I used to be terrible at answering email.  These days I maintain inbox zero.[1]

For a long time, I didn’t like answering emails unless I had a solution.  I loved writing the email that showed how smart and efficient I was.  The problem was fixed already!

It never failed to impress.

Except, of course, not everything can be fixed immediately.

Instead, emails would sit in my inbox for a day or two, gnawing at my conscience while I got the problem taken care of.  Because it doubled as a todo list, both my todo list and my inbox were disaster zones.  And since new email kept coming in, things would eventually get lost in the shuffle.

Then, a couple of years ago, I had the pleasure of working with a really good communicator.  He explained that the biggest thing to do right is business communications is expectation management.  It’s more important to tell people you heard them than it is to respond with an immediate solution.

The good business guys know how to set expectations.  “I’ll get back to you with an update by Monday”, or even just a good old “Thanks for the heads up, we’ll put it on the list!”

Disentangling my todo list from my email was helpful.  Getting over my ego and responding with the expectation instead of the fix was a revelation.

Now my rule is that I just have to set the expectation and put the item on my todo list immediately.  Each new email is a ticket in the bug tracker rather than a crisis that has to be handled now.

It’s been good for my customers, my reputation, and my sanity.

[1] Or at least unread zero.  I’ve never seen the point of moving everything to a different folder if ‘read’ == ‘taken care of’.