One of the most powerful notions on personal productivity came about well before the information age. The mantra, ‘touch each document once’, can be summarised as follows.

When you sit down to go through that stack of papers that’s been nagging you for attention, pick up each document in succession and either throw it away, file it for reference, or act on it immediately. By all means, do not put it back down on your desk to work on later.

This simple idea is easily extended to email. Only open your mailbox when you have time to work your way through messages and ‘touch’ each one just once. If an item is junk, bin it.

If it contains useful information, but requires no action on your part, keep it for reference. In all other cases, act on it and reply immediately.

How often and how much
Some people keep their mailer open all day and get notifications when new messages arrive. Other, slightly less obsessive people, check their mail several times an hour, either at their desks or on their smartphones.

Unless you’re waiting around for something important and can’t take action until you get it, this habit turns out to be a huge time waster, because you’re constantly jumping back and forth between two or more tasks.

When computers multitask, they always lose time but never information; when people multitask, they lose both time and information.

Besides, you can question the motivation behind this practice of constantly checking email. Listen to what Dr Joseph Ferrari, procrastination researcher and author of Still Procrastinating? The No Regrets Guide to Getting It Done has to say.

According to Dr Ferrari of DePaul University, when faced with something we really don’t want to do for whatever reason, a common avoidance mechanism is to set up a system of distractions, such as email notifications.

To keep interference to a minimum, a good habit to get into is to open your mailbox only at certain times of the day – for example at 8am, 11am and 4pm.

When you do sit down to work on mail, set aside enough time to clear out your inbox. This will free you to think about other things during the rest of the day.

In case you’re wondering about your daily volume and how it compares to other managers, let’s go straight to the top and consider the throughput of one of the world’s most effective technology CEOs.

Bill Gates has said that while he was running Microsoft, he set up filters so that he only received about 100 messages a day.

These would be from people he knew or from someone in a partner company he had already corresponded with. In addition, he would see a write-up from his assistant summarising some of the other mail.

Best practices
When you receive a message, it’s good practice to let to sender know you got it. If a full reply requires a lot of work, you might simply say you got the message and will provide a full response by tomorrow afternoon.

Consider all the ways unanswered mail might be interpreted. Does it mean the message didn’t make it to your mailbox?

That’s possible, but hardly likely. Does it mean you didn’t see it among all the other messages you get every day?

Does it mean you read it and will respond later? Does it mean you disagree with the content? Does it mean you don’t like the sender?

When you don’t reply, the other person will quite likely choose the interpretation that reinforces whatever fears he or she already has.

Some of the CEOs I work with tell me they set up a personal rule to get back to everybody within a certain amount of time.

One from a consultancy tries to respond within four hours because that reinforces its service-oriented mindset. Another told me he tries to reply to all communications by the end of the day.

Yet another told me she set up a company-wide rule to reply to all mail within 24 hours.

Be careful about forwarding messages. Maybe the sender didn’t want to share his or her thoughts with the other person.

Or maybe there’s something embarrassing or insulting to the person you forward to. It’s a good idea to carefully check over the content first.

When you write to somebody, try to make it easy on the recipient. You don’t want to create unnecessary work, and you want to make it as easy as possible for people to respond. So keep the message short.

If you have several questions to ask, consider sending more than one message. That way, if there’s a question that requires more thought, the recipient can easily get back to you on your other queries in the meantime.

Avoid composing messages with sections addressed to different people. Otherwise, you’re asking the readers to filter large parts of your correspondence that don’t concern them.

Make sure you use a subject, something that cries out for the message to be touched, but nothing misleading. Choose a few words that give the recipient an idea about the content; and if appropriate, you might include an indication that it requires action.

It’s good practice to address people at the beginning of the message. This makes it clear who you’re talking to, and it’s much better for relationship building. Start out with “Hi Pat”, “Dear Pat”, or simply “Pat.”

And finally...
Signing off is also a good idea.

It provides a clear indication that your message is complete, it allows you to express a feeling towards the other person, it gives you the opportunity to set an expectation (“thanks in advance for a quick reply”), and finally it’s a good way to set a date for your next exchange.

Pat Brans is author of Master the Moment: Fifty CEOs Teach You the Secrets of Time Management