Tuesday, November 13, 2007

My top 10 rules for Email Triage

This is the second in my series about email.

I receive over 600 email messages each day (with virtually no Spam, so they are all legitimate) and respond to most via Blackberry. How do I triage 600 messages? I use these 10 rules to mentally score each email:

1. E-mail marked with a “high importance” exclamation point must pass the “cry wolf” test. Is the sender a habitual “high importance” e-mailer? Are these e-mails actually important? If not, the sender's emails lose points.

2. I give points to high-priority people: my senior management, my direct reports, my family members and my key customers.

3. I do the same for high-priority subjects: critical staff issues, health issues and major financial issues.

4. I rate email based on the contents of the “To,” “cc” and “bcc” fields. If I am the only person in the To field, the e-mail gets points. If I am in the To field with a dozen other people, it’s neutral. If I'm only cc’d, it loses points. A bcc loses a lot of points, since I believe email should always be transparent. E-mail should not be used as a weapon.

5. I penalize email with emotional words, capital letters or anything less than civil language.

6. I downgrade email messages longer than five BlackBerry screens. Issues that complex require a phone call.

7. Email responses that say only “Thanks,” “OK” or “Have a nice day” are social pleasantries that I appreciate, but move to the bottom of my queue.

8. Email with colorful backgrounds, embedded graphics or mixed font sizes lose points.

9. I separate email into three categories - that which is just informational (an FYI), that which requires a short response and that which requires a lengthy, thoughtful response. I leave the lengthy responses to the end of the day.

10. More than 3 emails about a topic requires a phone call or meeting. Trying to resolve complex issues via and endless ping pong of emails is inappropriate.

These 10 rules really help me navigate my 600 emails each day.

If we actually automated the rules above and senders realized that their e-mail had to be truly relevant to get read, folks might think twice before pressing Send. The less important matters can wait until the next staff meeting. With some enforced discipline, we may be able to learn how to better communicate with one another more effectively and get back to our creative work.

One more truly controversial idea - Companies that send bulk e-mail should be forced to pay before an e-mail gateway delivers their mail. How many newsletters have you really “opted in” for? A micropayment fee system will keep companies honest about their opt-in and unsubscribe policies by aligning financial incentives.


JGF said...

Thank you very much for writing this blog! I loved your Computer World work but there you don't have a unique feed. Please do reference anything you write for CW here so I don't miss it.

One suggestion: when you reference "one in a series" as in this post could you link to the prior post? Alternatively, if you use tags we can navigate themes or series by their tags.

Lastly, if you're using XP/Vista I heartily recommend Windows Live Writer for writing and posting. Unfortunately there's nothing similarly excellent for OS X. (Ecto 3.x comes close but is buggy with Bloglines).

JGF said...

PS. I think you should be penalizing emails where the subject lines are not well composed. The subject line ought to describe the justification for the email, the topic and the action required -- all in 60 characters or less.

Andy said...

It looks like this triage is happening in your head as you scan your inbox. I think it would be very interesting to attempt to automate at least some of this, so that one could at least look at incoming messages with some type of rank assigned by the mail reader. I have often thought about setting up an outlook filter for this (I think you're using something other than outlook though).

A wizard of this type that would help business users rank the importance of messages in their inboxes would have widespread appeal.

JGF said...

I use Outlook rules to assign flags based on sender and CC list. Works well.

Knarlydog said...

Excellent piece, far too many people just don't know how to use email efficiently. Rule #6 is a key far too many people miss today. Unless you're using email to document something, pick up the phone. I've observed people trying to run project via email... Rule #6 should be the next bumper sticker....

AdamCogan said...

Great list... I did a similar list... would love your thoughts

My email guidelines so you have less emails to triage