E-mail Anonymous: E-mail Junkie Rehab

Posted by Dan Keeney

Of all the sessions I attended at the 2009 PRSA International Conference in San Diego last week, the one that may end up having the most profound impact on the way I work was the final session. It had nothing to do with public relations or ethics or strategy. In fact, communications was characterized as more of a burden in this session.

The title was “Dramatically Increase Productivity by Slaying the E-mail Monster,” by Michael Valentine and Lynn Coffman, the principals of Coffman Valentine & Associates.

The basic takeaway is that the typical knowledge worker (read: everyone in PR) treats e-mail differently than any other information that they deal with. When the mail comes, you might quickly look through it to see if there is a check, an invoice or something urgent that needs attention. If not, you don’t open the mail and read it all. You set it aside and deal with it later. If someone adds a file to your the inbox on your desk (okay, confession: my entire desk serves as a giant in-box), you don’t lunge to see what’s in the file and breathlessly respond to each item. You work through the inbox by prioritizing the items. Some you file while others you delegate.

For some reason, e-mail is different. We feel a compulsion to have to open them immediately and respond as if the world would end if a minute passed. And then we keep the e-mail as a memento. Okay, it isn’t just a memento — it can serve as a reminder or proof or just help us find the sender’s e-mail address. Another confession: I currently have about 3,500 e-mails in my inbox. I use my e-mail inbox as a repository of everything from good ideas to things I need to follow up on.

No more. After the Coffman Valentine session at PRSA ’09, I am now working with a different process. They teach knowledge workers the four “A”s: Axe, Act, Allocate and Assign. You need to delete the stuff that has no value (Axe), take immediate action to deal with the stuff that require just a couple minutes of time to review or respond (Act), set aside specific time to work through those items that require more than a few minutes (Allocate) and look for things that can be taken off your plate and delegated (Assign). Here is how I am using it:

1. I no longer keep my Outlook on all the time. I have two computer screens on my desktop and my standard process for years and years has been to have Outlook open on my right screen. Not anymore. I close Outlook after working through my e-mails now.

2. I process all incoming e-mails and leave my inbox empty when I’m done. I have established files for each client (duh) and move the e-mails there.

3. As an adjunct to step 2, I have established a better filing system for e-mails. If an e-mail requires action (the development of a news release or drafting of an article) I file it either in my “action” file or I drag it to my calendar to schedule a specific time block to deal with it. I did not even know this was possible. Just drag your e-mail to your calendar and a calendar box will pop up that gives you the ability to set a date and time for a reminder. That is a game changer. It is also still a work in process. I have not fully adopted this step yet.

4. I am being more careful about the outgoing e-mails I send. Coffman Valentine made a point that e-mails beget more e-mails. There is a 60% boomerang effect, which means for every 10 e-mails you send, you can expect to get six back. But consider each e-mail you send goes to four people — that means you can expect to receive 24 e-mails back for every 10 you send. Consider the other ways you can deliver your message. Heck, pick up that funny looking thing you hold to your ear — the telephone! If you reduce the e-mails you send, you will reduce the e-mails you receive. Brilliant!

5. I am being more clear and specific in the subject lines of the e-mails I send. A lot of e-mail traffic is spent clarifying or correcting poor communication. You send an e-mail and the person who gets it goes charging off in the wrong direction because they thought you were saying one thing when you really intended another. Clear and specific subject lines can prevent a lot of that back and forth.

So if you were wondering why I haven’t sent you an e-mail in a while, it is because I am trying to break my e-mail addiction. In recent days I have been curled up like a junkie shaking and sweating while wonder if I have e-mail in my in-box, but I am making strides. I am taking it one day at a time.

Alos: Henry Devries, APR, who moderated the session has posted some of the basics at the ComPRehension blog: http://comprehension.prsa.org/?p=980. They also had a CD that they were handing out that makes for a good 60-minute podcast, but I don’t see it posted anywhere online.

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This entry was posted on Monday, November 16th, 2009 at 5:01 pm and is filed under Public Relations Advice. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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