Your inbox shows who you are and how you manage. And let's be honest, you are not that good, and you can definitely improve your management skills. We all can. That's probably the main reason why our inboxes are overloaded and draining too much of our valuable time.
I receive around 150 emails a day. That probably shows a number of problems on how I delegate, how I empower the people that work with me, and what level of communication I establish with my colleagues. And while all those topics deserve good analysis, this post is just covering the set up that I use to go through those emails in my inbox in the most efficient way possible, so I can still spend time in more valuable activities.
This is how I used to work
I used to read email constantly through the day, using my Blackberry or at my desktop. Email was constantly harming my focus. I could not prevent glancing my Blackberry on meetings when I noticed that blinking red light. I couldn't help get distracted by the notification in my computer, even if I was talking to someone in the office. The problem is: once in a while, you do receive something urgent and important that demands immediate attention, and the mere possibility that a new email is one of those inevitably forces you to check it anxiously. I guess it is only natural... but clearly wrong. Therefore I implemented the first set of measures:
- I removed all notifications from the desktop.
- I even disabled the red blinking light in my Blackberry.
- I established a routine to check emails in batch only 2/3 times a day: at noon, after lunch (I'm based in Spain so that means around 15:00) and before leaving the office.
You know what? The world is still spinning. Yes, I've had a number of issues that demanded immediate attention during this time. That's what the telephone was made for. I was reluctant to share my cell phone number too openly, thinking that people will overuse it as they overuse email. They don't. There is clearly some social cost associated to calling someone on the cell phone that generally filters those calls to stuff that really demand your attention (...well, maybe not always). In summary: email emergencies are no emergencies. Get rid of that false sense of urgency and establish your own schedule to deal with email.
I used to have hundreds of folders too. I carefully planned and crafted them according to what I considered the best organization possible. Folders for customers, folders for projects, folders for areas of responsibility... I considered that an effective filing system is the one that allows you to find emails in the shortest time possible. I managed to develop such a filing system, but I was missing an important part of the equation: the time required to actually file emails. I was spending a significant amount of time filing every email in order to, once in a while, find very quickly the one that I was looking for. How often do I really need to find something in my filing system? What is the % of emails that I file that I actually need to find afterwards? While I realized that the time required to file versus the actual needs to find were not balanced, I still felt the fear that, sometimes, I REALLY need to find an email. Not having a system for it felt totally wrong. But, on the other hand, my filing system fell apart every now and then; mi inbox had tons of unfiled emails, therefore I found myself simply looking for emails on the search tool more often. That's why I decided to go all in with this:
- I deleted ALL folders and created one big Archive folder.
- I created a Quick Action in Outlook to send an email to the Archive with one click (or keyboard shortcut).
No need to say that the process of actually filing was significantly improved but, what about the process of finding? The new searching tools for desktop email clients (in my case Outlook) have been significantly improved. I have been able to find every single email that I have looked for and, while the process can be a little stressful at times, mastering the search options will get you there fairly quickly. Overcome your fears and simplify: the only folder that you need is an Archive folder. Spend some time learning to search efficiently and you are done, now you can start saving hours of admin and filing and use them for something more useful.
In the past days, when I was processing my email, I read the messages and then delete them or file them depending on whether they could be used for future reference. Then I would stumble upon one of those long, dense emails that you don't have time to read. I would mark it as unread, leave it there, and move on. Then I would also find one of those emails that demand your attention to do something more complex that a quick answer. Same thing: mark as unread, leave it there, move to the next. If you are doing something like this, no matter how many different flags you use, your inbox probably looks like mine at that moment: a big pile of items, some unprocessed, some important, some interesting... And that's the point where you lose confidence in the whole system. It is no longer possible to know whether there is something there lying in your inbox that will explode in your face in the next minute. Fear kicks in and then you find yourself spending all day on email.
I was totally conscious of my own feelings and inefficiency but I thought that was just the way it was. That I could do nothing about it. Then I stumbled upon the concept of Inbox Zero. Is it actually possible to empty your inbox? Yes, it is. You can do it too: go create a folder, then select ALL emails in your inbox, and move them to that folder. Don't worry, you can put them back in the inbox later. As idiotic as it may seem, there is some sort of magical psychological relief in doing so. It is the reverse effect of the anxiety provoked by an overloaded inbox. It is completely irrational: the same stuff that was there stressing you is still there, but on a different virtual place, but you start creating the illusion that... well, I'll process that pile later, and it relieves a lot of the burden. Eventually, I did go through all of it and found myself with an empty inbox and no unprocessed items but the question is, can you keep it as such on a daily basis? Yes, you can.
The key to achieve this Inbox Zero Nirvana is to change how you process those emails, and to understand that there is absolutely NO REASON for an email to sit there in your inbox. The whole purpose of processing your email is not to solve every single thing that you find there, but to do a quick triage of every item and move them where they belong, definitely out of your inbox.
Move on, order your inbox by date, in reverse order (older first), and go one message at a time. Each message will belong to one of the following cathegories:
- Rubish. Delete it, it takes 1 second.
- FYIs that hold useful info for the future. Archive it (less that 1 second with a quick action)
- Emails that can be answered very quickly. Answer right away and delete or archive it.
- Emails that demand more time to read or answer. This emails should become to dos in your regular to do system. Take note of them and archive them. I actually have a separate archive for these, called Action. When I actually do whatever is required in that email, I then move it to Archive.
The way you deal with the 4th type is perhaps what is most different from your current process. It is what makes it actually possible to achieve Inbox Zero. Getting rid of every potential action that can be found in your email is wishful thinking. But taking note of those actions and registering them in your to do list has key advantages.
- It allows you to clear out your inbox and, once it is cleared, you will be forced to do some real work. That feeling of "well, I guess I will have to work on something now" is unknown to many people these days.
- It puts the actions found in your inbox in the same bucket as the rest of your actions. Therefore when you decide what to do next, you will be forced to measure them against the rest of your planned activities. They will no longer benefit from the VIP treatment you were conceding only because they fell in your inbox.
You are probably thinking that this method will simply move the stress out of your email and into your todo list. Yes, it will. It is inevitable. In today's world, it is simply not physically possible to do everything that is required from you. Only administrative work or predefined and structured jobs can get to such level of predictability. Chances are that you are not one of these and, if that is the case, your responsibility is to be effective, and this means taking A LOT of painful decisions on what you are NOT going to do. Every time you decide to work on something, you are deciding NOT to work on a lot of other stuff. This is the reason why your email practices are so profound, to the extent that many people have neglected their own responsibility, using email overload as an excuse for it.
Do your personal check now: do you feel overwhelmed by email? Do you spend a lot of your working hours on it? When you feel the urge to respond to an email that demands your time, are you doing so conscious of all the other things you are NOT doing? Are you sure your are doing now what contributes more to your job (well, if you are reading a blog, you clearly are not)?
If so, maybe you will find some of these tips useful. I encourage you to start implementing these new habits and feel the relief that means being ruled by yourself and not by your inbox.