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Making e-mail matter

7 min read


This post is by Aaron Dignan and is a selection from “Manage Your Day-to-Day,” (Amazon Publishing, 2013), edited by Jocelyn K. Glei. Dignan is the CEO of the digital strategy firm Undercurrent, where he advises global brands and complex organizations like General Electric, American Express, Ford Motor Co., and the Cooper-Hewitt on their future in an increasingly technophilic world. He is also the author of “Game Frame: Using Games as a Strategy for Success.”

Inbox zero. It sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? And why not — we send and receive more e-mail today than ever before, and that volume continues to increase with each passing year. A recent study by the McKinsey Global Institute found that the average knowledge worker spends 28 percent of his or her workweek either writing, reading, or responding to e-mail. No matter what kind of work you do, chances are you spend far too much energy dealing with your inbox.

As a result, many of us are on a permanent mission to reduce our e-mail workload, and this has translated into a bit of an e-mail efficiency craze. That desire has been fueled by literally hundreds of tools, techniques, services, plug-ins, and extensions to help you manage your e-mail. As a result, e-mail “best practices” are getting pretty exhausting to follow. According to productivity thought leaders, to master your e-mail, you need to do most (if not all) of the following:

  • Label your e-mails for faster retrieval
  • Set up rules so that your e-mail can sort itself
  • Archive all of your e-mails so that you can focus
  • Color code your e-mail, for visual cues to priority
  • Use a reminder tool so that important e-mail chains resurface
  • Convert e-mail into tasks, so that nothing slips through the cracks
  • Track e-mail, so you can see when/where it gets read
  • Create e-mail templates so that you can rapidly send common messages
  • Unsubscribe from excess newsletters frequently
  • Limit your e-mails to five sentences or less
  • Use a social plug-in so that you can see the faces and facts behind your e-mails

How has it come to this? Why is e-mail such a complex communication channel? The reason is that e-mail has become our primary input/output mechanism for conversation, ideas, reminders, information, events, video, images, and documents. In our physical absence, it is a digital representation of us, a permanent location for the rest of the working world to drop their needs at our feet.

Because of this, our e-mail represents a sort of digital extension of our brain. Sure, social media and mobile have drawn some of this attention and volume (and for the next generation perhaps they’ll grab it all), but that doesn’t change the fact that each of us will always maintain a digital inbox somewhere, and that’s going to be where the action is. The bottleneck occurs because our digital selves — [email protected] — can handle far more input than our physical selves. And short of dramatic increases in artificial intelligence, we’re going to need to solve for the difference ourselves.

When I think about my inbox as an extension of my brain, the notion of inbox zero becomes both more meaningful and more elusive. A rush to a clean inbox might leave me empty, if the e-mails themselves don’t trigger the development and progression of my ideas and goals. Put more simply, I don’t want to simply beat back my e-mail every day like some pointless enemy. I want to ensure that the time spent with my e-mail adds up to something—that it helps me achieve more. After all, why am I reading and writing all this e-mail in the first place?!

With each e-mail that arrives, there is a moment when you must decide how to contextualize the message: Is this something I need to know? Something that requires an urgent response? Something I need to come back to later? Something that a friend might enjoy? Something that requires action? Something that requires thought and reflection? And what other e-mails, ideas, tasks, and projects already in play might it relate to? To make the most of your inbox, I recommend three simple steps:

Know Your Complex Goals

Many of us have a running list of things we’d like to accomplish, and the vast majority of these things are simple tasks. Organize desk. E-mail Fred about the deadline. Send invoice. Above that, we have an ever-evolving list of objectives, plans, and aspirations that are harder to wrap our heads around because they require a host of complex actions and involve multiple milestones over time.

These complex goals are elusive, subject to the ebb and flow of our time, energy, and opportunities. Some of us want to write a book. Others want to visit Peru. Still others want to meet a personal idol. Future businesses, charities, and even relationships get lost in this amorphous place simply because these things are difficult to attack in discrete tasks day after day. In order to make your inbox a catalyst to achieve these goals, you’ve got to put them in your line of sight. Every four months or so, I identify my two or three complex goals and tape a list of them to my desk as a constant reminder.

Connect the Dots

Any e-mail you receive might be a stepping-stone to your goal, depending on the subject and the sender. By knowing your complex goals and keeping them front and center in your mind, you can start to see relationships and potential in the content, people, and opportunities hitting your inbox. Don’t mindlessly blast through your inbox — give each message that extra moment of careful consideration to see how it might relate to your overall goals. Who could you share this with? What could you say that would move the ball forward? Is this an opportunity to ask for help or advice? Is this person a possible champion for you? With that in mind, you can label, file, forward, respond, and archive with a new kind of purpose — an eye on the long-term while you keep your head above water.

Let Things Go

If you’re like me, you have far too many things you want to do, read, see, test, and experience. Your inbox is a treasure trove of possibilities. To a creative mind, that’s very enticing. It’s easy for an optimist to keep fifty, a hundred, or even a thousand e-mails hovering in their inbox in the hopes that, someday soon, they’ll get a chance to give each opportunity the precious time that it deserves. But guess what? That’s never gonna happen.

The most important rule in achieving your goals via your inbox is that distracting opportunities have to die for your most important goals to live. As you move through your inbox, if an idea or opportunity is catching your eye and asking for your focus, think hard about whether pursuing it will help you achieve your complex goals. If not, or if you’re not sure, decline graciously and live to fight another day. If it’s truly the game-changing opportunity that your optimistic inner voice says it is, chances are it will come your way again one day.