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).