How to take control of your inbox

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Email – a two-edged sword

When it comes to business productivity, email is definitely a two-edged sword. On one hand, it’s extremely effective, your message arrives in a few seconds, you can send plentiful attachments and you can easily follow a conversation that has been carried out over time between multiple parties. That being said, the downside is that there is probably nothing more time-consuming and stress igniting than email. If you don’t manage your email properly, you can easily be distracted and lose valuable work time by checking your inbox every time you get an email notification, waste time by reading the same email over and over again or searching for emails that are “lost”. It is also very common if you don’t manage your email properly that you end up spending time on non-important, non-strategic messages, rather than investing your valuable time in the emails that really have an impact on your business.

Taking control of my own inbox

About 5 years ago I was listening to a podcast called “Got Email?” by Mark Horstman and Mike Auzenne, the co-founders of Manager Tools. Even though I didn’t receive nearly as many emails as many of my colleagues at Microsoft at the time, I had started to feel that my inbox was becoming a major source of stress because I didn’t have a good “system” to manage it. In the podcast, Mark and Mike talk about the overuse and misuse of email. According to them, the number one mistake people make is that they see email as their primary source of communication and that they replace face-to-face meetings with email. This was definitely the case in my job. Instead of meeting with me to discuss plans, actions and decisions made, my manager would just email me anything and everything. I decided that I needed to educate myself on effective email management. Even though I couldn’t do anything about the way my colleagues handled email, at least I could start with myself and hopefully lead by example. I started doing research on effective email management and found a lot of valuable resources. In the last section of this blog, I have put links to these resources. I have also mentioned what my key takeaways were from each article.

Technology enhancements

During the past few years, there have been some great developments in technology to help you manage your email more effectively.

    • Search – the powerful search tools available today eliminate the need to manually sort email into various folders. No matter where the email is filed, you can easily find it – quickly!
    • Anywhere access – the majority of mobile devices today are equipped with email. Nowadays you can read and even respond to certain emails (depending on how good the keyboard is on your mobile) when you are in a taxi, waiting for a bus or in some other situation where you need to kill time.

  • Instant messaging and presence – some people might say that we are just replacing one bad habit with another one even more annoying. I definitely agree that using instant messaging needs communication etiquette, but I must say that if used properly, it really helps to reduce the amount of unnecessary email sent. Presence (the ability to see if someone is online, busy, out of the office, etc.) is also extremely powerful. If I need to get input from someone and I see that that person’s presence status is set to “Attending meetings in Germany for 3 days”, I won’t send an email or instant message to that person – I will try to get the information from someone else.

How to use Outlook 2010 effectively to take control of your inbox

On Wednesday I will publish a new video on how to use Outlook 2010 to take control of your inbox and manage your email more effectively. The video is in 3 parts: in the first part I will give you an overview of the system I use to organize my inbox, in the second part I will show you how to configure Outlook 2010 to minimize distractions and how to set up your folder structure, and in the third and final part I will show you how to automate some of the filing steps to really speed up the way you categorize and prioritize email.

There are a number of other important skills to have to effectively manage your email, for instance how to group and sort messages in your folders, how to use tools for quickly cleaning up your inbox and some good keyboard shortcuts that you should be aware of. I will cover these, and other useful techniques, in upcoming videos on email management – so stay tuned!

Great Resources on Email Management

Got Email? : This is a great podcast where Mike and Mark discuss how managers should use email effectively.

My key takeaway: Email should not be used instead of face-to-face meetings. Nothing beats face-to-face meetings for building trust and good relationships. Remove all email notifications and schedule time 2-3 times a day for managing your email – that’s it!

Getting Email Under Control: This is a great article by David Allen (the creator of the time management method called Getting Things Done) on how to get your email under control.

My key takeaway: You need to empty your inbox – “empty” does not mean finishing all the work embedded in your email, it means making decisions about what each one means and organizing it accordingly.

  • Complete the < 2-minute ones!
  • File
  • Organize emails that require action and follow-up!

Move Over David Allen: A Better Way to Get Things Done – A well-written article by Andrea Cannavina, the CEO and Founder of LegalTypist Inc., on David Allen’s method and how she had to customize it into D-A-F-T to make it work for her.

My key takeaway: Everything can’t be organized into File, Act and Delete. There needs to be an additional category for “Defer”.
D- Defer
A – Act
F – File
T – Toss (Delete)

Tips for mastering email overload: An article by Stever Robbins the founder and president of LeadershipDecisionworks. A really funny article on BAD and GOOD ways of writing email and recommendations for how to manage your inbox.

My key takeaways:

  • The subject field should be used as a summary of the email – not a description. For instance a GOOD subject line is: “Recommend we ship product April 25th”. A BAD subject line is: “Deadline discussion”.
  • If you’re sending an email to more than one person, ask yourself why you’re sending to each recipient, and let them know at the start of the message what they should do with it.
  • Charge people for sending email! Apparently one CEO Stever had worked with charged staff members five dollars from their budget for each e-mail she received. I think this is brilliant! Even though it might be difficult to implement, I strongly beleive we should all think before we send an email if it is really “worth” it.

Empty your Inbox: 4 ways to take control of your email by Sally McGhee the founder and CEO of McGhee Productivity Solutions. A depicting article on how to manage your inbox using Outlook.

My key takeaways:
The 4-D’s decision model:
D – Delete
D – Do it
D- Delegate it
D – Defer it

According to Sally’s statistics:

  • 50% can be deleted or filed.
  • 30% can be delegated or completed in less than two minutes.
  • 20% can be deferred to your Task List or Calendar to complete later.

Do you have any other good resources that you would like to recommend? Please share!