Email, Schmemail: Just Give Me A Minute

In my past life, I used to receive nearly a hundred emails per day. Those wouldn’t include support tickets. Sometimes my email would drive me insane, and I would end up hanging out in the break room or at Starbucks.

Things are better now.

These days, my emails are closer to 20 per day. That may not sound like many, but they show up during 8 hours of front desk / customer service work. They aren’t always easy to respond to quickly. They often involve billing, or questions that I don’t have (or want) the authority to answer. Other tasks include answering multiple lines, working with walk-in customers, doing reports, and processing somewhere in the neighborhood of eighty majillion pieces of paper that really need to be in digital format. It’s so much easier to keep track, not to mention it reduces the risk of paper cuts. Not the good kind with the little designer edges, either.

You’d think after nearly five years of being at the same job that I would want to repeatedly bang my face off my keyboard. There are times when that is indeed the exact feeling in my mind, but overall? I still love my job. Not all the time, and not always at the same level, but I can always honestly say that my job and I are still on good terms.

That’s said with the near complete certainty that on Tuesday morning (after my weekend), my desk will be a mess and all 3 of my inboxes will be overflowing. Good news: I’m not bored. Having Sundays & Mondays off (and only seeing the boss 3-4 days a week) is a great schedule to have. I can still say I love my job because I’ve found four things that have increased my productivity, in turn increasing my free time. Hmm, what sounds more fun: researching articles for industry-related content, or processing insurance policies that need to be increased by $200,000? Yeah. Discussing the newest trend of centerpieces is a WAY better conversation than the one resulting in someone ultimately needing to increase their premium if they want to keep their boat here. (Short version: I work at a marina with an attached conference/special events center.)

Speaking of productivity, things still don’t get done because some days are busier than others, but 95% of the time I can now get to a slowing point by 430PM, allowing for time to relax and get my brain (and desk) ready for me to head home at 5. Critical things have been taken care of.

Here are the four things which have helped me cut down on the email craziness and stabilize my workday.

Does email feel like this to you? If you're not sure, just click the photo and then let me know.

1) Email templates.

If there was one thing that has helped me, this is it. Zen Habits & Lifehacker/ are my two regular reads. They get priority because their material makes for good reading and has also truly changed my life. One day an article popped up somewhere saying that if you email the same responses frequently, you’ll save tons of time by using an email template.

It’s true.

I have three templates: two for different application requests, and one for “hey we need this stuff from you”.
EXAMPLE: if someone is requesting a temporary application to bring their boat down for two days, I type their name, email, phone number and boat’s info into Notepad (or a new email) and pop open the corresponding template. There’s a folder on my desktop for Email Templates, and it only takes 1 click to show the desktop and another to open the folder. Sometimes I’ll input the info while talking, but that’s rather distracting, so as soon as we hang up I’ll copy and paste the info into the template and hit send. Close the Notepad file, no save, all done. Easy and it’s just saved me about five minutes of typing.

Here’s the general idea:
20 emails @ 5 minutes each = 100 minutes of your time. With templates, 20 emails @ 1 minute each = 20 minutes of your time. YOU JUST ACQUIRED ALMOST AN HOUR AND A HALF OF EXTRA TIME DURING YOUR SHIFT.

It’s not hard. You write your email, you save it as a “.oft” file, and save it to your Email Templates folder. Like you were making an Out Of Office autoresponder. Create a shortcut to that folder on your desktop and voila – whenever you want, just pop open that folder and then an email template. Fill in whatever info you need and send. Quick and easy. 🙂

(For ideas on how to use email templates, check at MichaelHyatt.)

2) Doing one thing at a time.

From Zen Habits: One thing at a time. This is the simplest and best way to start reducing your stress, and you can start today. Right now. Focus as much as possible on doing one thing at a time. Clear your desk of distractions. Pick something to work on. Need to write a report? Do only that. Remove distractions such as phones and email notifications while you’re working on that report. If you’re going to do email, do ONLY that. This takes practice, and you’ll get urges to do other things. Just keep practicing and you’ll get better at it.

As sensible as that sounds, it is the hardest thing in the world to do, but if you can do it… it works. You’ll really start to notice that you’re done with things more quickly and you yet again have free time.
Take the phone call, welcome the customer, check the email, do the report – but not all at once. Whatever you are doing, do it. Complete it and move on to the next thing. Don’t try and log two receipts and notate three new keys and a parking tag and pull another file all at once. Log the receipts. Notate the parking info. Pull the other file. 99% of the time, people can wait (unless you’re in the fire/medical professions). Do one thing, and then the next.

3) Outlook task reminders.

I keep Outlook open because of reminders for when various people are arriving or vacating (or collecting the money they owe for that), but they pop up without having Outlook maximized. I can snooze them if needed, but I try not to unless it’s necessary, like if you have to call someone back in two hours and you know you won’t remember. They help me remember things, and I try never to have more than five per day.

The greatest thing I’ve found is that you can drag an email from an inbox or folder and set it as a task all by itself. Saves time with typing and making notes because the whole email thread essentially pokes you in a few days and says “Hey! You know the stuff you were emailing about? Go do something about it.”
EXAMPLE: Jane Doe emails me to request something for the week of 9/3/11. I respond to that (with a template email) by sending her a link to our application and some general info. I then pull that sent email into the Tasks tab and set a reminder to follow up via phone with her in 2 days at 10AM to make sure she got the application and is sending it back. All done? Delete the task.

4) Checklists.

My boss is one of those people who needs the answer before he asks the question. Do you remember Radar from MASH? That’s who he wants me to be. Some days I wish I was.

But this IS my "Good Morning" face.

It’s customary for him to bombard me with questions he needs answered right that very second… as I’m walking in the door. Before I’ve had coffee, before I’ve put my purse down, before I’ve even clocked in. He asks me many many series of probing questions all day, to get the answer he wants, and things have to be done a certain way. I hate it but I’m used to it, the way you get used to having lower back pain. You learn to cope, because that’s what you do when your boss is a retired Naval Officer who wants the Very Small Office to run like a Very Small Naval Command.

Anyway.

My strategy now is to have a small notepad where I write down what he’s saying. He sees me doing this, and I respond to him at my own pace. After things are written, I say: “Okay – let me research all of this and get back to you.” I’m not ignoring him but it’s impossible to answer questions as to what happened on my day off when I’ve JUST WALKED IN. Nor can I do the three things he’s just asked me to do while doing three other things that just occurred.

The plan here (which has been working) is to use the notepad throughout my day and cross off each item as it gets done, because at my job multiple things happen simultaneously all the time. For example, the phone rings, someone walks in, someone else hands me a stack of faxes, and my boss asks me a question that needs a three-part answer (with some research). I take care of the first thing closest or first to occur, and then write down the others. A typical scenario:

Take call while swapping keys for ID (vendors get daily keys to borrow from 8a-4p). Person on hold wants to rent a boat slip for three days. Boss asks where Joe Smith’s file is, if they have cleared out their locker, and if the buyer signed a lease. Joe Smith sold his boat yesterday. A second call comes in, they go on hold as I swap more keys for more IDs, because the original keys aren’t programmed properly. Boss asks if I’ve responded to the email he sent me this morning even though he saw me walk into the office about four minutes ago, after being off for my weekend. Checklist looks like this:

-call jane doe, 555-555-5555, 31′ LOA @ 30/day 8/27-9/5
-joe smith out 8/25, new buyer john smith. process joe for moveout, set john up as a temporary file. call joe at 555-555-1212. add to tasks.
-email jane smith guest application, add followup to tasks.
-call maintenance to see if storage locker B is empty

This stuff all gets written down as I go, and crossed off when it’s complete. It works for me, maybe it will work for you.

Two other things I’m going to try (that may help you as well), are:
Only Checking Email Between Tasks
and
Saying No

Chris Inch says:
Along the same lines as not checking your email before completing one task, you should not let email interrupt your work. I’ve gotten into some pretty heated debates about this in the past, but I think the easiest solution for this is to set your email client to check for new emails no more than once every hour. I know that this will sound absolutely insane to someone who has a blackberry strapped to their hip, but you have to trust me.
Most people I know will argue, “My work counts on me to respond to emails in a timely manner.” If it’s your boss telling you this, just let him know why you’ve set your email client to only check once an hour. You’re trying to be more productive at your job. If it’s a coworker, just let them know that if they need to get a hold of you for a quick question, that talking in person, on the phone or by instant message is the quickest way to get in touch with you.
Now I should be clear that I’m not saying to only check your emails once an hour. I’m saying that your email client should not bother you more frequently than once an hour when you are concentrating on something more important. There is a difference here. If you complete a given task in 30 minutes, then feel free to hit “Send/Receive” on your email client and catch up on everything that’s been happening around you. The important thing is that you did it between tasks, when your brain can switch tasks into email mode. This also helps because usually in this time, you’ll receive several emails in the same thread, so you’re only disturbed once, rather than each time a new email arrives.
If you’re still afraid, then try it for one day. It’s going to be scary, I know. If you get really scared, then hit the “Send/Receive” button more frequently at first. Eventually you’ll fall into a project or task and realize you weren’t disturbed for an entire hour (imagine that). You’ll never go back.

LifeHacker says:
No one’s suggesting that the next time your boss walks up and asks you to take on a new project that you outright say “I’m too busy.” Instead, it’s more helpful to point out to your manager exactly how heavy your current workload is. Let them know that if you take on new work, something you’re managing now could possibly fail. Ask for their help deciding which task is more important so you can fit it in to your workload, if at all.

—- IN SHORT —-
Use email templates.
Do one thing at a time.
Use Outlook task reminders.
Use as-you-go checklists.
Change the timing on (or disable) your auto send/receive.
Learn when (and how) to say no or ask for help.
Breathe.
——————

So that’s my story. It’s helped me and now I feel like my work life in general is really not so overwhelming. If it helps you, good. If it doesn’t, well… pass it along to someone else.

Best of luck!

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