Is now the time to take control of your e-mail inbox?

 In Gill's Blog

Disclaimer: LawSkills provides training for the legal industry and does not provide legal advice to members of the public. For help or guidance please seek the services of a qualified practitioner.

Gill Steel - Solicitor, Trainer in Wills Probate Trust TaxHas your e-mail traffic increased during lock down? Certainly, probate practitioners are experiencing a sad surge in work because of the number of excess deaths during the pandemic and with it will come extra e-mails. But I am thinking here of the extra office emails we receive now that we are mostly working from home and cannot drop by someone’s desk for a chat.

It’s hard to believe that e-mail was invented in 1971 by Ray Tomlinson. It was too expensive for everyday use back then, so it was not until Hotmail launched on 4 July 1996 that the concept was introduced to the general public. It took off rather, didn’t it?

Now the overloaded inbox is most people’s nightmare. We are in danger of being overwhelmed unless we get a grip.

I have been reflecting on my own inbox since someone said to me that having lots of sub-folders was not a good way of organising things. Here are my thoughts for your consideration.

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What tools are there in the email programme to help?

I use Microsoft Outlook for my business account and Google for my personal account. Both have tools to help with the management of your email. I have never really examined how these might be helpful but here are a few from Microsoft Outlook:

  1. Empty your Deleted items folder by selecting the Deleted Items folder and then on the Folder tab choose Empty Folder and it will clear all items out – in my case over 3,000 items!
  2. Keep your folders in alphabetical order – by clicking on the A-Z button in the Folder tab
  3. Create a Read folder to which you send all newsletters and digests you receive by operation of a Rule. If you create a folder in your in box called @ Read it will appear at the top of your inbox. Then move your curser over a recently received newsletter. On the Home tab choose Rules and click on Create a rule. You can select the newsletter and choose which folder it will automatically be transferred to on receipt so it will go there and not sit in your unread emails list. You can then read it at a time of your choosing.
  4. You can colour code your email by project or client or whatever you like by right clicking the message and selecting Categorize then select a category from the list. You create your list of categories by selecting All categories and in the Colour Categories dialog box select New. Type a name for the category and select a colour then select OK. I find this particularly helpful in my Calendar.

If you have a favourite tool not mentioned above, do share.

Does your firm have an e-mail policy?

According to ‘Managing in the email office’ by Monica Seeley and Gerard Hargreaves there are nine ‘P’s of email best practice to encompass into a policy:

  • Put aside time to deal with emails
  • Place emails in folders
  • Pick the right medium
  • Pen your emails in plain English
  • Point out the purpose of your emails
  • Provide time for the recipient
  • Protect yourself against viruses
  • Post back unwanted emails
  • Patrol your use of attachments

Reducing the number of folders in your inbox

Graham Allcott in his book ‘Productivity Ninja’ recommends a radical re-think of the use of folders and sub-folders. He suggests that it becomes increasingly difficult over time to find things in sub-folders and items become time expired and should have been deleted but lurk in sub-folders clogging up your inbox. I am guilty as charged here with many folders and sub-folders.

Graham suggests that in addition to three key folders @Action; @Read and @Waiting (for someone to get back to you) folders you can have a modest number of reference folders but that is it. So instead of having individual folders for all office activities you could have simply an Office folder; a Client’s folder; a Finance folder; a Safe folder (for confirmations, travel tickets, licence keys for software purchased etc); a Personal folder (for family and friends – better still have a personal e-mail address for these things) and one called ‘Z – General reference’ so it appears at the end of your list! It should be for anything which does not appear elsewhere, but you need to purge it regularly.

The thinking behind this approach is that Outlook (and Google) have excellent search facilities and you should be able to find something easily from a broadly named folder using Sender, Subject or Date searches. You might also find it easily because of using the colour coding system.

I am going to risk moving to this system. It feels scary but it would mean my list of folders would fit onto one screen whereas, at the moment, I am always scrolling up and down my folders and sub-folders. It should feel satisfying to couple this move with deleting a lot of content in these folders which is time expired.

Self-control over how often and when you check your email

As part of good time management, we should restrict our checking of e-mail according to Ian Cooper in his book, ‘How to be a Time Master’, so that we have time in our working day to focus on urgent and important matters. This may need some education of your colleagues and clients if they have been used to you replying immediately to email.

It always feels a positive day when I can create a list of actions for the following day at the close of business and then make a start on that action list on opening up my computer the next day. I do this, on a good day, by not opening my email until I have got that task done. Similarly, it certainly reduces email stress if you can get to a zero inbox by the close of business by having a purge of the inbox when compiling your actions for the following day.

In the old days when we received mail through the post or DX we sifted it and prioritised it and worked through it accordingly, interrupted by the telephone. We created barriers to calls by good use of support staff and voice mail boxes.

We just need to employ the same techniques with email. Some firms have an automatic acknowledgement e-mail that comes to the sender, which is a good idea. Similarly, you could develop the habit of dealing with email in one of three ways when it comes in

  1. Deal with it straight away because it will only take a moment;
  2. Delete it or delegate it as it is either not necessary to reply to, or someone else should deal with it; or
  3. Save it for later and add it to your Action list and put a note in your diary of when you will deal with it because it needs some thought. It is these types of email where we should also tell the sender when we plan to deal with it, so they are not left wondering.

Is an email the best way to deal with the content?

I sometimes feel that we have lost the skill of using the telephone! When a client is bombarding you with e-mails maybe the subliminal message is ‘please ring me I need reassurance/I need to talk to you’.

In the office the same is true, if someone needs help it can save a lot of time and stress to talk to them about the issues – even if you have to plan that time into your day.

And trying to organise a meeting between busy colleagues by email can take forever – but maybe a quick call can save the day or try using voting buttons in your message. You do this by going to the Options tab in the Tracking group and click on Use Voting Buttons. You then have a choice:

  • Approve: reject – which could be useful for making a decision on a project or case
  • Yes:No – when you want to agree dates
  • Yes:No:Maybe – when you don’t want to limit the choice to just ‘yes’ and ‘no’.
  • Custom – to create your own voting button

E-mail is an amazing tool but don’t let it overwhelm you. Take control. Let me know how you get on.

Whilst you’re here, you might be interested to check out my upcoming Webinar (3 February 2021) on Leading a remote team. Further details and to register your place is available via LawSkills new Web Shop

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