Be honest is your inbox out of control? Is it full of read and unread emails? Are you constantly scrolling up and down your inbox deciding what to do next? Then you may want to think about a system to get it under control. A proper process to manage your email will increase your productivity, make you more focused on service delivery and reduce your stress levels. These days, one of the most important soft skills an office worker needs to have, is a process to deal with email more productively.
The office worker now gets 100+ emails a day, and you need a better process to deal with it.
There are 4 steps to having a better process;
1. Setting up your system to better manage email
Firstly you need to look at how many folders you need to manage your email. I Have 6 folders, they are;
- Inbox – Where all your email arrives.
- Action Items – These are emails that I have not yet actioned.
- Junk – This is a folder that I have to filter my Junk email into.
- Review – These are items that I need to review for information, but don’t have an identified action.
- Sent – Copies of email I have sent.
- Archive – To hold all my archived email.
That’s it, I manage all my e-mail with just 6 folders. Many people think that you need a complicated taxonomy of folders to manage your email, but this can slow down the process of execution. If you have to sit and think where to file a particular email then you have too many folders. The Mac Mail App and other email systems have powerful search capabilities and you only need to pop in a few keywords in the search bar and voilà the email is quickly found. You may need more than 6 folders to manage your email, but the goal is to have only a few.
If you are using the Mac OS X Mail App make sure that the Junk Mail Filter is turned on. To do this in the Mail App go to, Mail > Preferences > Click the Junk Mail Tab
Make sure that Enable junk mail filtering is turned on. Initially the default option when junk mail arrives is to Mark as junk mail, but leave it in my inbox. I prefer to Move it to the Junk Mailbox, but if you turned it on for the first time you may want to leave it set to your inbox until you have confidence in the system to correctly identify your junk mail. Mac Mail uses Bayesian spam filters that calculate the probability of a message being spam based on its contents. They learn from spam and from good mail, resulting in a robust and efficient anti-spam system. So you will need to make sure you mark and unmark junk mail until you are happy that the system is correctly identifying your Junk mail. There is a thumbs up/down icon in your toolbar to correctly mark your Mail.
Now you have your email folders set up correctly, we need to consider when to process your email.
2. When to process your email
Multitasking when it comes to paying attention is a myth. The brain naturally focuses on concepts sequentially, one at a time. Each time you switch tasks the brain has to run through a four step process to disengage neurones involved in one task and activate the neurones needed for another.
In a study of a group of Microsoft workers, it took on average 15 minutes for them to be become fully focused again on serious mental tasks, like writing reports or computer code after responding to email messages.
Ever had this experience, I have – You’re in a restaurant with a friend having a conversation and the waiter interrupts you to take your order. After the waiter has gone you both can’t remember what you were talking about only a few minutes ago? This is the effect that interruptions have on your ability to concentrate on your work.
The trick is to avoid email interrupting your workflow, and being in charge of when you process your e-mail, rather than the email system being in charge.
The first step is to turn off any auto system notifications that new email has arrived, as it is just too tempting to stop what you are doing to see what the new email is about.
In the Mac OS X Mail App you can turn off auto checking or set it to Every Hour’ To do this in the Mail App go to, Mail > Preferences > General, and change the Check for new messages drop down box.
Also you can change New Messages Sound to None as well, in the same preferences panel.
What happens if your boss expects you to reply to an email within 5 minutes of them sending it? I suggest you discuss your new workflow with them and show that you are trying to make your time more productive. Hopefully they will appreciate the benefits to the new system and at least they know if something needs urgent attention they can call you instead. If that does not work then maybe you can come to a compromise arrangement.
3. Don’t check your emails – process them
There is a difference between checking your emails and processing them. How many times have you opened, read and closed the same email message? If you are just skimming your emails, it is probably not an efficient use of time as you have not done anything with it. Unless the email needs an action that you cannot do in less that 2 minutes, you don’t want to come back to read that email again.
Instead of skimming you should get into the habit of processing your email. Try and set aside some regular 10 minute time slots each day to process your email. The goal is to making a decision to what you are going to do with it and move it out of your inbox. You need to stick with this process for several days, perhaps even allocating some time in you calendar until this process sticks and becomes second nature.
When processing your email start at the top and work methodically through the list, don’t be tempted to jump to the ‘interesting’ ones, as you will waste time deciding which one to process next.
4. Use the 4D’s model for decision making
Use the 4D’s decision model to decide what to do with each email, you have 4 options;
- Delete it
- Delegate it
- Do it
- Defer it
You need to be ruthless here, you need to be honest with yourself – are you really going to do something with the email, if not delete it!
If you are having trouble deciding whether to delete an email, ask yourself;
Does the email relate to anything that you are working on, or have an interest in and will you use it in the next six months? If not you can probably delete it.
Does the email have information you can get from somewhere else? If yes then delete it.
Does the email contain information that you are required to keep? If not, delete it.
If you can forward the e-mail to another team member to handle, do it. You should be able to compose the delegation message in less than two minutes and remember to say when you need a response if it is not specified in the original email. Once you have forwarded the message either delete the original or move it to your Archive folder.
If you can identify the action that you need to take and complete it in less than 2 minutes then do it. When you are finished then move the email to your archive folder or delete it.
If you can’t delete it, it is going to take more than 2 minutes and only you can do it, you will need to defer it. I have two folders to manage these types of email. The first is called Review. If it is not clear what the next action is or if is material I need to read (say technical updates) then I move the email into my Review folder. These are normally items that are not particularly time sensitive. Once a week set some time aside to read articles in your review folder, and review for items that have been sitting in there for a while. If items have been sitting there for a while you may want to delete them.
If the email needs a reasonably urgent or defined action I move it into my Action Items folder. Once a day items in the Action Items folder should be reviewed and moved to a task item in your task management system.
Using this system will make you more efficient with email, also allow you to focus on your service delivery time and get more accomplished with fewer interruptions. By having a proper system to deal with your email it will also help you reduce stress and anxiety as you will feel in control of your email again.
I used to be bad at managing my email and recognised that I needed a better process. I came across a series of Inbox Zero articles by Merlin Mann on his 43 Folders website, that inspired me to change my system over a year ago and I have not looked back since.