I get a lot of email. As I am sure you also do. It reliably streams into your inbox, day and night, without regard for your workload; your priorities; or your mental capacity. I guard my productive time ruthlessly and so I have a system to make sure I don’t let email rule my life.
I tend to do an hour or two of focussed email in the evening so I am not distracted during the day but I always sort my inbox in the morning, after my writing is done. It takes about 30 minutes and means I haven’t missed anything urgent. To be fair, I do glance at my phone when I first get up - it breaks all the focus rules but I just want to be sure there isn’t a text or email that desperately requires my attention. If you do this, you need to be strict with yourself or you will get sucked into the email vortex.
I try not to use email for work (preferring box, slack, shared trello boards and frankly text) but there is still usually a considerable amount of email that can be considered ‘work’. I set up time that day or later in the week to respond to those items. I swiftly delete the email tempting me with beautiful products, limited time discounts, giveaways and exclusive gifts with purchase. Ok, so maybe I click through on the odd enticing offer. I actively unsubscribe to email that is joyless but I do find email works as a marketing tool with brands/companies I like. When done well!
I love my newsfeeds and email subscriptions so those I open into browser tabs and delete them from my inbox. If I haven’t read them by the end of the day I save them to a cloud app so I can read them on my phone or ipad later. I like instapaper and pocket for this, it’s great for reading on the plane or on the go.
The hardest category for me are the requests for help, calls and support - these are the emails I am not expecting and they often sit in my inbox for days. Sometimes weeks.
They are from people I know, people I don’t know and people who I know connecting me to people I don’t know. I am so well aware I am not responding. I know I can’t get to everything; no matter how much work I put in to responding there are always more requests. I have to prioritize my personal goals, my work commitments and my family time. But I feel bad leaving people hanging.
Even worse for me is Linked In. It’s rapidly become my second inbox. It fills up with random questions and inquiries from strangers and friends like the children's book The Magic Porridge Pot.
Sometimes I don’t reply for a long time. Sometimes I don’t reply, at all. I just finished cleaning up my Linked In inbox and was embarrassed to see requests dating back to early 2018. Yikes.
So how do you get someone to reply to your request for help? If you are not their priority, which you most likely are not?
Well the first and most important point is don’t take this personally. It’s easy to feel dejected or make up a story that you offended them or are not clever/special/worthy/interesting enough. It’s not that at all. 99.9% of the time it’s nothing to do with you or your business. It’s not you, it’s them. It’s not personal, it’s prioritization.
Most people, including you, have a million things happening in their life. The people you really want to connect with should have a million things going on in their lives. Travel, life, family, personal projects; we never really know what is going on for people on the other side of an email.
That said, I thought I would share a little advice and a few tricks that might increase your chances of getting bumped up the priority list:
One email a week is plenty. Don’t keep bombarding your subject with email. If you have additional requests, send a follow up email a week later with something like “checking back in” for a subject line and reiterate your request, adding updates and anything new.
Don’t ask for a call or my least favorite ‘a coffee’. What you think is a quick chat is likely one of a number of call/meeting requests that person has received. Those calls mount up quickly.
Get really specific about your request, make it something really simple for them to respond to, make it a 5-10 minute task, focus on what would be most valuable to you.
Be cute about it. While this will not work on everyone, sending a book or a card or even a playlist can be a great way of getting noticed. Yes, I have been sent all of those - I even got sent a broken bottle of wine once (it wasn’t broken when she sent it of course and now is a standing joke between us).
My favorite advice is contained in Adam Grant’s book Give and Take. Assess whether you are being a giver or a taker. Are you thinking about how you can help that person or only how they can help you. I recently had someone email and say “what do you need help with, I would love to work with you”. It’s not just about the exchange but about showing you are thinking about the other person’s time.
I like to think about email, and Linked In for that matter, as a classic business development funnel. You should expect a lot of your outbound requests to get no response, don’t dwell on them. Think more about the people already in your corner, how can you support them more and develop that relationship to support you? Time and focus are our most valuable assets. Protect them for yourself and orient yourself to protecting them for others.