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Corporate email

Having an efficient approach to email may be important to you personally, but what if the people that you work with don’t share the same mindset? How do you escape (as one reader put it) “email hell” when everyone around you continues to feed a corporate culture based on an ineffective use of email?

While you may never be able to fully implement every email technique we recommend in your pursuit of email nirvana, you can still apply the 80/20 principle in a corporate setting to minimize email and regain large amounts of uninterrupted time. In this article we’ll share a four tips to help you overcome many of the common obstacles people face when dealing with a corporate email culture and make the best of a less-than-ideal situation in terms of your productivity.

#1: Start With Why

Unless you’re the CEO, you probably can’t just tell people to change their inefficient email habits and expect any degree of success. And even if you are the CEO, whatever changes you implement might be short-lived if you don’t take the time to get to the “why” behind the proposed changes. No matter where you are on the corporate ladder, you’ll have a much better chance of affecting permanent change if you can explain “why” as well as “what.”

For example, if you just march into your boss’ office and say “email is a complete waste of time and I should be doing other things,” it probably will not end well for you. However, if you take a little more tactful approach, the conversation might go something like this:

You: Mr. Smith, I’m concerned that I’m not able to contribute enough time and focused attention to the team project and I’d like to talk to you about how I can make more time to make sure we actually hit our Q4 goal.

Mr. Smith: Absolutely, Mike. As you know, the Q4 goal is top priority. Any additional time you can devote to that outside of your daily activities is encouraged and welcomed.

You: Well, I think that’s part of the problem. You see, I get in at 7am and the first thing I have to do is open my email and respond to customer inquiries. I know these are important, but I find that once I get in my email that the inquiries keep coming and I can never get caught up. I’ve actually tracked my time, and I end up spending close to 3 hours every day just dealing with these inquiries. If it’s alright with you, I’d like to propose that I postpone my email checks until after lunch. That way, I can be laser-focused on helping our team meet our Q4 goal and shipping the product on time, plus I believe that if I can batch my customer inquiry responses until the afternoon I can deal with more efficiently and still get back to everyone within 24 hours.

Mr. Smith: It sounds like you’ve thought this through, and I’m impressed at your ingenuity in addressing your daily responsibilities while helping the team achieve our Q4 goal. Go ahead and give it a shot.

The key to this approach is to come with data showing what the problem is and then explain why your boss should let you try a different approach. If you’re able to clearly articulate the rationale behind your proposed changes (and you’re seeing the situation accurately), your success rate will be much higher than if you just stated what you wanted to do without providing any context or explanation.

#2: Motivate the Elephant

This is actually a continuation of the Start With Why concept and is important whenever you and your superiors (the ones in charge of letting you implement your desired changes of checking email less frequently) don’t see the situation through the same lens.

Sometimes, your explanation of “why” isn’t going to be good enough – the answer will still be “no,” no matter how well you articulate your position. However. that doesn’t mean it’s a permanent “no”. It just means you have to help people see your point of view.

There’s a great story about motivating the elephant from the book “Switch” by Chip & Dan Heath. In the book, they tell a story about someone who had a revelation of how much money the company was wasting by buying work gloves for their many factories from different suppliers. The individual crunched the numbers, and realized he could save the company millions simply by buying work gloves from a single source. Excitedly, he scheduled a meeting with his bosses and shared the findings with them.

But they did nothing about it.

Needless to say, this can be frustrating. But the man didn’t give up. Instead, he devised a new plan. He got one set of work gloves from each factory, and put a note with each pair of gloves indicating how much that pair of gloves cost the company. Then he rented a conference room and set up some 8-foot tables where he stacked all the gloves. Finally, he invited his bosses into the room, but he didn’t say anything.

He watched, and he waited.

He watched as they slowly made their way over to the table and started picking up each pair of gloves. Even though they looked very similar in terms of product quality, so we’re significantly more expensive than others. He waited, until finally the question was asked:

“What does this all mean?”

The man answered: “that is how much we spend per pair of work gloves at all of our different factories.”

After a long pause, his bosses stated the revelation the man had months ago: “We’re wasting a lot of money here, aren’t we?”

The moral of this story is that affecting change at the top of an organization is similar to a rider trying to motivate an elephant. The elephant (or organization) is often too big to be made to go in a specific direction, but with a little bit of thought, you can motivate the elephant to go in the direction that you want.

The same principle must be used when trying to change a corporate email culture. It is possible, but you have to be intentional and disciplined in your patient attempts to motivate the corporate elephant.

#3: Control What You Can

You may not be able to implement new email policies across your entire organization or department, but don’t let that stop you from applying what you can to your specific situation. Make any efficiency improvement wherever you can, and don’t get discouraged if you can’t implement everything you want to right away.

For example, many people we talk to feel discouraged because they can’t embrace the twice-a-day approach we recommend to checking their email. But that’s ok! The real goal is to spend less time dealing with email, not to achieve some certain milestone. Any improvement is still improvement. Be happy with whatever gains you can make in this area, and always look for new ways to carve out a little bit more productive time in your schedule. Start where you are with what you have, and don’t be discouraged if you can’t make broad, sweeping changes right away. Just keep chipping away and try to beat yesterday in terms of your productivity and efficiency.

One example of this is dealing with co-workers who have bad email habits. Maybe you read our previous article on writing effective emails, but you still have co-workers who continue to overuse the CC field and send ambiguous emails without much thought or direction which creates a high volume of email. That doesn’t mean that you have to do things the same way. Look for ways to take control of these email chains, anticipate any potential follow up questions and address them before your coworker has a chance to reply all and ask if they really do need to put the cover sheets on all their TPS reports (answer: yes).

Likewise, your coworkers may be content to monitor their email all day long, but look for ways to spend less time in your inbox. Just because it’s what everyone currently does, doesn’t mean that the process can’t be improved. Maybe the email culture exists simply because no one has had the nerve to say “what are we doing here?”

#4: Leave Work at Work

We’re often our own worst enemy because we choose to respond to email immediately when we don’t have to, and this creates an artificial expectation that we can’t live up to in the long run. You need to maintain a healthy margin in your life – don’t create artificial expectations simply because you have trouble saying “no.”

Boundaries are so important. We live in an age of smartphones & connected wearables, and in today’s always-on society it’s easy to get distracted – especially by email. Email has the potential to steal your attention from what’s really important at any moment, so it’s important that you put up boundaries so that there are times when you can’t be interrupted and focus on what’s really important.

So what if you don’t respond to that email right away? It will still be there in the morning, and chances are that if you establish a habit of responding to things instantly then others will begin to expect it from you. If you respond to your boss’ email at midnight on Saturday once, they will ask you to do it again. If you don’t place boundaries around when you’re available via email, others will continue to carve away at whatever margin you have in life. You’ll soon find yourself frustrated because you’ll be constantly reacting to what other people say is urgent and you’ll have no time left for what’s really important.

More Email Tips

If you want more tips and hacks for dealing with email, make sure you subscribe for updates on the Escape Your Email. We have an email system that allows you to spend only 30 minutes a day on email. Sign up here and we’ll let you know when it’s available.

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Thanh Pham

Founder of Asian Efficiency where we help people become more productive at work and in life. I've been featured on Forbes, Fast Company, and The Globe & Mail as a productivity thought leader. At AE I'm responsible for leading teams and executing our vision to assist people all over the world live their best life possible.

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  1. I am trying to find the correct link to “The Simple Guide to Managing Your Email More Effectively.” I love your flow chart and wanted to use a version of it in a training as an example to save time for college. If possible, could you send me the correct link to find it online?

  2. I think point 4 should be at the top of the list. It’s an area where we don’t need to march into the bosses office and start trying to convince him/her of the need to change. We can start making the changes ourselves by setting the right expectations of our colleagues and customers. It doesn’t take long for people to realise that you’re not always available and not always responding immediately if that’s what you do.

    If something is really important the sender will make the effort to contact you and will get a phone call or a visit to your desk. Email is too easy.

  3. I’ve learned that it’s important to at least wait a few hours or even a day before responding to an email. Not just for to avoid that instant response expectation; once certain individuals see you are fast, they see it as an opportunity to try to get something off their plate by passing their work onto you.

  4. Hi Mike,

    Thanks for the pro tips with battling the email system. The more bosses that get in on this, the better the world will function. :)

    This article reminds me of one email disaster story. I used to work in a school setting, and everyone had access to the email of each employee in the district (160+ schools).

    Someone from the district sent an email to everyone and asked them to reply if they could attend an event… you see where this is going. For the entire afternoon, I got an email about every 15 seconds (quite literally) of random people hitting “reply all.” Because of course, the person who sent the email in the first place didn’t use bcc or cc, they just sent it to the list of EVERYONE.

    Finally, in a misguided effort to stop the madness, about a half-dozen people then sent emails (to everyone, naturally) telling them to stop hitting “reply all.” Then a few started replying to those very emails with reply all… and the whole thing ballooned into a mess.

    A colleague of mine didn’t check her email for a few days afterward because everything important was buried behind hundreds of separate threads in Outlook. Oh, the failure of the system.

    Anyhow! Great article. Another strategy I’ve found worked very well in this setting was to set a strict 2-minute rule. To be fair, the school environment has less pressure for urgent email replies (since you’re supposed to be teaching most of the time), but this worked incredibly well. I’d plow through 50+ emails in 2 minutes.

    Another caveat–most of these were “announcement” emails to the whole staff that didn’t require a reply from me specifically, but still. I felt so accomplished.

    Thanks again. Off to share this nugget of wisdom!

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