Succeeding in chaos: Manage your email

To succeed in today's chaotic environment, busy leaders need to take new approaches. In this blog, executive business coach John M. McKee provides one of his favorite tips.

Today's business world is chaotic. And, unfortunately, it's becoming more so every day. Doing your job in 2011 isn't the same as it was only a few years ago. New times call for new approaches.


  • World events seem to have more relevance on all leaders than they did in the past. Until recently, most of the global social or political events (for example, interest rate levels, Egypt, social networking) didn't even pop up in "work" conversations.
  • There's a ton of information nowadays. And all of it seems to be "required reading." Most people believe that if you want to stay at the top of your game you have to be current, up to speed, and always learning. It wasn't much like that in the past (meaning back, in the 2000s). When you were out of the office, you relaxed with family and friends.
  • Everywhere, in every sector, meetings are up. Technology has made this not just possible but also expected. If there's an important meeting, you're often expected to participate, regardless of time or location.

I'm frequently asked for ideas about how to succeed in chaos. But, interestingly, clients often tell me that ideas that work in other organizations or sectors can't be applied to their particular situation. When they make those statements, it's almost like they want me to vindicate their belief that they, specifically, are facing issues beyond any human's control.

But, that's BS. There are a few good rules of thumb. I recommend them -- because they're effective.

My #1 favorite tip? Manage your email. If you don't manage your email, it manages you.

I don't mean things like getting tighter compression on the system or adding more robust import/export tools onto it. I'm talking about how you, as an individual, deal with all the mail that flows into your mailbox.

A while ago an executive told me that he couldn't keep on top of his email. (He understands how to add capacity to his mailbox, which he's done repeatedly.) What he doesn't know is how to find time to read and answer all the messages sent to him. He told me:

I can't get on top of this. I get email from clients and contractors at all times of the day because we have connections worldwide. My direct reports keep me updated and often have questions. Additionally, I subscribe to newsletters and services created for executives in this industry. I find the information is very valuable. I need to be aware of trends and activity in our marketplace. Sometimes it feels like my mailbox is eating me alive.

Being this far behind is detrimental in many ways, including:

  • Your mind has more trouble focusing.
  • Your attention span is reduced.
  • You become more emotional, which can cause outbursts or depression.
  • Your sleep patterns are impacted. Poor-quality sleep, in turn, makes you less productive.
  • The bad stuff builds, and the good stuff is less frequent.

If you're really behind in your email, you are not being as productive or effective as you could be. What should you do?

Identify for yourself how much is too much. Figure out your own comfort and capacity levels. Restrict your mailbox to that number -- one that you can manage AND have time to do your job. And stop your mailbox from growing beyond that. One of the most efficient and effective approaches I've heard on this idea came from the CEO of a retail chain (always a busy places) who said:

Everybody thinks what they have to say is very important. Maybe it is -- to them; but not necessarily for me, to be effective. I have two action steps to deal with it. First, I tell everyone to only send me emails that need my input or are of a critical nature. Do NOT send me anything that is a "cc" or a "bcc."  Second, when I'm behind I'll delete everything that is older than seven working days. If it's important, I'll get another email or a phone call. If not, I don't lose sleep about it.

And finally, if you don't have one, consider a second mailbox for that select few who you know won't abuse it.

Take control. You'll feel better and make greater progress. Here's to your success.