Email is an incredibly useful communication tool that has changed the way we work. It can, if used to excess, take over our work day and crush our personal productivity.
According to a study by McKinsey, more than a quarter of the average office worker’s day is spent writing and answering emails. This rises to almost a third for those in knowledge intensive industries, like the law.
Some people receive literally hundreds of emails every day (perhaps you’re one of them) — an unsustainable volume of communication that is probably nearly impossible to effectively handle. The result is an inbox backlog that is frustrating and stressful.
So, how can workers in the “knowledge” economy, like attorneys and paralegals, get a grip on their inbox? Here are our One Legal email management tips for attorneys and paralegals.
Only focus on your email in specified time blocks
There’s a common approach that argues that the best way to get things done is to schedule time for everything. This means scheduling time in your day for things like checking and responding to emails, not just the appointment specific stuff.
For example, when I’m really busy, to avoid ending up working out of my inbox for hours I schedule 30 minutes blocks every three hours — the rest of the time I don’t look at my email at all. If that’s going to be a big deal because people have become used to getting a hold of you instantly, consider adding a line to your signature letting people know that you check email only a few times a day to keep up productivity.
For this approach to work, however, you need to liberate yourself from the new email alert. The Microsoft Outlook new email notification is a distracting productivity killer. Turn it off!
Read your emails systematically
There are many systems out there for dealing with inbox overload and focusing on the messages that matter.
One popular school of thought suggests quickly reading through all of your emails, deleting unnecessary items (like calendar request receipts, for example), responding to quick questions that take under two minutes, and flagging messages that will require longer as separate tasks, to be dealt with later.
The tasks function in Outlook is massively under-used and can really help to avoid horrifying moments when you’re asked about a message by a boss, but you’ve completely forgotten about it and it’s sitting languishing at the bottom of your inbox. Creating tasks from emails is simple — just click the flag column, and then set appropriate due- and reminder dates.
Set up rules for known important messages
If you choose to use approaches like the above to manage your email, then you’ll probably want a method for having very important messages brought more immediately to your attention. Having messages, say, from One Legal alerting you of the status of an order, or an update on your case from a notifications service like Fetch, channeled into a special high importance folder can be really useful.
You can also use rules for the polar opposite reason: to weed out less important messages, such as newsletters, by directing those emails to a specific folder that you can check as, and when you have time.
Setting up rules in Outlook is simple and takes just a few moments. The key is making sure to rank your folders so that the most important messages are right up top. If you direct messages from your boss, or important case updates, to a particular folder start the name with “#1” “#2” etc. and Outlook will display the folders in that order.
Be the change and send fewer emails yourself
In some offices, email can often end up being used more like an instant messaging tool — with colleagues sending short messages back and forth in quick succession. If you’re using email this way, it’s no wonder you’re feeling overwhelmed!
Be the change in your organization by sending fewer emails yourself. If you need to ask a quick question, consider picking up the phone or walking over to ask in person. Alternatively, save up questions and ask in a single batch, rather than one at a time.
Wikihow advises that if you must email your questions, try to avoid open-ended questions that risk prolonged conversations and think carefully about who you send your message to. Avoid unnecessarily copying colleagues and target your messages to only those who you really need to hear back from.