3.24.2009

Email Handling Tips For Anyone Interested

Lately I’ve been asked by several about my email habits. For those that have asked, below is my attempt to write a basic summary. This isn’t a comprehensive blog post on email handling, just a summary of what I do. For those who want to look for more, there are multitudes of productivity experts to look up with more information (more on this at the end of the post).

 

For those of you who have your email under control – awesome! Keep it up. Stop reading here and go do something productive now.

 

The following is what I’ve been doing in various forms for a couple of years. It works well for me…it may or may not for you.

Mike’s Email Basics.

 

Empty Your Inbox.

 

This sounds harder than it is. Here’s how you do it.

 

Create a folder called To Process.

 

Highlight all of the emails in your Inbox.

 

Drag them to the To Process folder.

 

Done.

 

Process Your Inbox.

 

Here’s how it works.

 

Commit to leave your Inbox empty every time you leave it.

 

Treat your email Inbox like your physical mailbox.

 

Do you ever go and get the postal mail, open it, scan it, then stuff your mail back in the mailbox? Nope.

 

Do you keep your important mail in the mailbox? No.

 

Do you go out each morning to see what bills you need to pay, correspondence to respond to, then leave it there and go about your day?

 

No?

 

Same with email.

 

If you look at it, process it!

 

For those of you that think this is really hard to do, turn off the Preview pane of Outlook.

 

When you open your emails, rather than close ‘em, move ‘em. In the next step you’ll find out where to move them to.

 

Every time you go to your Inbox, move everything out.

 

Delete it or move it to one the following folders.

 

Simplify Your Folders.

 

Rather than any massive folder list or sets of rules I have only Five folders aside from my Inbox.

 

When I process my Inbox, if what I need to do takes less than 60 seconds, I do it right then.

 

If it’s more than 60 seconds, or I don’t have 60 seconds, the email goes into one of the following five folders.

 

I delete as much as possible first!

 

1)      Action: These are emails that I need to do something with outside of email – this is the start of my to-do list. When I’m done doing whatever I need to, then I process the remaining email appropriately; Delete, Archive, Hold, Reply, Waiting.

2)      Archive: These are emails that I need to save. By save, I mean without these I could possibly lose my job, marriage, or children,  or I would have to ask someone for something again. Get comfortable with delete! Unless keeping it will make your life easier (things like passwords and account numbers are handy to keep around), delete it. (This is really up to your preference and risk tolerance. Storage is cheap, save it in Archive if you like. Just don’t waste time with an elaborate file system. I’ll talk about search in a bit for finding stuff.)

3)      Hold: These are emails that I need to reference short term. I scan this folder about once a month and delete or archive. Receipts and travel plans often go here until they’re outdated.

4)      Reply: These are emails that I need to write a longer reply to. I review this folder daily, reply and process. If it takes more than a day to gather info for a reply – jot a quick note stating that. Telling someone “I’m on this. It’s going to take a couple days, but expect to hear from me on Monday. Thanks!” shows them your working on it and stops them from calling you or sending another email asking about it. Of course, follow up with the information by when you said you would, or update them on the new timeline!

5)      Waiting: These are emails that I am waiting on someone else’s response or action before I can do what I need to with them. This is a weekly review folder. Again, review & process appropriately.

 

For those of you that created a To Process folder, I didn’t forget about ya.

 

Here’s what to do…open the To Process folder and start processing.

 

Delete and move those emails according to the rules above.

 

Do you have 2,000 emails to process? Overwhelmed?!

 

Start small. Commit to processing for 5 minutes and try to get 20 emails moved or deleted. Stop. Do something productive. Come back in an hour. Repeat.

 

Get the idea? Eat that elephant one bite at a time. This might take you a day, or maybe a month, but once you get through all of your To Process emails, delete that folder too.

 

By the way, if you have unopened emails from more than 60 days ago, delete them. Don’t even look at them.

 

You’re still employed and married.

 

Those messages weren’t important. If they were, they aren’t now. Whoever sent them got in touch with you another way or found someone else to help them. Trust me. Responding now would just be rude!

 

Commit to processing your Inbox to empty every time you go there.

 

Treat it just like your postal mail. If you’re not able to process it – don’t even look in your Inbox. The interruption will take away from whatever it is you’re supposed to be doing.

 

Some people find the most success with this by scheduling their email processing two or three times a day. They are more productive by only checking and processing at those appointed times and giving processing a half hour each time.

 

I’ve not been that stringent about it myself – though by processing my Inbox to empty, I don’t have to check back near as often. Find what works for you and stick to it.

 

Search Your Email.

 

Put your computer to work for you!

 

The key to using five simple folders and still finding what you need when you need it is the fact that your email is electronic. It’s the benefit and the curse. Use a good search tool.

 

A search tool I like is Xobni (Inbox backwards, download at www.xobni.com) primarily for its search functionality. It only works with Outlook, but for many of us that’s perfect. You can search by sender, a word or two from the subject or body of the email, etc. Xobni has a bunch of kinda cool contact features too, but it’s search that makes it a win for me.

 

On my macs I use Apple’s Spotlight. Entourage’s search does a good job too. I have not looked around for other tools because these work great for me.

 

There are other good search tools out there. Even Outlook itself does okay – I just don’t like it!

 

Your brain does not need to recall a 15 level hierarchy of folders. Keep it simple and search for it!

 

Quick Summary

 

This is what works for me. Like I said, you may love it, you may hate it. Find what works. Keep it simple.

 

·         Process your Inbox to Empty every time – treat it like your postal mailbox, take everything out

·         Get acquainted with the Delete key. Use it. Often. Seriously. (Don’t get fired or divorced!)

·         Use Five folders: Action, Archive, Hold, Reply, Waiting

·         Process your folders daily/weekly/monthly as appropriate – except for Archive

·         Use Search to find your stuff

·         Keep it simple!

 

A Bit More Info.

 

Besides my own trial and error, I got many of these ideas from the following sources:

 

·         David Allen’s book “Getting Things Done”(http://snurl.com/e3kr2) – Full disclosure: if you click this link and buy the book from Amazon, they promised to pay me something. It hasn’t happened yet. But I wouldn’t be opposed to it!

·         Merlin Mann’s “Inbox Zero” series (http://www.43folders.com/izero)

 

I don’t do all of either of these guys recommendations, but they are kings of processing info online and offline. David Allen’s book is great for those sick of swimming in paper too!

 

Disclaimer: I don’t have the perfect system. Everyone organizes differently. I firmly believe that if what you’re doing is not working for you, then tweak and modify until you figure out what works.

 

That’s it. Hopefully something in there helped you. Enjoy! For some people email can get overwhelming. Keep it simple. Find what works for you and be consistent with it. If it’s not working – change! Good luck.

 

Love to hear any feedback or questions. If you’ve got tips of your own, I always like to hear the better ideas. Speak up!