Thursday, May 20, 2010

Practicing good inbox maintenance

People are always on the lookout for tips on “how to be successful”. In my experience, there is one small and often overlooked factor that determines if someone is or will be successful in the days of electronic communication: inbox maintenance. I loosely define “inbox” as any of the forms that people can task others with: in-person or by phone, fax (does anybody really use this anymore?), or e-mail. I believe that the people who are the most attentive and prompt in providing responses to these requests are often the most successful. These are the people who don’t shrug their shoulders and say “I don’t want to respond to that” or “I’ll do it later” because it happens to be tedious or difficult or, sometimes, too simple a question. They are the workers who man up and power through it anyway.

As an example, the best professor I ever had and the one who was most esteemed in academic circles had the best work habits I’ve ever known. If you emailed this professor during normal working hours he would provide a written response within a half hour. Without fail. I have implemented his example in my career.

It’s not without limits. Nobody can be at their desk auto-refreshing their email inboxes every second of the day. We have bosses. We have meetings to attend. We have competing needs for our attention. Everyone understands that sometimes these things take time. But my point is not about one time. It is about the people who make good inbox maintenance a habit; day-in and day-out they are solid performers who you can count on to answer your question or follow-up.

And everyone understands that things get lost in the shuffle, too. But the people I’m talking about are those who are effective prioritizers and they only lose the least important correspondences.

Look around. See if you can observe what I’m saying. Are the people in your office who put forth the effort to respond to their clients and coworkers promptly, those people that practice good inbox maintenance, the same as the colleagues that you hold in the highest regard?