The Email Problem
It happens to us all. We arrive in the office and make a plan for the day. But first we check our email and the next thing we know its lunchtime. Sound familiar? Our intentions are good, “I’ll just clear some emails so I can really focus on my plan for the day”. But of course those messages keep arriving because most emails we send prompt a response.
Our email work may have cleared key items off our task list but it may not. That is the first problem – working on email this way is reactive rather than planned. We can become slaves to our email accounts and often end up working on other people’s priorities instead of our own.
The second problem is that unless we actively manage our emails they accumulate so that we end up with thousands in our Inbox. Important information can get lost and the constant arrival of new messages can result in missed deadlines or actions contained in previous messages.
New Approach to Email
So how can we develop some good email habits, take control and reduce some of that email management stress? The first step is to change the way we view our Inbox.
Reading email without making decisions is not a productive use of time. Email management requires a workflow and a process. The Inbox should be viewed as a conveyer belt. As new emails arrive aim to read them quickly so that a decision can be made on what action needs to be taken.
3 Steps to Take Control of Your Inbox
Then follow these three steps:
- Organise your Inbox
- Use a Process to Manage your Email
- Control When You Work on Email
Organise Your Inbox
It is important to get organised before you adopt a new approach. Set up folders so you have a place to move your messages as you make decisions. You can create Reference Folders for messages you wish to keep and Working folders for messages that require further action or follow up.
The Working Folders can include folders like Scheduled, Delegated or Awaiting Information. The Reference folders should reflect the way you work (i.e. key projects or customers). But don’t over complicate this, many people just work with one Reference or Archive folder and avail of the powerful Search and Sort functionality in Microsoft Outlook to find their messages.
Use a Process to Manage your Email
Actively manage your emails as you read each one and decide what action is required. Then move each message to the correct folder. The process is Read, Decide and Move.
Read and Decide
Read the email quickly to decide whether it requires further action or not.
Then move the email as follows:
- No Further Action required – Delete it or File it
2) Further Action required – Do It, Task It or Pass It On
- Do It – If a response will takes 2 minutes or less
- Convert to a Task – If more than 2 minutes is estimated, schedule a task in your calendar or task list to complete at a later time
- Pass it On – Forward messages to others if the request is something you are unable to do or it is something you can delegate. Include your reasons for passing the message on.
Guidelines for Processing Email
- Aim to process each email once only
- Work through your messages systematically in the order they arrive
- Don’t cherry pick the interesting ones as other important messages may get overlooked
Control When You Work on Email
To do this you need to switch off your email notifications. This can enhance productivity because every switch away from what you are working on to check an email interrupts focus. And it can take up to four minutes to regain that focus. So if you eliminate even 15 email interruptions a day, you can gain an hour of focussed time. If you do this for a week, you can gain five extra hours.
That sounds fantastic but it can be hard to work without ongoing email alerts or checks. We can feel uncomfortable because we are used to being in touch. In fact our work environment and culture may demand it. But use your judgement. Are there routine days when you could try this new approach even for specific blocks of time?
3 times a day works well for lots of people. Spend 15 minutes maximum checking first thing in the morning. Then schedule time to process your email before lunch and again towards the end of the day. If that doesn’t seem frequent enough, add in a short timed mid-morning and mid-afternoon check.
When you introduce a change to your work practice it is important to measure any improvement. So before you start, track how much time you spend managing your email. Then try your new approach for 30 days and measure your email management time again. Try also to note improved productivity due to the reduced distraction from email.
Don’t Stop There
Once you have reduced your email management time you can further increase your productivity by using email tools and techniques available in Microsoft Outlook such as:
- Rules to Reduce Decisions and Filing
- Colour Coding and Flags to Prioritise
- Auto text and Templates to automate routine text entry
- Purposeful Actions and Subject lines
I will be writing about these topics next month so check back then if you want to make further improvements.
These tips may not suit everyone’s style or every work place. But be productive, take the ideas and modify them to suit your own environment. Let me know how it goes and of course I would love to hear any other techniques and tips that have worked for you.