I'm an entrepreneur who runs several companies, and I'm invested in a number of others. I travel constantly, communicate regularly with hundreds of associates, partners, and investment managers and advisers, and, other than my house in the mountains, I have no physical headquarters for my businesses. Naturally, e-mail is my preferred method of communication, and I get loads of e-mail -- more than 300 messages a day. Five years ago, I thought it was macho to get so much e-mail. Three years ago, I thought it was annoying. Finally, I realized I needed to deal with it.
While e-mail overload is a growing problem for everyone, it is particularly unnerving for entrepreneurs. E-mail increases an entrepreneur's ability to communicate with his or her organization, customers, vendors, partners, and, of course, mother. But such easy communication tends to snowball: Once people realize that the entrepreneur is accessible via e-mail, the volume increases. When accessibility combines with travel, meetings, and the normal stress of running a business, the problem can turn into a nightmare.
As a result, I've spent some time thinking about and implementing ways to handle large volumes of e-mail. In this article, I'll share some hints for managing those ever-increasing loads of mail. My suggestions involve getting a handle on both the mechanics of your e-mail delivery system and your procedures for sending and receiving messages.
First, the mechanics...
Get a reliable e-mail service provider. Once e-mail becomes a critical part of your work life, nothing is more annoying than having to struggle to download your e-mail. If you connect to the Internet with a modem, make sure your Internet service provider (ISP) has adequate modem connections. If you travel, make sure your ISP has local dial-up access phone numbers in the cities to which you travel. Determine whether your provider has ever had problems sending e-mail, or is on any "spam-blocked" lists that may prevent your e-mail from getting through. Finally, pick a simple e-mail address! Addresses such as email@example.com are a lot harder to deal with than firstname.lastname@example.org.
Standardize on one e-mail account. At one time, I had five e-mail accounts, and I checked each one every day. I eventually standardized on one account. Now my accounts "point" to one, and although people send me e-mail at a number of different places, it all ends up in the same in-box.
Standardize on one e-mail program, and learn to use it. With the choices available today, there isn't any excuse for not having an excellent e-mail program. My favorites include Microsoft Outlook 98, which I use, Microsoft Outlook Express, which is built into Microsoft Internet Explorer, Qualcomm Eudora Pro, and Pegasus E-mail. Each of those programs is excellent. Each includes such common e-mail features as multiple mailboxes, folders, address books, message filtering, and HTML e-mail. Learn to use your e-mail program, especially the keyboard shortcuts. You'll save tons of time.
Now for your messages...
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Develop an e-mail rhythm. People with whom you communicate regularly will get used to your patterns of response. For example, I try to clear out my in-box each morning before I get involved in my day. While my busy travel schedule makes this difficult to do, people know that whenever they e-mail me, they can expect a response within 24 hours. When I'm home, I'm always connected, and unless I don't want to be interrupted, I respond immediately to any incoming messages. Figure out your rhythm -- what works for you -- and stick to it.
Never touch an e-mail more than twice. I know many people who avoid addressing their e-mails quickly. This is a mistake: If you let your messages sit, they get moldy and weigh on your mind. I try to respond or delete e-mails once I've read them. If I'm behind, or if I'm feeling pressed for time, I scan my e-mails and answer those that require an immediate response, and I handle the balance -- in sequential date-and-time order -- the next time I have a free moment.
Be careful how you use filters and folders. Filters are complex rules for sorting e-mail automatically into folders. While they have many uses, filters can actually make you less organized if you haven't done a good job of setting them up. For a while, I did use filters, but I stopped. Folders are also dangerous: E-mail that ends up in folders is easily forgotten. Because of that, I use folders only to store information I know I'll need to refer to, but I never store away a message related to matters I need to act on. In short, avoid the trap of filing information away and losing it forever.
Send information, not stories. Rarely does an e-mail from me contain more than one screenful of information. I want people to be able to read my e-mails quickly, understand what I want, and respond. Keep your own responses short, and train your friends to send you e-mails that you can process quickly.
Respond only when appropriate. If you are copied on an e-mail, and there isn't an obvious reason for you to respond, don't! Don't feel compelled to keep an e-mail communication going unless you see a reason to do so. This is especially important when you have a number of people being copied. You want to avoid having everyone responding endlessly to something long after anybody cares about it. Use your judgment: Like voice conversations, e-mail exchanges have natural ending points, too.
When e-mail gets out of hand, pick up the telephone. If you sense that your e-mail isn't communicating effectively, isn't resolving your problem, or is creating an escalating argument, pick up the telephone. E-mail lacks so many conversational nuances. Recognize when e-mail is no longer effective for what you are trying to communicate -- and change your method of exchange.
My hints all suggest a golden rule: use e-mail as a tool -- rather than as a replacement -- for communication. Even though I prefer e-mail, I often say that deals don't get done and customers don't get on board unless you get face-to-face.
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