Managing Outlook is nothing short of a pain in the *** if you don’t pay attention to it. In coaching top CEOs and entrepreneurs I find that one thing they all have in common is an overabundance of e-mail. When e-mail was originally labeled as the “Killer App” it was because the e-mail was thought to be the ultimate productivity enhancement tool. Regrettably, I believe e-mail has become the “Killer App” for most executives because it actually kills their productivity. The truth of the matter is that e-mail in-and-of-itself is not the problem, rather it is how you utilize it that determines whether or not e-mail is an asset or a liability. In today’s post, I’ll share the same tips and techniques that I use myself to handle the constant deluge of e-mail…

By the time you have reached the C-suite level, it is very likely that you receive between 100 and 300 e-mails per day (some of us receive multiples of that number). Even at the low end of the aforementioned range, if you assume it takes 2 minutes per e-mail for a response, that means you can expect to spend a minimum of 3 plus hours each day dealing with e-mail (assuming you choose to deal with it). The worst part is that without a methodology for processing e-mail, it is likely that the time you spend on e-mail will be spent in a reactive, unfocused, and undisciplined manner which will only further dilute your efforts. If you implement the five techniques mentioned below I guarantee you’ll be able to recover some much needed time for your day while boosting your overall productivity:

  1. Learning to use Outlook to its full potential: I find that most executives only use Outlook to about 10% of its potential. By learning to not only use native Outlook features but also to use third-party add-ons, Outlook’s functionality can be massively improved. My favorite add-on is PlanPlus for Outlook by Franklin Covey. PlanPlus not only allows you to see all Outlook features (folders, multiple calendar views, tasks, and you’re in basket) in one window without having to toggle back and forth between applications, but it also adds key features such as project management, goal setting, and a great note-taking tool. It only takes about 30 minutes to master and will take your productivity to a new level.
  2. The Basics: Whether or not you choose to install PlanPlus, the first step to take with Outlook is to whitelist anyone who you wish to receive e-mail from. Go to your Outlook toolbar and click on Actions > Junk e-mail > add sender to the safe sender’s list. You can either add the sender and/or their domain to your safe sender’s list making sure that they don’t get filtered out. Next, create a folder structure for your messages. You should set up folders and sub-folders that mirror how you do business by creating separate folders for events, categories, by names of key individuals, departments, functions, clients, etc. Once you have set-up your folders create rules which will send messages directly into the folders by-passing your inbox altogether. Go to Tools > Rules and Alerts > E-mail Rules and route as many e-mails as possible to destination folders striving to keep your inbox volume minimized. You can now check these folders at times convenient to you or to staff designated to monitor said folders. You can also write specialized macros to program special events within Outlook.
  3. Spam and Junkmail: Set your junk mail folder to auto-delete junk mail on arrival. I never waste any time checking junk mail because there is no junk mail to be checked. Sure from time-to-time a piece of the important e-mail will find its way to my junk email folder and will be deleted, but if it is important enough, the sender will figure out how to get in touch with me. There is no full-proof system and I simply choose to play the odds which are substantially in my favor if I’ve done a good job of whitelisting. Additionally, you may choose to use a third-party spam filter which you can use to screen incoming mail by designated keywords. This is worth investing in as for a nominal investment you can easily get rid of the most frivolous forms of spam.
  4. Leverage Staff: I only receive an e-mail directly from a few designated individuals, or after the e-mail has bubbled-up through staff who has screened or filtered it according to instructions that I’ve provided. The reality is that most people’s needs can be met by staff in my organization which prevents me from having to respond to correspondence that shouldn’t have been addressed by me in the first place. You’ll find that only about 10% of the e-mail you receive is “important” but most executives treat e-mail as if it is all “urgent”. By limiting the amount of e-mail that you actually see to mission-critical e-mails you ensure that you’re working on the right items while being brutally efficient with your time.
  5. Rules to Follow:  1.) Educate your staff and external contacts on how you wish to be communicated. Make it a point of telling them when and why to e-mail you and not to e-mail you. Set reasonable expectations by letting them know how long it will take you to respond. Severely chastise anyone who sends you a chain e-mail regardless of the topic. 2.) Only respond to e-mail twice a day; once in the morning, and once in the evening. 3.) Only handle e-mail one time…once you open an e-mail, read it, understand it, and take action on it by replying to it immediately, deleting it, archiving it, or forwarding it to a staff member for response. Resist the temptation to defer a response to a later time unless absolutely necessary. 4.) Turn-off your auto-notification settings to avoid the Pavlovian response instilled by audio or visual prompts notifying you of a new message.

You can either choose to manage your e-mail or have it manage you. I hope the tips mentioned above will add some time back to your day, and help you be more productive.