Q. I just moved into a management position and have more email than ever. Right now 200 items are waiting in my inbox, unread, because I don’t have time to give them the attention they deserve. If I stop and read, I lose the rhythm of my “real” work.
A. One skill we didn’t teach in business school was, “Know when to knock yourself out and when to do the bare minimum to get by.” For example, “Leo” worked for a management team that demanded one report after another. While his colleagues toiled weekends, Leo tossed the requests. Most of the time nobody noticed.
As a new manager, you’re probably not ready to follow Leo’s style. Some consultants would advise you to “accidentally” trash every single one of those emails and wait to see who follows up. I would encourage you to consult your sense of job security, ethics and intuition before taking such a drastic step.
But you can begin to conquer the mountain and conserve your energy. Some specific tips:
1. Evaluate your own skills. Are you a fast reader and writer? If not, can you enhance your speed with practice and training?
2. Group your emails by sender and subject. Are a few people sending all the emails? Do they seem to repeat themselves? Can you design processes to handle repetitive requests automatically?
3. Read each email once and make a fast disposition. Don’t wade through paragraphs of dense prose. Head right for the bottom line. Chances are you already know the question or you realize you don’t need to respond.
4. Find out what’s happening to the folks who sent all those messages. Has their work come to a grinding halt? Are they holding up production lines, waiting for your answer? If not, chances are you may never have to respond. They probably forgot what they sent you in the first place.
5. Train your subordinates and (if possible) peers. When you get a long-winded, dense email, return it with a request for rewrite. Encourage everyone to combine several messages into one.
Mostly, though, I would question why you think these messages “deserve” attention. How will your own boss judge your performance? Your company’s bottom line deserves your best efforts and your own career deserves your best ability to set priorities.
In our personal lives, we can devote attention to anyone we want. We can prioritize time for family, friends and dogs. But in business, you owe attention only to bosses, customers and those who require answers in order to do their best work. And you owe them just enough attention to get the job done effectively and courteously.
To discuss your own career, check out my consulting session.