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I recently started feeling too much was on my plate and in an effort to help me become more efficient, my boss asked me to keep track of all my tasks and record the time I require.

I am a new manager (previously a team lead) and get a lot of e-mails from across the company that require thinking, evaluating, formulating things in a way that sounds diplomatic and clear, and at the same time also timely.

My boss initially told me not to reply to every single e-mail and learn how prioritize, but then I started hearing complaints from other superiors about me not replying to e-mails fast enough or not following up after I say "I'll reply later..."

But the point is this: I do need a lot of time to write a good e-mail, to lay out and communicate properly. A critical e-mail may require almost an hour of thinking and formulating, a less critical one maybe 20-30 mins. Either way, most e-mails involve problem-solving. That's still a lot of time if in total I have only 8 hours to execute my work (mainly supervising, advising and also some hands-on work in my specific domain) - if I have to be honest, I spend about 50-60% of my time communicating.

In response to some of the answers below, I don't think I waste time on crafting, but more on researching inter-departmental processes, understanding and thinking about how to solve the problems.

But I am still a bit concerned that I am doing something wrong, and am especially worried about the complaints. I am used to always doing a good job, but maybe this is a weakness I need to address.

As a new manager with a lot of communication work on his/her plate (across the company, not just within my team), but also hands-on work that requires concentration, what can I do to improve my ability to prioritize?

Also, how can avoid replying to e-mails [or delaying] without being complained against?

EDIT: I clarified that my e-mails involve a lot of research and problem-solving. So it's not just crafting, BUT it's research/problem-solving + communicating in a way that other teams understand.

closed as too broad by gnat, Jan Doggen, Garrison Neely, Jim G., IDrinkandIKnowThings Oct 6 '14 at 18:55

Please edit the question to limit it to a specific problem with enough detail to identify an adequate answer. Avoid asking multiple distinct questions at once. See the How to Ask page for help clarifying this question. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • Do you have the option to have one of your subordinates take care of some of the emails? – Sigal Shaharabani Oct 6 '14 at 10:07
  • @SigalShaharabani It might be the best use of their time if the manager takes care of mundane email replying and lets their direct reports focus on their tasks. – Brandon Oct 6 '14 at 13:52
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    I'm not a manager, nor am I in quite your situation, but my company is extremely email-driven. What helps me stay focused and on the right priorities is to remember who I work for. There are so many managers asking me to get stuff done who may have a good need to have it done, but at the end of the day, if I don't work for them, then their priorities come after those that my actual manager has assigned. The last thing my manager would want to hear is that I am behind on delivering something because I was busy working for somebody else. – Brandon Oct 6 '14 at 13:55
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    @Brandon IMHO, it really depends on the nature of emails. IMHO, If it's to report about the team's progress, it is really okay to ask a senior team member to occasionally do that to ease the load on the manager – Sigal Shaharabani Oct 6 '14 at 14:46
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    Additionally, if you're spending more than 5 minutes writing an email, you're doing something wrong. Start calling people instead. – Prinsig Oct 6 '14 at 15:25
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Why don't you talk to your manager and pick their brains about how to reply to emails? Your manager is getting at least as many emails as you, and your manager is doing just fine. I don't know what you are doing, but 90% of my emails take 5 minutes of my time or less.

Take any one of those emails that takes you 15-20 minutes to reply, have your manager look at it and ask your manager how long it would have taken your manager to reply. Ditto for any one of your emails that takes one hour of your time. You're probably wasting way too much time hand crafting pieces of communication that are meant to be read once and thrown away.

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Also, how can avoid replying to e-mails [or delaying] without being complained against?

Your primary difficulty right now is the time you take crafting emails.

Until you resolve this part of your workflow you are always going to be delayed or not responded to.

How important is email appearance?

People don't care about the intricacies of your email in most cases.

If I ask someone a question which is time sensitive, I care more that I get an answer quickly than a nice answer later. Many times this is difficult for people to adjust to when they run out of time when being promoted to manager.

Does the use case of each change how long you should spend?

Managers often can't spend the same time on email as individual contributors.

Consider the use case of the email you are going to send. Is it a simple reply to a coworker? It doesn't need to be perfectly crafted.

Is it going to the entire management team of your company? Perhaps you should spend some time on it.

Practical Considerations

Practice writing emails but don't overspend time on it. I find myself sometimes doing this. Or, even with answers here. I want it to look perfect! But the reality is - no one is going to read it word for word. People might skim at best. Or not read it.

So it's important to realize, in some sense, quantity is better than quality. Your job as manager is to have a team do the quality and you facilitate your team (and other team's) work.

Use the phone!

If your emails are consistently taking 20-30 minutes to respond with information it means you should pick up your phone and call someone. Information transfer in emails is really a poor medium.

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The other answers excellently cover how you (probably) should and can get your email time down.

Here is the flipside: if an email truly, legitimately does require an hour of time to reply, then what are you doing in that time? Thinking, formulating, researching: in other words the email is a full-sized task that apparently someone else assigned to you to do today. Treat it as you would someone asking outside your team you to do a code or design review...

"I think X or Y may work but I won't have time to review this. Schedule a 1/1 with me next week if you need help by then."

Or delegate to someone lower. This is just as easy as a forward and a cc with the text "to John". This is good practice anyway since for whatever you ask, one of your direct reports should be a backup! Presumably they'll be less busy, and if they aren't, they can repeat to a teammate.

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I've been in many roles where "hundreds of emails a day" is not uncommon. Here's how you can get ahead of that. Communication is super important, and as a manager "I spend 50% of my time communicating" is not necessarily bad.

Prioritize

Email responses are work like any other. You have to flash prioritize them and decide if they are worth responding to at all, and if so, how much of your time they are worth. You have to be ruthless sometimes, and a good bit of the time people are asking questions they know darn well the answer to. "Proceed as you think best" is a perfectly valid email response from a manager.

Delegate

If there's a lot of analysis required to respond, then is this really some kind of task that someone on your team should be doing? Even process questions or whatnot can benefit from a team member taking first crack - editing's faster than writing. Also, remember 50% communication time isn't bad - maybe your "other 8 hours of work" needs better delegation.

Consolidate

It's unusual that all those emails coming in are unrelated. I prefer to, if I'm getting 5 queries on the same thing, to wrap it into 1 email thread. It's more transparent and helps get all those people on the same page. Also, you may not be consolidating all that analysis/thinking enough into documentation and process if it's still all happening in email. Once you've documented something, your response to a query can just be a wiki-link.

Summarize

No one will ever read an email with more than 3 3-sentence paragraphs, and that's pushing it. Be more brief, if it's really a page worth it should be documentation instead.

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First step is to get those emails organized to help you focus on the the most important ones. I get hundreds of emails daily and have found Outlook rules to be most helpful. First I get all the automated ones out of my inbox with a set of rules. Next I send all the emails that have the word fail or failure in them to a special folder. In my job, these are likely the most critical for me to look at first. Next there are some that I filter by clientname or person's name. For instance, it may be critical for you to act quickly on anything coming from the CEO or from your boss or certain department heads. Putting all of them in one place makes it easier to find them in a sea of emails.

Most emails should be relatively easy to answer in less than five minutes. I tend to answer these as I read them and then not have to worry about them any more. Anything that will take longer to do research or talk to people about, I put on my daily to do list and get to them in priority order with the rest of my work. As a manager, you should be delegating many of the emails for your direct reports to do the research and answer you. The only ones that take a lot of time to answer that you personally should be handling are ones that involve management issues that you should not be sharing with subordinates (such as inputs in to who to lay of in a coming restructuring or how buying a new company might affect your department or next year's budget).

Next think about why answering your emails is taking so long. Is it because you are trying to craft the perfect answer or is it because you need to research - and in this case is it something you should know off the top of your head or something that genuinely is a new topic.

You may need to start doing a better job of retaining information if the problem is that you don't know things you should know. Get your direct reports to give you some in depth briefings on what they are doing and take notes. Add to those notes every time you read an email or have a meeting on a particular topic. A quick look at these notes should help you when you need to answer emails from above.

If the problem is that you are spending too much time crafting perfect responses, then you need to assess how many of these actually need perfect responses? There are a few politically critical issues that do, but probably 95% of the time perfect gets in the way of good enough. Learn to save perfecting a response for only critical items. Learn to recognize that time critical things are more important to answer in time than to answer with a beautifully thought out and well crafted message.

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Write less. A paragraph takes an extra order of magnitude of time relative to a sentence. I've found writing a good email means I'm thinking for the recipients. Lead a call if you need to broadcast your thinking more regarding a particular topic.

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