Controlling the Inbox Monster

Seven tips for managing the e-mail nightmare. How do most CPAs manage their digital distractions? Join the survey; get the answers.

Octoberr 4, 2007
by Rick Telberg/On Finance

E-mail may be the greatest communications tool since the telephone. But it’s probably the single biggest productivity killer. Who’d have thunk it?

Tim Ferriss, that’s who. Ferriss began thinking about it back in 2004 when, as CEO of a Silicon Valley company, he was receiving 1,500 e-mail messages per week and realized the obvious: Few of those messages added any real value. He tested his theory by transplanting himself overseas and limiting his e-mail access to once per week. After four weeks, his company’s profits increased 30 percent. Far-fetched? Maybe. But Ferriss is getting a lot of attention with his new book, The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich, and an article on it in this space has generated some of the biggest response we’ve ever seen.

How do CPAs control distractions?

Join the study. Get the answers.

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Ferriss came across a study that found that a single interruption, such as opening an e-mail, causes people to take up to 45 minutes to regain momentum on what they were working on before the interruption.

But CPAs want more than theory. You’ve been asking for practicable advice. So, here, due to popular demand, are some of Ferriss’ specifics:

  1. Restrict your inbox checks to twice a day. Noon or just prior to lunch and 4 p.m. are the optimum times for such checks.

  2. Never check e-mail first thing in the morning. Instead use that time to complete your most important tasks.
  3. Prioritize. Complete your most important tasks before lunch to avoid using hunger or reading e-mail to justify procrastination.
  4. Advise others of your e-mail policy. On your voicemail, leave a message something like this: “Due to high workload and opening deadlines, I am currently responding to e-mail twice daily at 12 p.m. EST and 4 p.m. EST [be sure to note the time zone]. If you require help with something that cannot wait until those times, please call me on my cell phone at (555) 555-5555.” Ferriss himself limits e-mail checks to once per day.
  5. Remove yourself from the “need to respond” hook. Add a line or P.S. to your e-mail system’s auto-responder that reads “Thank you so much for your letter. I make every attempt to respond personally to all who contact me, but due to the high volume of e-mail I receive, this is not always possible. Thank you for understanding and have a wonderful day.” Or, “If your e-mail does not contain a question that requires a response, please don’t be offended if I do not reply with an e-mail. This is to keep back-and-forth to a minimum for both of us. Please feel free to call my cell if you need a confirmation or anything else.”
  6. Delegate. To avoid constant e-mail requests for permission on small matters, establish a policy that allows your staffers to use their own judgment to solve issues up to a certain dollar amount.
  7. Use “if, then” messages. Sending an “If, then” message can delegate responsibility and avoid unnecessary e-mail overlaps. For example, if you suspect a manufacturing order has not arrived at the shipping facility, send the following message to the shipping manager. “Dear Harry, Has the new manufacturing shipment arrived? If so, please advise me. If not, then please contact John Doe at 555-5555 or via e-mail at john@doe.com (he is also CC’d) and advise on delivery date and tracking. John, if there are any issues with the shipment, please coordinate with Harry, reachable at 555-4444, who has the authority to make decisions up to $500 on my behalf. In case of emergency, call me on my cell phone, but I trust you two. Thanks.”

“Just as ‘modern man’ consumes both too many calories and calories of no nutritional value,” Ferriss says, “the modern knowledge worker eats data both in excess and from the wrong sources.” CPAs, and anyone else, can learn to recognize and fight the information impulse.

YOUR TURN: How do you control e-mail and other digital distractions? Join the survey; get the results.

COMMENTS: Rants, raves, idle thoughts or questions? Contact Rick Telberg.

Copyright © 2007 Bay Street Group LLC: All Rights Reserved: Used by Permission.

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About Rick Telberg

Rick Telberg is editor at large/director of online content.

Disclaimer: Any views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the AICPA or CPA2Biz. Official AICPA positions are determined through certain specific committee procedures, due process and deliberation.

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