Some of us dream about empty inboxes. It’s the holy grail available to those who are willing to commit a lot of time and energy to setting up an email process. Or, you can get there with a little help from your personal assistant. After all, we outsource laundry, document formatting and even dating these days. So why can’t we outsource our email inboxes?

The answer is that we can, but it will require more effort from you than dropping off the dry cleaning. Still, with a healthy dose of patience, hand-holding and contextual training, you can indeed have someone manage your email for you

Why Is It So Complicated?

Email is your primary method of communication with the world. Knowing the appropriate response for every possible combination of sender, situation and subject would require your assistant to be in your head all the time. Specifically, here are some of the initial challenges that you both will need to overcome:

  1. Prioritization: Email arrives in your inbox and automatically arranges itself into a randomized to-do list. Step 1 of “dealing with email” is prioritizing that list, which in turn requires good judgment, coupled with context.
  2. Context: If an assistant is going to manage all of your emails for you, she’d need to know about all of your online and offline conversations with a contact, their priority in your schedule and their status in your contact list. A streamlined CRM will make this easier, but not seamless.
  3. Security: Having an assistant handle your email means letting her into your inbox and your contact list. Because of the security breach potential here – both for you and your company – it’s important that the assistant is trusted and vetted in advance.
  4. Dependency: Even when you manage to find and train an assistant to take over your inbox completely, you’ll run into a backup problem when that person is out sick or has to move to the next state. That’s precisely why a managed service that provides backup systems can be helpful for email delegation tasks.

Start with an Email Filtering Application

For all these reasons, handing over your login credentials and asking your new assistant to sort out your inbox is never a good idea. Instead, focus on identifying and honing your email process as a first step.

Before you let anyone into your email account, set up a good mail filter application. There has been some neat innovation in this space recently. Email apps like Sanebox and Unroll.me provide an alternative to the default Outlook or Gmail spambots. These new tools use automated folders and filters to set aside any newsletters and listservs that you’ve signed up for, so that they don’t bury key emails in your inbox. Besides the two mentioned above, there are dozens more that might be more suitable to your particular email workflow. Implementing these tools will make sure that you’ve handled a significant percentage of the “prioritization” challenge that comes up when delegating email to an assistant.

Where Can an Assistant be Helpful?

To prepare for the rest of the delegation process, find discrete ways in which an assistant can help offload your email burden. Here are a few ideas of where to start:

  1. Contact Updating: When you notice a new email address or get an undeliverable email, you can forward that directly to your assistant, so that she can update your contact database for you. This both saves you time and keeps your CRM and your email inbox clean.
  2. Document Collection: If you have a number of documents that need to be collected and put into a report on a regular basis, you could ask your team to send those directly to your assistant. Your assistant can then put the report together for you and/or chase up missing documents needed for the report. This method works for newsletters, monthly sales meetings or project plans, for example.
  3. Consolidating Action Items: Do you sign expense reports every Friday? Instead of receiving and tracking them in dribs and drabs all week, have them sent directly to your assistant. She can consolidate them into a single email and task list sent to you at the end of every day or week.
  4. Scheduling: Even after someone has agreed to meet you, it takes an average of 5-6 emails back and forth to pin down a time, date and calendar invite for the appointment. Once your colleague has agreed to a meeting, cc: in your assistant and have her take over the scheduling ping-pong, so it stays out of your inbox.

The main point here is to offload specific email processes to your assistant, instead of just handing over the keys to your entire inbox. Identify the painful, recurring practices and figure out a way to delegate those procedures first. Think of these processes as foundation blocks – once your assistant has mastered these basics, she’ll gain the context she needs for taking more of your emails off of your plate.

Wondering how to go about delegating the email processes described here? Stay tuned for the next article in our email management series for more tips.