Email – once a revolutionary communications technology, now an everyday tool that often exacerbates, rather than solves the issues it was meant to help with. Far from enabling effective leadership, email can instead shackle you to your desk at work (leaving you less visible and ironically more remote) while also intruding on your private and home life, thanks to mobile devices.
How many of us leave our email clients permanently switched on? We might be in the middle of something important, but for many of us, that tell-tale ‘ping’ will divert our attention away from the task at hand and straight to our inboxes. Email can become all-consuming – but only if we let it.
The first step in redressing the balance and regaining control over your email habits is to get the culture right at school. As a leader, that starts with you setting the right example. Not emailing late into the night is a good place to start. Draft those emails if you feel so inclined – but delay pressing ‘send’ until 8am the following morning.
The way you prioritise your inbox will help hugely with tackling an email backlog. At my school we include one of five simple codes in the subject lines of our internal emails: ‘FYI’, ‘ACT’, ‘REQ’, ‘URG’ or ‘REP’. If, for example, I’m emailing a copy of the school newsletter, my subject line would read ‘FYI school newsletter’. This way, when it appears in a colleague’s inbox they can tell instantly that it’s a non-urgent email that doesn’t require a reply.
If I’m sending an email that requires someone to do something upon receiving it, I’ll use the ‘ACT’ code for ‘action’: ‘ACT Mrs Jones telephoned, please call her back 861373’. That example also illustrates how some messages can be written straight into the subject line. ‘REQ’ meanwhile prefaces requests, ‘URG’ is for priority messages and ‘REP’ indicates a reply will be needed. An inbox full of coded subjects makes prioritising them a doddle.
Other steps include emailing only those you’re actually ‘speaking’ to. Emails will often be sent to a whole list of people who have been ‘copied in for information only’, which can be confusing. Am I supposed to reply? Is someone else going to? Cut the confusion by cutting your recipients list.
Finally, don’t become a slave to email. Choose specific points in the day to check and deal with your email rather than leaving your client open the whole time. This will help you to stay focused on other tasks and sort your emails only when you’re ready.
Maxim Kelly is the executive headteacher of two schools in the Isle of Man (Dhoon School and Laxey School) which form the Laxey / Dhoon Federation; follow him at @maximjkelly or visit maximheadteacher.wordpress.com