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Product Management Productivity Tip: Mastering Email

This is the first in a series of posts on how to become a more productive product manager.

The first productivity-killing topic we will talk about is email. Even though I can’t see or hear you I imagine there’s a big groan when we talk about email. I get 120-140 emails a day. If you don’t have a system for email it will overwhelm you and break your spirit. I handle email with a number of tactics. First, I make an absolute commitment to myself to not continuously process (i.e. read, respond and react) email throughout the day. Notice I said process and not “check.”

I process email three times a day. I come in a few minutes early just to do this, uninterrupted, in the morning. Then I process it right after lunch and then again at the end of the day. I use a Blackberry with email access to check for urgent messages and changed or cancelled meetings and prune my messages along the way. If there’s something that’s absolutely critical, I’ll address it but I am careful to not fall into the trap of falling into constant email fire drills. Each processing session takes approximately 15 minutes, and I try to limit my email work to less than an hour a day.

Here’s the way I go about processing my email. First, I make a commitment that I’m going to get through it as quickly as I can. Then I start scouring the messages very rapidly, making split second decisions.

  • If an email is spam or not even close to being relevant or important instantly I delete it.
  • If it’s an email where I can respond quickly I will send a very short response that usually takes less than five seconds. My responses tend to be just a few words like “Great we’ll talk about it at the meeting,” or “Approved.” The idea is to not waste time on these emails.
  • If it is an email that is very long that I need to read completely but is not urgent I put it in a folder called “Read Later” (I also have rules set up that automatically put newsletters, industry publications, etc. in this folder). Note: For these emails I put in one to two dedicated hours on my calendar once a week for reading.
  • If it’s an email that’s going to require a long response and a lot of thinking, I turn it into an Outlook Task so that it shows up on my To Do list and I can prioritize it with everything else that I need to do. Note: In Outlook if you right-click and drag an email to the bottom left hand corner where it says “Tasks” you can turn it into a task with the actual email attached and put it on your priority list.

If you use this method you can get through your incoming email very quickly and get onto creating an actual priority list and working from there (more on prioritizing your To Do list later in the book).

The second tactic for email is to separate your work and your personal email. Do your personal email on your own time and use a different email address. Make your commitment that when you do your work email you are going to do it as quickly and efficiently as you possibly can. Take your personal email offline for after hours and weekends.

A third email tactic is turn off Outlook notifications (those little messages that appear reminding you that you have yet another email that has arrived). It’s tempting to keep this turned on. You’ll be sitting there working, a screen will pop up, it says you have new mail and you will almost instantly want to stop what you’re doing and jump to it.

Nothing will slow you down more than having a constant interruption like this. Paying attention to the message is one of the worst things you can do because you really need to focus on the task at hand, so I turn notifications completely off.

The fourth email tactic is to master and use keyboard shortcuts. If you learn keyboard shortcuts really well while you’re processing your email, you can fly through it. I can get through dozens of emails in 5–10 minutes. Some of my favorites in Outlook are :

  • Alt S – this saves and sends your email in one step
  • F9 – this sends and receives email from all accounts
  • Control 1 – takes you to the email view
  • Control 2 – takes you to the calendar view
  • Control 3 – takes you the contacts view
  • Control D – deletes the message
  • Control F – forwards the message

Whether you use Outlook or another mail client invest the time to learn the keyboard shortcuts — you’ll be amazed at how efficient you can be. Combine that with the email processing method I described and you’ll find you can fly through email.

The other email tactic that I use is that I try to avoid jumping into long and controversial threads that go on and on for hours or days with lots of opinions. Usually what happens is people chime in; they go back and forth, back and forth, and it’s very tempting to want to jump in, state your opinion, etc. But next time this happens I want you to intentionally not spend your time or energy putting your two cents in. What you will find is that if you let the threads wear themselves out, about 50% of them (or more) actually resolve themselves on their own without any need for your involvement.

For the other 50% it is to your benefit to see what everybody else is going to say first, then you can jump in and provide an intelligent response later. I can’t even begin to tell you how many hours this tactic has saved me — try it for yourself.

If you can get good at these tactics and processing your email you can actually leave the office many nights and on Fridays with your inbox completely empty and everything turned into a task or to be read later. You will be amazed at just how much of a relief it is to get to this point. There’s something psychological about having a massive amount of email that’s sitting there waiting for you first thing in the morning. If you can clear things out and clear your head you’ll find it’s a big benefit.

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