Email management and results

I just realized that I never quite got back to posting the email processing technique I learned. In the crush of business recently, it got left behind. I have a moment this morning. Let me share as I prep for my day.

Email Management Using Outlook

1) Set up Categories for all of your clients. I also include the following:

  • In Progress – For work which is going on longer than one day which you have already begun response to.
  • Admin – for any official notices or departmental practices which you need to hang on to
  • Keepers – for any of the rare gems of emails which come through you will want to keep (usually the good office humor)

2) Set up inbox folders, one for each category you have set up. (All of this is kind of basic, but it sets up the system).

3) The system itself – keep your inbox clear. That’s the goal. Think of it as an adult game of Tetris, but you want to keep the inbox completely clear.

When a piece of email arrives, open it and read it from the attitude of playing ‘keep away’. Ask yourself, “Whose problem does this need to become next?”  Need info from someone else to draft the response? Pass it along to them. Is there an action item that someone on the team needs to take care of? Pass it along to them. This step is involved in legitimately moving the task along the system until it gets to the person who provides the information.

Once the email is tasked, asked, forwarded, etc., tag it by the Category of the client it belongs to and then immediately drop it into the corresponding Client folder.

If the email is something that you need to take care of, figure out when you need it done by and how long it should take to do it given an inconvenient amount of work interrupting it. Set a Follow Up reminder flag on the email to remind you about it given about 1.5x the amount of time you think it will take you to complete it given an inconvenient simultaneous workload.  (Think that between phone calls, other emails, bosses walking by, and last-minute meetings you can give the answer to the email within two hours of working? Set the reminder to go off three hours before the email response is due).  Then tag it by the appropriate client and then move it into the In Progress folder, and move on to the next email.

If the email is a confirmation, acknowledgment, or a conversation you are being Copied on without needing your action, assign it to the right client category and immediately drop it into the client folder.

Continue processing the emails until everything is out of your inbox. Note that it’s not just sorting, there’s action taken on every single email you process, including setting up reminders which are your safety net… if you haven’t gotten to the email by the time the effort is ‘due’ you’ll get a nag from Outlook with just enough time on it to send you into a panic and yet still have time to hopefully get it done.

Processing Times vs. Working Times

Once you get the inbox clear, so they tell me, you can set up specific periods of the day which you use to actually process through all of your emails. The start of the day, right after lunch, and just before going home are three good touch points. If you get a lot of email, you need about an hour to process it all. If you get less email, less time needed.

Process the emails at those times. Clear out that inbox at the beginning, middle, and end of the day.

Then, once the inbox is empty, go through the In Progress folder and prioritize the emails you’ve got in there. I’ve heard recommendations to start with the small stuff first and clear out the volume of emails you can. This is a good tip for those of us who constantly struggle with lots of emails for work.  I’ve also heard recommendations to start with a major, substantial task and work solidly on it to get it out of the way. Once you’ve reached the point at which you are Working the In Progress pile, you should already have gotten rid of a majority of the messages in your inbox, so this should represent a closer look at the To Do list of the day, so prioritize however your press of business dictates.

Of course, there’s a catch

Emails don’t always allow for time to ignore them. As you’re working, you need to pay attention to the popup boxes with the teaser text from any new emails which arrive. If it’s important, jump right on it. If it’s unimportant, either delete it right away or else tag & bag it, categorizing it by client and then dropping it into the client’s folder.  Whatever you can’t get to, process when you hit one of your processing times.

How’s it working so far?

For me, this model of immediate attention during a more active sorting or processing phase helped me to increase my email handling capacity.  However, the sheer volume of email and tasks I get still outpaces this method by far. Also, because I’m in launch-prep mode, I have been spending a lot of time herding cats away from my desk, so in the last 2 days my uncategorized emails jumped back up to 225+, and that’s with the processing I’ve been able to do.

At least I’m more efficient at responding now. And the bigger chunks are more easily visible. So there’s some improvement. I’ll see about stepping it up even another notch. But there really does come a point at which there just isn’t enough time or energy in the day to get to everything you need to, and when every day brings you the work of multiple days, sometimes you just lose the ability to keep track of anything beyond one or two projects at a time, so you juggle as best you can and hope that some problems will resolve themselves by being ignored (hey, it happens once in a while).

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Catching up on work

It’s been a little bit since I posted about the ongoing (over)work issues. Time for an update and some resolution.

Speaking to my boss was the right thing to do, naturally. It took a little bit for us to understand each other, that I normally handle a lot of workload as it is, and because of that if I were to warn every time I got close to my threshold it would be a daily kind of occurrence. She understands now that I do work so close to my threshold, so when I do raise a flag, it’s not just rumblings, it’s a call for assistance or at the very least attention to the problem is needed.

I even ended up speaking with HR, and the company is responding to my complaints positively. They are acknowledging that there is a need for some kind of staffing increase in the department, and HR came into our departmental meeting and asked us for our general pain points. I think it was telling that a lot of what we had to say addressed solving problems, not just symptoms… and the work volume is partly symptomatic of other things. I’ll leave those well enough alone, but it was very nice to be listened  to. We’ll see as it comes down to implementation, but the team has the right ideas, so the battle is more than half won.

Email patterns.

Interestingly enough, a coworker watched me having my panic attacks at work for a week and shared his method of dealing with his email volume. Over this past weekend (labor day weekend, too) I worked my way through the email pile using his method. I think it can work, but it’s a bit more labor intensive up front. I’m still not sure if it will work as well with my client load, but I’m going to try it.

Before I get into the method itself, let me explain how I’ve been working to try and keep up. Typically I have categories in Outlook for each client. When new mail comes in, I scan it  briefly to do triage on when I need to respond to it. Then I let it go uncategorized in the general email bucket if I need to get to it later, or else I take care of it if it’s an emergency, and archive the email once it’s done. Once a week (used to be Monday, then became Friday because I went a whole week without having the time to do it) I sort through the remaining ‘uncategorized’ emails, assigning them category codes and putting their tasks into a formal To-Do list. Every day, I prioritize off of that To-Do list, plus any new emergency items which come up during the day.

The system is actually tried and true for me… but with a client load of 4-6 active projects/clients… and no maintenance work. Project managers generally work on projects… items with a definite ending point. Wham, bam, thank you ma’am.  Maintenance clients… that’s a whole ‘nother ball of wax. Can’t predict their needs. Can’t ignore their requests. Hard to prioritize their emergencies, because when a Maintenance client has a Maintenance issue, you need to react quickly since there’s generally at least one someone on the other end of the line who can’t continue their work until you accomplish yours.

So while my system worked and worked well for a project-based environment, a hybridized project/maintenance environment was swamping me. Drowning in emails.

Counting emails?

The internet geek in me, however, started to note that Outlook keeps count of emails when you display them via category. I started to notice that by the end of each week, I had a chunk of emails which had been weeded through to address the important stuff, discard the junk, and represented each week a body of client requests which needed some measure of attention and time to process into tasks and assign out to the team, to do research on, to follow up with communications and consolidated documentation. They weren’t critical tasks, or they would have been done already. They weren’t throwaway tasks, or they would have been deleted when they came in. These were the body of work, the unglamorous, the regular, the mundane.

I tracked them. Not by any academic rigor, just because that number of emails in the Uncategorized bucket was always there. I’d plug away one night overtime, and it would go down by a quarter or a third, and then by the end of the next day, the number was right back up where it had been.  Unscientifically, of course, I came up with the following rough trends.

Daily emails

Every day, I receive approximately 100 emails of all kinds, of which a quarter are threads of conversations started by those “uncategorized” mundane work emails as I did research on issues and follow ups on items. About 10-15 a day are emergencies needing immediate attention and resolution that interrupt everything else and sometimes derail an entire day’s work. Leaving about 60 emails a day of that ‘uncategorized’, mundane work coming in.

Some of those emails get done quickly. 5 minutes, tops. About 10 of them are the quick kinds, usually. Some of them are the really sticky kinds of issues which once you start, that’s what you’re going to be doing for hours, and it will probably involve team meetings and emails and efforts which just can’t get resolved in a single sitting by a single person. Another 5 of those kinds of emails a day, and to be fair, a lot of the issues remain the same, but the sticky emails generate more sticky emails the next day, etc., until there’s resolution on the items. (Several items I tackled when I started at the job. Sticky emails take months to resolve, usually, so they generate constant work until they’re done.)  The rest of the emails take, on average, about 15-30 mintues to resolve, between reviewing the issue, identifying the resources for the job, communicating the client needs to the resources, putting in the right tasks into our internal task management system, communicating back to the client. (Tomorrow those become the 5 minute email types as the clients respond).

Let’s do the math on the rough numbers, and we’ll see why things get out of hand.

60 “uncategorized” emails a day.
10 of them take 5 minutes to do, or one hour of work, roughly, spaced out along the day.
45 emails taking, oh, let’s be generous and say 15 minutes each.  11.25 hours of work right there.
And 5 ‘sticky’ emails which can eat up hours apiece. Let’s be kind and say that after the inital sticky issue is identified and progress begins, it takes about an hour to move each sticky email to the next sticky stage. So that’s 5 hours.

17.25 hours of work, just generated by emails.

Every day.

Reality speaks

Now, the numbers don’t work out that way all the time. But even if my estimates are doubled, that’s still more than 8 hours of work for the day just for emails. Not every month has been that busy. I’d love to actually figure out what the real email timing is. It’s the primary form of business communication now, which is good because it becomes a project’s documentation.  But when email gets out of control, it can quickly swamp your work life.

So this past weekend, I manned up and worked through the weekend, catching up as best I could. Yesterday things actually felt like I was continuing to make progress, so the momentum from the weekend helped. Of course, the price I’m paying for all of this is that I’m running on empty personally, but if there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, then so be it. Sometimes, the only way out is through.