating the need for separate emails.   The best examples I know of are Slack and Asana, though there are dozens out there.  One company, Atos, used of collaboration tools and other measures to reduce email by 60% over the course of several years.  For legal departments, however, these collaboration tools may not work.  But there are legal-specific collaboration tools out there. One interesting player in this space is GlassCubes, but there are other options worth exploring too.  Of course, you can collaborate without any fancy collaboration tool just by using basic screen-sharing, document sharing (e.g., DropBox), or Instant Messaging tools.  One example of collaboration reducing emails in the legal department posting documents to a sharing tool (SharePoint, GoogleDocs, OneDrive) and letting everyone see the document and weigh in with their thoughts without having the typical flood of emailed redlines back and forth between the group.  A slick tool to check out on this point is SavvyDox, which manages the process of multiple collaborators working and commenting on one document.  Regardless of how you do it, diminishing the use of email as the primary communication tool for the legal department can make your work life easier and more productive.

10.  Do it as a team.  Other than No. 9, the tips above rely and apply solely to individual action, that is, what you can do yourself to reduce emails.  You can exponentially increase the email-reducing power of all of these tips if you get others to join you in a concerted effort to reduce email.  As a legal department (or sub-group within the legal department) consider agreeing amongst yourselves that you will adopt some or all of the ideas above (or other ideas) for a test period of 30 to 60 days.  During the test, encourage each other to stick with it, use IM, share ideas (e.g., “rules”), and send gentle reminders if you see someone on the team not following through.  Once your test is over, sit down as a group and compare notes/experiences.  What worked well, what didn’t work?  Are there other things you can do to keep pounding on the email monster?  I wager you will find that during the test period, your email pile got smaller and your productivity level went up.  If it did not or if it’s just not in the group DNA to work email differently, then all you’ve lost is 30 to 60 days and you can all go back to doing whatever works best for each of you individually.

*****

The best part about the above is that most of these ideas are simple and require no or little monetary expenditure.  All you need is a little mental elbow grease and a desire to change how you work.  Even saving 30 minutes a day will add up over the course of a year.  While my experience is with Outlook email, the ideas above work equally well (and maybe better) with Apple mail, G-Mail, or other e-mail products.  Just do an online search to find how to implement these ideas for your particular type of email service.  Again, don’t be discouraged if you start to work hard to reduce emails and you stumble – falling back on old habits.  Just dust yourself off, get back up on the horse and keep trying.  I fail frequently with my plan, but I never stop trying to take on the email Jabberwocky and get my life back.  Good hunting and snicker-snack!

Sterling Miller

June 15, 2017

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