New Rules (for eMail)

Would you be shocked if I told you that more than 40% of your corporate resources are being applied incredibly inefficiently? Would you be curious about how this could be happening after all of the planning and optimization you’ve done? Would you be excited to attack process improvement on such a big opportunity?

Think about it. What could you (and all of your employees) be spending more than 40% of your time doing? What could that thing possibly be?

Survey says … email!

If you really want to get stirred up about the severity of the problem, read “The Tyranny of Email” by John Freeman. Actually, don’t read it. Listen to it using the Audible app at 1.5X playback speed. You’re too busy to read but you have plenty of time to listen and learn.

There are countless problems with email but here are the two biggest ones (not even mentioning Reply All, CC, BCC, and CYA):

  1. The human brain is very bad at task switching. Neuroscientists have measured multitaskers as up to 40% less productive than task groupers. Knowing this, if you asked me to design the least efficient user interface (UI) based on what we now know about the human brain, I would give you Microsoft Outlook.

    What is your inbox but a random set of tasks? Exactly!
  2. People who are constantly interrupted take 50% longer to get anything done. So few email messages are important and time critical, and yet too many of us allow every incoming message to trigger a pop-up or play a sound.

Given these issues, it’s a wonder that we get anything done in business. Read on because I’m not just bringing you a problem, I’ve got a solution.

If you’ve been reading this column regularly, you probably think I’m going to tell you to switch to Slack or Microsoft Teams. Indeed, that’s an excellent idea as those new tools are 100-times better than email, but apparently you didn’t take my earlier advice on that topic. Or if you did, you’re Slacking with your employees but still have to use email to communicate with the rest of the world. For most of us, that external stuff is about 70% of our inboxes.

The reality is that we’re stuck with email for at least a few more years.

The solution to problem 2 above is to turn off email notifications. Don’t panic! I’m going to tell you how to turn the notifications back on for important messages / senders, etc. Have you heard that “When everything is a priority, nothing is a priority!”? Let’s make our customers and other important people a priority again!

What I’m talking about is what Microsoft Outlook and Apple Mail call “Rules”. Google calls them Filters. All email systems have some version of this underused but immensely valuable function. Rules can preprocess incoming messages, automatically sorting them into different folders. This delivers two immediate benefits:

  1. Like messages get grouped together in much the same way as same topic messages get grouped together in a Channel in Slack). Processing those messages requires less task switching and is therefore both faster and more efficient.
  2. In addition, we can treat different folders with different levels of importance and urgency. You can read messages from your customers, or say your boss, before processing, say, travel confirmations that came in from your hotels, rental car agencies and airlines.

Most importantly, when the critical rules trigger we can have an associated notification (pop up, tone, or both) so that we can respond immediately without getting mired in spam and other junk which arrives silently.

Here’s a simple idea. Make a rule that puts all messages that are “to” you in one folder, and all messages that are “cc” you in another folder. Other humans are already helping set your message priority. How cool is that?

I have about two dozen rules, some of which have dozens of conditions and here’s the thing. Perhaps 10 percent of my email (which is almost 100% of the valuable stuff) gets sorted by rules. The information density in the remaining 90% of messages is so low, I can blast through them with amazing speed (once everything important is already handled, of course). It’s so much more efficient.

My favorite rule is my “Priority” rule. Whenever I add someone to my contacts, I also decide whether to also add them to my contacts’ “Priority” folder. If you’re not familiar with this form of “tagging” your contacts, look for help in a future column. Anyway, I have a rule that says, “If Sender is a member of the contacts group named Priority, move message to folder named Priority and play sound called Hero.” I never have to modify the rule on a per-person basis. Rather, I drag the contact into the contact group called Priority. It takes a fraction of a second but creates immense value.

One other really valuable rule is my FollowUpThen rule. Whenever I send a message where I’m looking for a response, I set a timer (hours, days, weeks, whatever) using a service called FollowUpThen (similar to Boomerang and the like). If the person doesn’t respond after the specified interval, FollowUpThen sends me a reminder. My email rule says, “If message arrives from noreply@followupthen.com, then move message to the follow-up email folder.” At a glance, I know if there’s something to be done.

As long as we’re still stuck with email, we might as well try to become more effective at handling it. It’s time for some new rules!

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