Stop Email Overload

Excerpt from “Stop Email Overload,” Harvard Business Review

Ana Dutra, the CEO of Korn/Ferry International, is known for responding to every email she receives within 24 hours, regardless of who it comes from. But she doesn’t feel like she spends too much time on email. “I have a system that works for me,” she says. It is a process she felt forced to develop when she led the global organization strategy practice at Accenture and received 250 to 300 emails per day. While that number is lower now that she’s at Korn/Ferry (around 120 emails a day, she says), she is still committed to staying on top of her email and keeping her inbox clean. “The more it accumulates, the harder it is to catch up and determine what’s important and what’s not,” she says.

Develop a System and Stick to It

Ana uses a four-step process each time she opens her Blackberry or Outlook inbox. She starts by deleting anything she can: invites, spam, etc. She then sorts by subject so she is only looking at the last message in a conversation. She doesn’t look at the previous trail of email unless she needs to. “The problem may have already been solved,” she points out. She then looks at the messages she was copied on to see if there is something urgent or whether she is just being kept in the loop. The last thing she does is reply to messages that can be handled immediately and files the rest into folders.

For her it’s a matter of respect to reply promptly. “It takes 20-30 seconds to write a quick email explaining when you will get to something,” she says. “So much is resolved and so many decisions are made by email, it is irresponsible not to respond.” She also trains those she works with. “If you want me to read what you write to me, make it short,” she says. She encourages people to label things “Action required” or “No action — FYI only.”

Every time she has down time — in a car, waiting for an appointment — she cleans out her inbox. She doesn’t think of the time she spends managing her email as an encumbrance. In fact it’s the opposite. “It doesn’t feel like a burden at all. It feels great,” she says.

Stop the Source

Frank Sopper, the President of OpenBook Learning, a company that provides educational software to U.S. public schools and advises executives on cognitive effectiveness, does not want to be copied on any emails. “I don’t slap anyone’s hand if they do,” he says, “but I may ask, ‘Why are you sending this to me?'” Sopper started to look closely as the emails he was receiving several years back in a previous role. He asked himself: Is there an action item here for me? If not, why am I receiving these?

At OpenBook, he has pushed the people he works with to think carefully about why they are sending an email and who needs to receive it. “We’ve really worked hard in our organization not to copy anyone on an email unless there’s an action item for them,” he says. The goal is not to stifle conversation but to make sure it’s relevant. “Anyone can communicate with me. They send me an email with me in the ‘To’ line.”

Managers at OpenBook don’t feel constrained by the rule. In fact, Sopper says that people seem relieved because they feel trusted to do their job. And he relies on other tools to monitor performance. “I have to trust that we have metrics that measure people’s work without watching their conversations,” he says.

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