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Communication and the email black hole

September 1, 2015

We’ve all had those days, or sometimes weeks, where your inbox starts backing up because you just don’t have any time to even check it, let alone respond.  Your inbox becomes a black hole – emails come in, but nothing gets out.  But that unread email lurks at the back of your mind, increasing your stress level in the midst of a push to meet a deadline or complete a project.  It pokes at you when you least expect it – what if there’s an email about the project you missed?  Or a request from an exec?  Or… fill in your nightmare du jour.  And when you do start going through the backlog, it actually can get worse.  Progressively more irate emails requesting the same info.  Missed opportunities to work on a cool new project, or win a new business deal.  But when you’re maxed out and have to focus on the immediate project, how can you handle that inbox as well?

Have a plan – and execute it.

  • Create a few follow-up folders that begin with an underscore so they stay at the top of your folder list. You’ll use these to triage your inbox, so keep that in mind as you name them.  Here are some examples:
    1. Urgent – needs immediate response
    2. Respond by date ##/##/####, usually 3-5 business days out
    3. Response needed but not date sensitive
    4. Read when you have spare time
  • Set aside 10 – 15 minutes once or twice a day, and schedule it with a reminder set. Then schedule an hour once a week in addition to those sessions.  This is the only time you’re going to open your email each day, and no cheating and looking at your phone!
  • During your daily scheduled time, quickly skim each new email, and assign it to one of the folders as appropriate. Use the hour block to address the follow-ups needed from items 4 and 5 below.
  • For each email in the urgent folder, send a reply (standardize this and copy and paste it as needed!) stating that you’re in the midst of a critical project and ask if a response by ##/##/#### (insert your desired date) would be acceptable. If not, ask them to provide the latest acceptable date, and end with your thanks. Most people will work with you as long as you’re communicating with them. It’s the lack of response that results in frustration – that info sucking email black hole L
  • For quick requests filed to the respond by date folder, again use a standardized reply, but let them you know you’ve received their request and will respond appropriate within 3 business days/5 business days/# business days. And extend your thanks for their patience. Keep that social machinery running smoothly!
  • For the non-date-sensitive requests, a quick response that you’ve received the email and will follow up with them after a given date (two days after your project is due?)
  • Everything else goes to the read when convenient folder, is filed as informational, or deleted if irrelevant.

It’s amazing what a simple acknowledgement of receipt, with a stated plan to address the request does for the sender’s attitude.  Especially when you follow up per your stated plan. You’re not so stressed, the email senders aren’t frustrated, and the critical items get addressed. It’s no fun being on either side of that email black hole event horizon – so let’s avoid having it even come into existence!  Good luck!

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