We can blame WFH for the state of our email but this is clearly not a new problem. It’s estimated that we spend between a third and half of our week on email, so if you can get any of that time back it would make a big difference to your work.
2021 has barely begun, but the accounting profession is already becoming snowed under the Covid-19 and Brexit workload. Being organised and time-efficient is one of the best ways to manage a mountain of tasks, and where else to begin but the dreaded email inbox?
Staying on top of your emails won’t only clear digital space but your mental space as well, helping you to manage your work and practice more efficiently.
If your new year’s resolution is to have a tidy inbox, here are a few tips to help you.
Sending an email isn’t job done
The main problem with email is that we perceive sending and responding to emails as making progress on our to do list. What have we done today? Well, we’ve sent 35 replies and now we are waiting for those people to reply to us. We’ve taken action. Tick.
Except that we haven’t achieved anything. Someone had a query but that query is not resolved. The ball is in their court, which feels good because until they respond you won’t have to take another action. But eventually they will respond and that query is still on the list, not yet complete.
The biggest trick with email is to pick up the phone instead. Most queries can be far better resolved by phone. This includes:
- Diary management/making appointments.
- Anything that requires simple yes or no answers.
- Anything requiring a personal touch or human connection.
Trying to be creative by email is also a big problem and here a meeting is almost always better. Pick up the phone, arrange a time to meet and then get together in person or online for brainstorming.
This should reduce the quantity of emails and get things off your to do list for good, rather than just kicking them down the road.
Organise your emails
If you aren’t yet using folders to organize your emails that might help. It’s a bit obvious but dumping old emails you may need to keep for reference in to the right client folder or using ‘categories’ in Outlook to organize your emails can help you keep the actual inbox for new and on-going conversations. It requires some upfront effort but from there you can keep on top of it quite easily.
Some people recommend a ‘To Do’ folder, using the ‘follow up’ flag in Outlook to set reminders.
If you use Gmail there are also many management tools. You can organize emails by priority or by unread first. I’m not a Gmail expert but there are plenty of articles out there with more tips.
Bottom line, if you’re just wading through your inbox every day trying to find what you’re looking for you’re probably wasting precious time. A little organization will save you hours per month.
Have a no email day
Introduce a ban on emails for one day a week. This has to be done with a few ground rules and a little explanation. People can’t just save up their emails for another day or send all their emails the day before the ban. It has to be accompanied by a change in attitude.
You’re going to use the day differently. Maybe you’ll put your more creative work on this day. Maybe you’ll catch up on personal connection with colleagues. Maybe you’ll sort through paperwork, or see how much of your activity can be accomplished by phone. A ban on email should force creative problem solving. After all, we got things done before email. How did we do that? Maybe we should start again!
Decide when to look at emails
You don’t have to reply to emails as soon as they are received. Instead, set aside specific times in the day when you will look at your email. Resist the habit to check your emails first thing otherwise your emails will define the rest of your day. Instead, start the day by planning out what you want to accomplish and what your priorities are. Then you might take 30 minutes to whip through emails, noting down the actions that emerge. Then decide which of these need to be resolved today and add that to your to do list or schedule resolution for another day.
After lunch and mid-afternoon might be other useful points to check your email.
But don’t allow your emails to determine every action. If you simply spend your day responding as emails arrive you are not in charge of your time. Other people are shaping your day for you. Stepping away from the inbox and allowing email contents to inform your priorities, rather than define them, will put you back in control.