It’s bad enough having to write emails, memos, and reports. But if you really want to boost your productivity, then you have to find a better way to deal with all the reading.
You have my sympathy. I get hundreds of emails a day. Then there are exchanges with clients and editors, background reading, and more. So much reading.
I’m no Evelyn Wood speed reading graduate, but in self-defense I’ve learned techniques and strategies over the years to keep up with the flood. Here are some of them.
1. Toss things away
If you always manage to keep up with your emails and reading, skip this. But if your inbox constantly overflows, this may be the most important single point.
Ever wonder why you get paralyzed looking at a full inbox? It’s because you’re upset that you haven’t kept up. You feel like it’s necessary to go through every one of those emails. It’s not.
If you haven’t gotten to emails in the past, it’s time to flush them. Sure, it would have been better to go through them, but be honest with yourself. Are you ever going to? The dread keeps you from moving on and getting control.
I’m not suggesting that you do this on a regular basis. But if you’re backlog is taller than the Great Wall of China, admit defeat, and send everything by what has come in during the last week or two to the trash. If someone really needed to hear from you, they will have followed up or, more likely, called.
Build your reputation going forward by staying current.
2. Learn to skim
People are too often verbose. Your interest isn’t in every subtle point and observation they make. You want the highlights.
People tend to default to a structure where they make the most important point at the top of the paragraph (like they hopefully learned in grade school) and then fill with supporting detail followed by something more important at the end. If you need the detail, you can get it, but right now go through all the first and last sentences in each paragraph for a grasp of the whole communication.
As you skim, you’ll quickly get a sense whether there’s something that needs attention or simply another bit of verbiage that isn’t important. The minute you realize there is little of importance, send it on its way.
I find this critical to my own sanity. Particularly when so many people are trying to pitch stories and catch my attention. If something doesn’t grab me within the first few seconds, out it goes.
Skimming also helps when you have something longer that you need to read. Skim the material to get a sense of it as a whole and let that guide you through a more thorough reading.
3. Consider who sent it
Communication is a form of arm’s-length personal interaction. But do you really need to interact with that person?
If you have an email from a boss, supervisor, or customer, then the priority goes up and you need to pay enough attention to know whether what you have is substantive or someone trying to prove their value to the organization.
When your significant other writes, yes, you read it.
Eliminate all spam immediately. (Particularly when it starts repeating, like the string of messages all from different apparent addresses all carrying the same worthless message.
You can prioritize as well. Once you’ve eliminated the dross, read the messages from the people who are most important. That list can shift over time and with changing projects and events. Someone may be critical this week and on a back burner next.
4. File it
A great help to me has been setting up both archive files and temporary ones for current projects. Messages related to a specific project go into an associated folder.
This provides two benefits. One is that you can go back and review what people sent if you need to. The other is that it gets everything out of your imbox your inbox. Because you’ll have to go through each to know where to file it, you’ll have done the necessary degree of reading in the process. And if you need to spend more time later, you’ll know where it is.
When a project is over, I move its folder to the archive.
5. Take notes
If something is really important, take notes on it. I use a paper-based planner so I can also schedule follow-up tasks if necessary.
That might seem crazy. The whole point is to spend less time reading. But put things into perspective. You’re likely at work and have to be productive. If something is important, treat it as such as get as much done, including comprehension, the first time round.
To refer to the material again, look at your notes first. You may not need to read the original, saving you time in the long run. If you do need the original, you’ll know where to find it.