Side note. Habits to hacking email.

Jan 5 · 9 min read

I don’t know exactly why or when it happened, email (and text) has replaced talking to people generally in life. At work, we always resort to “send me an email” which is a complete cop out. There is a deeper underlying message when someone cops out to email. If someone cuts your conversation off and asks for you to send them an email, it’s because you haven’t brought them enough value to warrant their time at that moment. They are triaging their time and opportunity cost, and your information is now at the bottom of the list. If you default to emailing someone it’s because you are probably scared of being rejected by the above point and that is because you don’t believe in the value you are delivering to that person.

Now there are some deeper underlying issues here which we will address at another time, let’s for now focus on how I have hacked email to make it work for me and not for me to be a slave to it.

The background for wanting to hack email came from reading the book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R Covey it talks about four different quadrants of how we spend time and what the effectiveness of each are:

Disruptions are one of the worst kind because they take you away from doing things that provide value and long term success and generally under the Pareto principal, most emails will fall under quadrants 3 and 4. It then comes down to how you can automate the process of moving emails into their respective quadrants

This started off with a simple labelling system, that in my email platform was based off easy to apply rules:

  1. Labelling each email by the company of the sender. Now I’m customer facing so this works for me quite easily, the rule is “label each email from as ‘Apple’”. This makes it easier to file the email once I have taken action because then it automatically gets filed with all the other information from the customer and moved from my inbox.
  2. Labelling each email which I am a CC or BCC on as “CC/BCC”, Mark as Read and Keep in Inbox”. We get killed by the amount of CC emails we are on, and we are on them usually as per of a greater group discussion. What ever happened to have a meeting, even a video call. Anyway. Because these are marked as read this is the real game changer because I no longer get notifications which are really disruptions for these kinds of emails, and I then at different times of the day go and check the CC/BCC list, determine if I need to action something or provide value to the conversation, then after such, I archive them and move it from my inbox, done. The other type of emails that get marked as “CC/BCC” are those internal mailing lists, ie “Sydney Office”. They and the subsequent “Reply All” (I hate those!) see the same fate, and then depending on what the first message is, then determines how much of the replies I read, mostly they get archived. Gmail has a cool function of “muting” so you don’t see any of the further reply-alls, this is quite handy when the email is of a personal announcement, such as “this person had a baby”. These really need to be dealt with my “muting” the conversation and contacting the person directly to offer your congratulations. You don’t need to be a sheep and add to the disruption.
  3. I still have my email as a quasi ‘to do’ list and is where the remaining two/three categories come into play. They are Unread, Important, UnImportant. Unread are basically only emails where I am in the “To” field because someone has addressed an email to me directly and the concept is that person will want my input or action on its contents. From there, after I have read it, there is then a further triage of Immediately Action, Important, InImportant.

Immediately Action: When something is immediately action that then signals one of two actions on my part, the first is the easiest, delegate. I delegate to one of the team that works on the account or one of the support staff. After it’s delegated, it’s then kept in my inbox to monitor the progress of the task, this is so I can maintain visibility, add value, keep it on track. Sure this is a little hands on for my own liking however it’s necessary on the basis that if someone has come to me directly for help or with a problem, they are expecting me to resolve, and completely palming it off is not showing I care to my customer, otherwise the customer would have gone directly to that team member first anyway. The customer does this because they don’t trust that the team member would resolve, and my delegating, monitoring and adding value, it builds that trust and then you see for the next instance, or a couple after, the customer goes directly to that to whom the task was delegated to. Win for all. If I need to immediately action myself, it falls into two categories, it’s either a simple and quick reply, a phone call, or let’s meet to discuss further, otherwise immediately action is a call to arms or fire stations because the shit has hit the fan, self explanatory really.

Important: These emails are when something is as you probably have guessed, important, and these generally relate to either generating more revenue or protecting existing revenue, otherwise it isn’t really important. However even with this metric of being in relation to revenue, the classification goes a little deeper than “is this going to earn or cost me money now” it is also based upon will this deliver long term revenue by either earning it or protecting it. These emails generally revolve take some time to action because they are based upon long term activities, so they tend to sit in my inbox for a short period of time. What I have found is that by removing other distractions, disruptions and delegating it gives me more time to focus on these important things and be moving towards being dollar productive instead of being busy being busy.

Not Important, but Important enough to be in my inbox: This category tends to be classified very similar to Important, with the difference being for small opportunities or internal projects that don’t have an immediate impact on business. Now small opportunities don’t necessarily mean small customers, although sometimes small customers fall into that category too. This category is generally working for ancillary products or services for customers, the small things that are not business critical but are still important. You can tell how important something is to a customer based upon how quickly they reply to you with the deliverables they need to do to action. For example, if you need some paperwork and the customer takes forever getting it back to you, it’s obviously unimportant to them. The caveat is that while something may be unimportant to the customer, it may be important to my goals. If the customer is slow to responding then generally I haven’t provided enough value or are not solving a big enough problem for the customer to actually care about it, so that’s my fault.

URGENT. Yes, that very word that appears in subject lines and in the body of text. It’s important that we look at the one of the most overused words in email today. This annoys me the most because what it really means is “I have something that you need to prioritise above everything else you possibly have on”. I am all for urgency however most things that are marked by the sender as urgent are in actual fact not urgent at all and it’s our way of trying to skip the line. What I have found is that most urgent things are caused by laziness or poor management on behalf of the sender being “I didn’t do this when we had plenty of time and now I need it because there is no time left”. This is a tough one because you need to care about your customer (external or internal) however if something was that urgent, you should go to that magical device you use to check social media every 10 minutes, use the ‘OG’ of social media apps and call the person (telephone, ring ring) to tell them about what you need and when you need it by, then follow up with an email. If something is truly urgent, why would you put something out that is subject to being actioned based upon the time it takes for someone to get to your email. Oh because you put ‘Urgent’ in the subject line. Truely, your email is probably 1 of 10? 20? 100? urgent emails in their inbox.

Dealing with urgent emails you receive takes a little bit of skill because you need to be able to understand the impact to the other persons business, and what likely deadline they are working to. In my world, that can generally be easy because in the example of the customer needing a printed brochure, it will be for an open house on a Saturday, so I know I need to have this deliverable delivered before that open house. You should also know what is completely involved in the process from your end and the customers in order to triage to meet the deadline that impacts on the customer. This helps you ensure what is truely urgent, such as a Heart Attack versus a Broken Arm, Nurses do this in an Emergency ward, and you can action in the appropriate time frame. The truth is for someone who has a broken arm, their level of urgency for treatment is internally perceived the same as the person having a heart attack. The difference is the level of empathy in the individual to realise someone else urgency is more urgent. In the business world however, different ball game.

Finally, I also have one final category that I use and that’s the VIP list. Basically there are people who are at the top of the tree and I give the power of veto of my business life to them. This is the top 1% of people in my entire customer base. For me, and this is me, I generally work with Directors or Managers depending on the customer size, and when I receive an email from whom I define as the “Ultimate Decision Maker” at a customer, or internally, they get this very special label. This is because of the rarity of receiving an email from them. Think C-Level or MD of your customer, who when they contact you it’s because there is generally money on the table, to be earned or lost, at the extend of what they need. These decision makers tend only to hear complaints when they need to, or contact you when they need a favour. Because they are the ultimate decision maker, your business depends on their experience with you and how they perceive your service because of how you resolved their query. Your day to day relationships could think you are the best thing on the face of the earth, however if the Ultimate Decision Maker has a less than “exceeds expectations” experience, when your competitor calls them for a meeting to sell their solution, they will take that meeting rather than shoo them while pledging their undying loyalty to you. This is why they are VIP’s. Why miss out on an opportunity to flex your muscle and showcase how great you are when they need it most, the law of reciprocity will then make it easier when you need something from them such as a new contract or to introduce a new product, they will give you their time as long as it’s adding value.

What I have found is by taking all of these steps, I have been able to reduce my inbox to practically zero, except for the items in Quadrant 2. This has lead to more productivity, less notifications on each of the devices I use. It’s also given me extra battery life on my phone because its not making a sound, vibrating and lighting up the screen every few minutes with a notification of an email. The productivity has been a major change, because my focus is now on driving value to the customer and to the business, rather than being busy being busy and I am more satisfied with work because I focus on what’s important and where I get fulfilment, and all of this leads to happiness. This is a side note to the series on Habits because it’s about building a system that can change our habits around email that makes a dramatic impact on my daily life. I have also employed these strategies with my personal email as well, and turned off notifications on my social media apps which has been a game changes in all kinds of relationships.

By Darren Allatt. All thoughts are my own and do not represent the views of any organisations I am associated with.

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