Setting e-mail expectations: Roughly once a week

hamster-wheelI’ve seen the e-mail hamster-wheel that other people are stuck on, and I don’t want to go there. As for me, e-mail doesn’t make me feel important or needed or valued. E-mail is… well… it’s conversations that are hidden from the world, thoughts that I’m going to forget because no one else is going to come across them in a search engine and post comments. As lots of people have observed (including Luis Suarez, whom I knew at IBM): “E-mail is where knowledge goes to die.”

Still, e-mail is useful. I keep e-mail for following up with clients, coordinating with W- or with meetup organizers, introducing people, handling quick tech support for my mom, and answering the occasional private question that usually doesn’t have to be private anyway. I like getting quick questions, especially if I can send people links (although getting those questions as public comments works even better!). I like getting in-depth questions too, which I try to answer in blog posts whenever possible, add a note to my outline with the name of the person requesting it.

I reply to e-mail roughly once a week, although I check it more often to see if there’s anything that needs attention. Here’s how I work. Maybe you’ll pick up some ideas or tips! =)

I use my phone to quickly check e-mail while I’m walking or waiting. I get a lot of e-mail that I don’t particularly care about, even though I periodically unsubscribe from lists. The phone’s limited interface means that I generally don’t use it to reply to e-mail (unless I can say what I need in one or two sentences with no links), but I can delete unneeded messages and add stars to messages that need action.

Friday is my “catch up” day. I balance my company books, follow up on tasks I’m waiting for, and go through my e-mail, writing blog posts (like this one!) and e-mailing replies. The Share a Draft plugin for WordPress helps here because I can keep my ~1-post-a-day schedule while still giving people a sneak preview of any upcoming blog posts related to their question.

If there are important conversations I need to follow up on, I use Boomerang for Gmail. This archives the message for now, returning it to my inbox in case I haven’t received a reply within the specified timeframe. I also use Boomerang for Gmail’s “Send Later” feature to schedule e-mails so that I don’t have to set a reminder.

There are lots of other ways that people handle e-mail. There’s the idea of “Touch it once” – check mail only when you’re ready to handle it, and move important information to your to-do list. That would probably mean checking it more frequently, though, and I don’t want to commit time every day to do that. There’s being strict about checking only at specified times (such as once a day, or even once a week) and always having an Out of Office message turned on or putting that in your signature, but that felt odd too.  So here we are – I check mail frequently, respond occasionally, and try to move things into blog posts as much as possible.

There are trade-offs for my approach, of course. I could probably drum up more business and build more connections if I had a reputation for being instantly responsive… but I wouldn’t want to be shackled to my e-mail and I wouldn’t want my task list to be rearranged with every incoming message, so I’m fine with what I have.

Also, if it takes you a few weeks to reply too, no need to apologize. Almost all of my mail isn’t time-sensitive, and if it’s important to me, I’ll indicate the date I need a response by and I’ll follow up if time has passed.

E-mail doesn’t have to be a slave-driver. =)

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