E-mail Bankruptcy? There are other ways.

This article was originally posted on May 29, 2007.

So, there’s got to be a better way, right? Perhaps taking action before things get out of control, exercising discipline about e-mail and other work, and setting people’s expectations the right way? I struggle to understand how some of the people who declared “e-mail bankruptcy” are technology people — they really have no excuse for not being able to manage their e-mail via better tools and more discipline in how they work. For God’s sake, man — you can use Twitter and not have time to manage your e-mail?

As my wife and family and colleagues will tell you, I’m not perfect, and everyone’s roles and needs are different (i.e., your mileage may vary), but here are a few ideas I’ve found useful for doing so:

  1. Batch your e-mail work. If what you do requires focused concentration, plan a couple of times a day when you will review e-mail and avoid it at all other times, especially first thing in the morning (Cardinal sin).
  2. Stick to #1. It will not work if you don’t establish a plan and stick to it. Be strong, even if it causes you pain in the short term.
  3. Set your constituents’ expectations correctly about e-mail responses. A disclaimer in your e-mail, or an auto-response, stating that you (as per above) only review e-mail once or twice a day, but are available via phone for emergencies, will help people get the picture quickly. You’ll be surprised at how understanding people get when your productivity spikes.
  4. Use rules and junk folders extensively to automate e-mail handling. Although folders are losing their luster as a way of managing data in a lot of other applications, they still present a good option for e-mail management.
  5. Get rid of e-mail subscriptions, and use RSS to consume the information at your convenience.

Some outstanding resources I’ve found on this topic include:

  1. Tim Ferriss’ manifesto on increasing productivity by managing e-mail.
  2. The Stagen Institute’s leadership development consulting and training materials on Attention Management
  3. Tom Davenport and John Beck’s 2001 book: The Attention Economy: Understanding the New Currency of Business

There are plenty of resources out there on topics such as time management, e-mail management, and attention management. Search on any of them and you’ll find a trove of potential solutions. There are also tons of tools and utilities such as GoodToDo (compliments of Sadie). Perhaps the best thing about this link is their definition of “bit literacy,” defined as “the idea that people should become proficient with managing digital information.”

The short answer is to invest the effort to do it right. Manage your communications before they manage you (or at least make you declare some silly distant cousin to bankruptcy). It is a critical skill for the next millennium.

Originally published at https://mikegil.typepad.com.