Work email is like Peter North– it just keeps coming.
Whether its with Lotus Notes or MS Outlook, email has ceased to be a productivity tool and is now a great source of frustration as millions of executives world wide grapple with a torrent of never ending cc’s and FYIs.
The Volume will kill you, or at least your productivity
I get about 20-45 emails daily. Recently i took a vacation and was welcome back to the office by 145 red ones staring back at me from my Inbox.
Typically you’ll get a thread of 7-10 emails on scheduling a meeting. A graphic example:
Email 1: Can we meet on Jan 19, at 10 to discuss the project
Email 2: Let me check with my boss and I’ll get back to you
Email 3: My boss cant make it at 10, can we meet at 12 instead?
Email 4: I have another meeting at 12, how about 230?
Email 5: 230 is fine, kindly advise location
Email 6: Room 2-3
Email 7: Thanks. Il see you at Room 2-4 then
Email 8: Sorry I meant to say Room 2-3
Email 9: Ok. thanks. See u then
Killing productivity one email at a time
The problem with receiving so many nonsense emails is that you get distracted from the emails that DO matter. And if your company has a mail quota policy, your ability to send out emails get stalled if your Inbox exceeds the permitted limit simply because folks are flooding it with minutiae.
In certain companies, the server floods your Inbox with emails reminding you that your Inbox is flooded. That is plain f**king stupid IMHO
This affects your turnaround time, results in important emails being lost and in general saps so much time and energy that could be better directed elsewhere, like actually getting stuff done.
Email- an Urban Manhood Rite of Passage
In a multitude of indigenous cultures, when a boy comes of age, he is subjected to a gauntlet of painful and humiliating challenges to test his mettle, prove himself in front of his tribal elders and earn his place as a man worthy of a mate in his community.
Example: the Native American tradition of Okipa. (Not for the faint of heart) Involves fatigue, starvation and skewers.
In modern society, when a boy hits the working world, he is subjected to an ordeal far worst than skewers thru the flesh- he is introduced to office email.
There is a way out, and I have seen it, and it is beautiful
Having meandered for the past few paragraphs, i will now lay down the exact steps i used to cut down my email by half. For the past 2 weeks, my inbox is empty by the end of the day (and sometimes by lunch). How did i do it?
1) Get rid of crap
-Do you subscribe to any newsletters or EDMs that you think might be useful to your work/ keeps you updated on the latest trends?
– Have you NOT read any of this for the past 6mths to Never?
If your answer is yes to both, then you’re never gonna read that shit. Because if you’re really serious about it, you would have read it within a month (any trend older than 1-2 months is outdated). Stop fooling yourself and unsubscribe.
– Any advertising should be ‘Marked as Spam’ or ‘Block Sender’
2) Limit your number of folders
With email, there are really only 3 types i) emails that require your action ii) emails that require other people’s action iii) emails you wanna keep because they might be useful to you at a later time (or just to keep a paper trail for ass coverage). Your folder system should reflect that.
With just 3 folders, you can very quickly process the emails in your Inbox based on whether you need to act on them, delegate or reassign them to someone else, or keep them for the future.
The folders are:
i) Actionable by me
This is for emails that require action/decision/perusal/clarification by me and only me. In other words, if i dont act on this email, no one else will.
Mark them as Follow Up and assign an action step/s so you know exactly what to do with this email. My brain is a procrastinating idiot that needs to be told what is the next, smallest step it needs to take in order to get moving.
ii) Actionable by others (aka Waiting for)
This is for emails that are delegated/redirected to others for action by them. You are not shirking responsibility, you are simply getting someone who is best/paid for the job to do it, ensuring successful execution. Mark them with Follow Up as well, but instead of assigning action steps, note down who’s action/follow up you are waiting for and set a reminder (with alert) to remind them after 3 days if they have not acted on the email
Any email that you wanna keep for future reference should go here. Don’t bother creating subfolders within this folder (refer to Step 4 for details on this). Just dump all the emails you want to keep here.
Optional A- Read this
I get a lot of emails with articles that are actually useful. Technically this should fall under Actionable by Me Folder (action=read article) and then if it’s useful i transfer the email to Reference Folder. But it seemed a lot neater for me to create a folder to serve as a reading list of sorts. Here is where i drop all the emails that have lengthy reads so i know exactly where to go if i have some reading time available.
Optional B- Review Once A Week
There are emails which really dont require my immediate attention. These i usually place under a Review Once A Week folder which i refer to at the end of the week just to make sure that everything is on track and nothing exploded. Details are discussed in the next step.
3) Use mail rules
Only 10-20% of emails i receive are actionable by me. Everything else is cc, FYI, for your reference or actionable by others. i use mail rules (about 20 of them) to automatically direct emails out of my Inbox and into the relevant folders.
Im often looped into conversations between various units that require zero action from me. I’m included in long email threads involving minute executional details simply because im the Project Manager and the parties involved feel a need to keep me in the loop for formality’s sake, or just to feel safer (in case shit happens, at least i was in the loop and was have been informed).
For this, i created a Folder called Review Once A Week and set up mail rules so that such emails (and i get a tonne of them) automatically get routed to the folder which i review, just once a week, as a batch, just to make sure everything is on track and nothing exploded.
A better strategy, is to speak to the parties involved, assure them that they are empowered to make their own decisions, and work things out between themselves, without keeping you in the loop of every email conversation. They only need to alert you if there is a crisis or update you on progress at specific milestones.
I’ve actually tried this out and immediately my emails dropped by a significant amount.
To be fair to the parties, spell it out clearly for them what a crisis entails or what these milestones are.
4) Forget about organizing your archive/ reference emails into Folders
There is a whole bunch of emails that we keep for reference. That’s fine. The challenge lies in creating an organized system for easy email retrieval.
There are many ways to organize emails- by subject, by project, by sender etc. We try our best to organize our emails neatly into folders based on the above categories only to find ourselves at a loss when we realize a single email could cut across multiple categories.
I used to have a folder for Social Media and a folder for Mobile. So what do i do with an email that is about both? (i.e Social media apps on the mobile). Do i create a third category and accompanying folder? Do i assess the email to see if most of it is about mobile or social then decide accordingly?
Dump everything into one folder and then use the Search Function whenever you need to retrieve an email. You dont have to look under 37 different folders until you find what you need. You just use search terms within one single folder marked <reference>. Mind you, iv used this method quite effectively on an email client as decrepit as Lotus Notes 6.5. With Outlook and Gmail you can tag your emails with key words so the process should be less painful.
5) Practice the Email Golden Rule
If you dont want email, dont send an email. If you need to schedule a meeting, dont start a 7-10 email long thread as illustrated earlier in this post.
Instead, use a communications tool which has proven itself to be fast and effective, consistently over the past 50 years.
Use the telephone.
Yes, email is painful, bu there are ways to minimize their impact on your productivity and sanity. Since implementing these steps, iv :
– greatly cut down on the number of emails i receive
– no longer exceed the mail quota
– improved turnaround time (though i still procrastinate on actionable emails, at least i have them all centralized in one folder and know exactly what are the next steps to take)
– sleep better knowing i did’nt miss any important emails
– dread opening up my Inbox less
Try it out and see if it works for you.
“Wait a minute! Lionel, you just ripped this off from Gina Trapani!”
You are mistaken.
I didnt just rip off these ideas from Gina Trapani, i also ripped off David Allen and Tim Ferriss.
These folks have produced elegant and simple solutions to a multitude of productivity problems. To stand on the shoulders of these giants, check out my list of recommended reading
Check out her video in which she explains the 3 folders here
The world’s current leading Productivity guru. The author of Getting Things Done and the creator of the GTD system will get you organized, clear and on the road to your most productive self ever.
I’ve tried out many different time management and productivity systems but the one thing that has worked and has continued to work for the past 6 months is GTD. I am a heck of a more organized person because of GTD (my desk is the neatest in my entire Division) and i’ve never looked back.
Author of the best selling The Four Hour Work Week, this guy outsourced much of his life and now does just about whatever the hell he wants. He’s got some pretty cool ideas about handling email (and escaping it altogether) such that he only checks email once a month. Then again, he’s got pretty cool ideas about a lot more. Read about them on his blog.
Until next time.