Do you remember life before email? Do you remember the practice of law before BlackBerrys? No doubt about it — email, BlackBerrys, smartphones and texting all make our lives and practices a lot easier in many ways. Most attorneys live and breathe the dogma that email must immediately be processed and a response given. However, we cannot ignore the fact that our profession requires us to be both responsive and competent. Satisfying both of these obligations requires that we make technology our servant, not our master.
Implementing just one of these practices will help you be more efficient, more focused and more able to prioritize. We’re talking baby steps. Rest assured that you will fall down. We do, too. But we also recognize that when you have a system in place for dealing with the information flying at you from multiple sources, you free yourself to focus on higher-level tasks. Many studies have shown what should be obvious: Sifting through hundreds of emails is not the best use of your precious time.
Since we promised you baby steps, these tips go in order from easiest to hardest to implement.
Unsubscribe and Delete Unnecessary Email
Keep junk email from ever getting to your inbox. Unsubscribe ruthlessly. Set your social media account settings so that you do not receive notifications more than once a week or once a day. Delete email after you process it by responding to it and/or adding any action items to your to-do list. As a corollary, using your inbox as a task list is not a best practice unless you use flags and other alerts. Ben Schorr, author of The Lawyer’s Guide to Microsoft Outlook, rejects the notion that retaining an email message itself will serve as a reminder for the task located within the email. It is too easy to lose track of the task with the influx of new messages. Robert C. Pozen, author of Extreme Productivity: Boost Your Results, Reduce Your Hours, observes that up to 80 percent of email you receive requires no response or follow-up action. If the email you are looking at falls into that 80 percent, delete it. Even if you did need the email again, would you remember it? And if you remembered the email, would you find it? Pozen also subscribes to the OHIO method known to many of us from the days of the circular file: "Only handle it once." We concur with this rule, but acknowledge that when you are checking email on the run, it is not always possible to follow.
Create Rules in Microsoft Outlook
These tips are adapted from Schorr’s book and from David Allen’s book, Getting Things Done. Create email subfolders that you will tend to at certain regular times (e.g., first thing in the morning while you sip your coffee). For example, if you receive certain email newsletters about your area of specialty, create a folder called "Reading," and have those emails sent there automatically. To keep track of requests outstanding to others, create a folder called "Waiting," bcc yourself when you email requests to others, and create a rule that any email you bcc yourself on goes into that folder. Rules can be created based on who sent the email, the title of the email, who received it and various other categories. Create a rule in Outlook by clicking the "Rules" button on the Home tab. Then select "Create Rule." You can then choose the criteria that you want to look for: "Sender" and "Subject" are common choices, but how you create your rules will depend very much on how you use email. Rules are very powerful tools that minimize the influx of non-urgent email, take very little time to implement and are easy to reverse (go to "Manage Rules and Alerts" and simply delete the rule). You may even find that having all those emails in your reading folder inspires you to unsubscribe from email lists you no longer find valuable.
View Threaded Conversations
In Outlook, you can select "Arrange by a Conversation" from the "View" tab to see emails in chronological order that relate to the same subject. Alternatively, you can set your inbox to be sorted by subject. We all have experienced the blood-pressure spike when you come back from lunch to see 45 emails in your inbox and then realize it’s just one email with a large group of replies. (As an aside, maybe you should circulate this article to the list.) Either of these approaches will enable you to get up to speed quickly without clicking through every single email. Also, as Pozen opines, by looking only at the last few emails, you may learn that whatever issues were brought up earlier in the conversation have been resolved. Schorr also suggests using the "Group By" dialog, which lets you customize how you’d like your items grouped. For example, you can arrange your view by date but also have the items grouped within the date by sender. Do this: Go to the "View" tab, click "View Settings," click "Group By," and then uncheck "Automatically group according to arrangement." Select the field you want to group by. While you can also create subgroupings (e.g., subject, attachments), Schorr warns that too many levels of grouping tends to look cluttered and can be hard to navigate. Be advised that if your company or firm uses searching tools other than Outlook to search email and documents, you will have to disable this feature before you search.
Flag for Follow-up and Prioritize
If you do use Outlook as a tool in keeping your task list up to date, which many people do, use flags to track deadlines and prioritize. In Outlook, you can assign an email a date by which you want to follow up on an item, and any items flagged for follow-up will appear on the To-Do Bar where you can incorporate them into your daily project management process. You can select "Today," "Tomorrow," "This Week" (item will be due at the end of your current work week) or "Next Week" (item will be due at the end of the next work week). There is also a "No Date" option — which Schorr equates to "Don’t Do." The flagging system is particularly valuable in utilizing Pozen’s OHIO system, whereby you expediently tackle the low-priority items. Placing a "Today" flag on something that you can follow up on immediately or before the end of the day helps you deal with low-priority items in a way that allows you to spend as little time on them as possible.
Think Before You Send
While most of the suggestions thus far have centered on what to do with incoming email, you can also become more effective by modifying email you send. Help readers focus on your message by making subject lines specific and using prefixes and suffixes to communicate your purpose. Compose succinct text using bullets, headers and short paragraphs. When writing a long email, start with a one-paragraph executive summary. And remember to put deadline requests — or whatever needs action — at the top of the email. Additionally, think before you hit "reply all" and resist the urge to send a one-word reply saying, "Thanks!" or "You’re welcome!"
We’re as addicted to our smartphones as the next person, but it bears repeating that stepping away from email in order to focus on other areas of your professional and personal life is crucial. We have heard rumors that some professionals designate specific times to check email. Outlook can be set to bring in email every two or three hours instead of as it arrives. To do this, select "Send/Receive | Send/Receive Groups | Define Send/Receive Groups" from the menu in Outlook. Make sure "Schedule an automatic send/receive every ___ minutes" is checked under the setting for "All Accounts." We’re including this tip last because, while it sounds great, even we are not there yet.
So, there you have it: six tips in six minutes. If only the other tenths of an hour in your day were utilized so efficiently, just think how productive you would be. •
Elizabeth Fenton is a commercial litigation partner with Chamberlain Hrdlicka. She focuses her practice on business torts litigation, joint venture dissolutions, and lease and other contract disputes. She lectures and publishes frequently on the boundaries of limited liability and the doctrine of piercing the corporate veil.
Jenai St. Hill is an associate at Reed Smith and a member of the firm’s commercial litigation group.