Monday, February 08, 2010

Let's get our email under control

It is a month into the year 2010. Did anyone make a resolution to be more organized with email? I did last year, and while I am not perfect, I am much improved. I thought today I would share the things that I have learned. I am going to post a few of the more helpful articles I learned from at the end of the post.

First, I want to say that most people get too much email. You should look at the emails you are getting and see what you can cut out. Any automated emails that you don’t read anymore (or never did read) should be unsubscribed from. If you are reading blogs, I will recommend subscribing to an RSS feed instead of email updates. Bulk emails that you do read, but are not urgent, could have some kind of rule that moves them to a different folder (more on that later). From here forward try not to sign up for emails that you don’t care about, and unsubscribe immediately when something is no longer useful.

Now that you have cut down on the volume of stuff that is coming into your email, I am going to outline a process to handle the emails that do hit your inbox. I am going to reference names like David Allen, Michael Hyatt, and Merlin Mann. The concepts I am going to share with you, I learned from them.

I am also going to say crazy stuff, or at least things you disagree with. All I ask is that you hear me out. I am going to explain the thinking behind these things. Just read to the end.

First crazy thing: Most people check their email far too frequently. Outlook will pop up notifications in near real time (same with google if you download some software). Ask yourself how often you need to check these emails. The answer will be different for everyone. Michael Hyatt disconnects outlook from the mail server, and only downloads new emails 3 times a day. As the CEO of his company, he can dictate that. I can’t, and you probably can’t either. But most of the time you can check it less often than you do. I have my outlook client set to download every 30 minutes. That is about as late as I can get because I sometimes get email notifications about server issues. Just think about it.

If you are like I was, you left pretty much every email in your inbox forever. I did this because I needed to keep some emails for reference. Others I kept as reminders to do things, and still others I needed to think about. I was using it as a storage area, a calendar, and a to-do list. This quickly became overwhelming. Second crazy thing: an email inbox is not a storage area, a calendar, nor a to-do list. Do you leave your electric bill in the mail box to remind you to pay it? Or file letters from your family in the mailbox? No. That is not what a mailbox is for. Well, that is not what an email inbox is for either. An email inbox is a place for emails that you have not read yet. We are going to call these “unprocessed emails.”

As you can guess, dealing with your “unprocessed emails” is called “processing your inbox”. Third crazy thing: there is only a limited number of options on how to deal with each email. There is a systematic approach you can take to figure out how to deal with an email. I will give you a decision tree you can follow, but before I do that I want to go over the different options.

Trash – There is nothing of value in this email. Example: email that the coffee machine is broken when you don't drink coffee.

Informational– The email contains information. Example: New dress code policy

Actionable – This email contains an action that needs to be done (by you or someone else). Example: You boss emails you and tells you to do something.

That’s it! Those are the “things” an email can be.

Now it is time to process you inbox. Here is how you do it. Start at the bottom and read each email. Use the this advice to help you decide what to do with each email:

1) If it is actionable by you and the action can be completed in less than two minutes, do it immediately. After doing the action, you should need the email anymore, so delete it. Go to next email.
2) If it is actionable by you but will take longer than two minutes, you need to defer it. If you know exactly when you need to do the action, put it on a calendar. If you don’t, then put it on some sort of to-do list. Depending on you unique set up, you may be able to delete the email at this point. If not, don’t leave the amil in your inbox! Create a folder called @calendar or @todo or something. Move the email there. Remember to delete the email when the action is done. Go to the next email
3) If is actionable, but not by you, you need to delegate this. This includes items you delegate to people you supervise, as well as things that you send to your manager when it is above you pay grade, as well as the things you might send a peer because it is something outside your sphere of responsibility as well as things where someone else has to do something before you can do your part. In some cases you will need to follow up. Create a folder named @followup or @waiting for or @pending (whatever) and move the email to that location. Delete the email when appropriate. Go to the next email.
4) If it is not actionable, but it contains info you need to keep, then move the email to a reference area. I move permanent records to a folder named @records, and I mix temporary records with follow-up items in @followup. Whatever works for you. Some people print the email and put it in a file folder. Just get it out of you inbox.
5) If the email is not actionable, but contains information that might later lead to an action, put it in a @someday/maybe folder. Go to the next email.
6) Trash! There is nothing of value in this email. Delete it and move on.

Sometimes emails can belong to more than one category at the same time. An email from your boss might contain reference material as well as an action. Handle it accordingly.

An email might become trash after being part of a different category. Just delete it when appropriate.

Feel free to name the folders somethings else if you prefer, and tweak the process if needed.

Don't forget to regularly process the other folders that you create!

Here is a shorter version of the decisions:

Actionable, 2 minutes - do it.
Actionable, longer than 2 minutes - defer it (@calendar/todo list)
Actionable, someone else - delegate it (@waitingfor)
Informational, got the info - delete it
Informational, temporary - appropriate folder (project or @waitingfor)
Informational, permanent - keep it (@records)
Otherwise – delete

I hope this helped.

Here are the articles I promised:

by Michael Hyatt-
Yes you can stay on top of email.
Overcoming email overload, part 1.
Overcoming email overload, part 2.
Overcoming email overload, part 3.

by Merlin Mann-
Inbox Zero Article.
Video of Merlin's Inbox Zero Talk at Google.