Solving the Email Problem
You have an email problem. So do I. We all do. We get too much of it and we don’t know how to handle it. We sit down at our desk and see an inbox of hundreds of emails, maybe even thousands, and we despair. It’s too overwhelming. Too much to deal with. How do you get through that mountain?
I hope to be able to help you. It’s a simple system and I’ve done it for 10+ years. I used to get a few hundred emails a day. I still get over a hundred a day now, but my inbox usually hovers between 10 and 20 messages. Right now, I’m at 12, but mostly because I haven’t processed them yet.
It’s important to remember that reading email is not your job. It’s certainly part of your job, but producing widgets (or code, or reports, or whatever) is your job. The goal is to reduce the amount of time you spend mucking around in email. Is “Reading and responding to email in a timely manner” part of your job description or performance plan? I didn’t think so… :)
So here we go.
First, don’t look at your email as it comes in. The popups, the notifications, the “You’ve got mail!” alerts. Turn them off. Seriously. Go do that right now. I’ll wait.
Ok, done? Look! The world hasn’t ended. You don’t know if there’s something urgent to respond to! Oh no! In all reality, if it were truly urgent, someone would call you. Or send you an instant message. Or direct message you on twitter. Or something. Generally, the email can wait a half hour or an hour. (We’ll get back to urgent messages later.)
The reason for turning off the notifications is to turn off the distraction so you can actually work. Because the constant checking of email really does get in the way, doesn’t it? Slows you down. Saps your attention. Distracts you from the thought processing needed to write that report, code that module, update that content. (By the way, the same goes for twitter, facebook, google chat, etc. Turn those off, too, if you want to work.)
Enjoy the blissful focus. Put on some music even, knowing that your trusty mail program, whatever it may be, will store your emails reliably until you, and only you, decide to read them. Because checking your messages as they come in is allowing someone else to dictate the flow of your day.
The general process goes like this: set aside two or three times a day (no more than this) to sit down and process your email. I’ll get into processing in a moment. You may also choose to check your email once an hour should you think you might get some truly urgent, business critical message, but when you do check, you’re only checking. You’re not processing. You’re not acting. You’re only checking. If it’s not urgent, it sits until your next processing time. When you’re done, close or hide your mail program.
When to process? For me it ends up being mid-morning and mid-afternoon. Maybe 9:30 or so and 3:30-ish. These are flexible times but generally I process my email twice a day and I look at it roughly once an hour otherwise. Since you’re only processing twice a day you could even close your email program! (or gmail window) I know! It’s a crazy thought! I can’t tell you how much work I’ve gotten done when I’ve accidentally had my email program completely closed.
Here’s where the fun begins. Processing your email means reading it and making a decision. Try to do this in an uninterrupted manner. Deciding what to do with a message means a bit of focus and you don’t want too many distractions.
My experience has shown that my email comes in three forms. Yours probably does too.
- Something you need to do.
- Something you need to remember.
- Something you need to read but not remember.
That’s it. Each message will fall under one of these three headings. Let’s look at them in detail, starting from the bottom.
Also, process your emails from the oldest to the newest. If you always start with the newest, the old ones tend to not get any love from you and may stagnate. This will account for when you are out of the office for a day or even a week. The oldest things will not get forgotten. And believe me when I say that you can use this process after a week-long vacation. You may have 400 emails to process and it may take you two hours, but it will work.
#3 is the easiest. It’s a funny article someone sent you or a notification about that bake sale where they always have the yummy chocolate chip cookies. But you don’t really need to remember it, so you can delete it. Read it, delete it. Boom. Done. Gone. One less message to worry about. (If that bake sale needs a calendar entry to remind you, this message is a #1, not a #3.)
#2 is requires a little more explanation. This type of message is something you might need to refer to in the future. An article related to a project you’re working on. Some instructions for logging into that website that you’ll need from time to time.
There is some setup work is required on your part for these messages. You must set up some folders (or the equivalent) in which to move and store your messages. For me, it’s often broken into the projects I’m working on that year. I tend to create folders (in OS X Mail) as I need them and based on whether I think that I will have more messages to add as the year goes on. (We’ll talk about the “this year” idea later.)
I’m writing this in April, so since January I have created 14 project folders and one “Miscellaneous” folder for things that aren’t project-related but I do want to remember.
What’s the point of all these folders? Well, first they are all searchable. But you can also search within a folder for emails related to only that project. Regardless, it’s not always helpful to have one giant folder containing all 5,000 messages that you’ve saved. There have been times where a search has failed me and I’ve had to go through and find the message by hand. Doing this in a folder containing a few hundred is much easier than a few thousand.
Remember that for all the emails that fall under #2 you haven’t actually had to do anything with them. It’s just read and file. Read and file.
#1 is the most tricky because these require some more decision making above and beyond whether it’s #1, #2 or #3.
(Note: The process I describe in #1 is a small part of the GTD process taught by David Allen in his book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity.)
Read the message. If it’s something you can complete in 2 minutes or less, do it now. Go ahead. Just knock it out. Send the reply. Make the setting on the website. Fix that typo in the content. Make that calendar entry. But the rule is less than 2 minutes. If there’s the possibility that it will be more than that, don’t do it now. Let it wait. When you’re done with the 2-minute task, reply only if necessary (hah! Does the reply take less than 2 minutes?) and file or delete. (Because once you’ve done the task, it’s now a #2 or #3 message so you can decide to keep it or not.)
If it’s more than 2 minutes, then it needs to go somewhere. This is where the GTD process really comes into play. I’m not going to get into it here, but the core of GTD is to have a todo-list sort of thing that you trust to keep you on top of the things you need to do. Since the email message is something you need to do, make an entry in your todo list and then file the email message.
Above all else:
Do Not Use Your Inbox As Your ToDo List
This is crucial. If you use your inbox as your todo list, then it’s a todo list that other people can add to. This is the path to crazy land. By consciously moving the item to your own todo list, you are making the choice to take on that task. If you don’t want add it to your list, then you can reply to the message, discuss an alternate solution, or decide who might be better suited to the task.
I understand that this is getting into the area of what your responsibilities and duties are, which is a more philosophical discussion and is not really suitable to this post. How you take on work is totally part of where you work and your corporate culture, but you can still have a todo list.
I’m sure you’re asking yourself, “But what if my todo list just starts getting insanely long?” Well, by only processing email twice a day, you’ve given yourself more focus to actually do your work. But you’re working from the todo list, which is always open, whereas your email is closed or otherwise hidden. (Right?)
(That said, there are things that have been on my list for months. Apparently they are low-priority. I hope…)
Long-term handling of your email
Over time, projects will begin and end and your list of folders will need to be managed and culled. The routine is simple: At the end of the calendar year (Dec 31 or even a few days before) move all of you project folders into a folder for the year, “2012”, for example. On Jan 1, start creating new folders, even if they end up being the same as last year’s.
This helps keep the number of messages down within each project folder and yet you’re still able to go back and search last year’s folders. My experience has shown that by the time March rolls around, I’m never checking the prior year’s folders for current projects. After that, it’s probably once or twice a year that I will need to go back in time to search any of my archives at all.
And this begs the question: did I need to file all those emails after all? (oooh, deep question!)
How to reduce the amount of email overall
We get and send a lot of email. There are a few things we can do to reduce the amount that we send and receive.
First, sometimes adding your entire message to the subject, especially if it’s short, may save the person from having to open the message. Something like “Pls call me when you get a chance?” They don’t need to open the message which saves a bit of time. (Also, use “EOM” in the subject to indicate that the message doesn’t need to be opened. EOM = End of Message.)
Second, send things that are only necessary.
- Want to see if someone’s available for lunch? Call them. :)
- If there’s a back-and-forth that’s needed, set up a 15 minute meeting. It’ll be faster to talk than to type anyway. (A good rule of thumb is whether or not the discussion will need more than one reply. One reply, email. More than one, face-to-face.)
- If the whole body of a message is “Thanks” or “Have a great day”, maybe saying that in person is a better option. Some people may even like being thanked in person! And they don’t have to spend 5 or 10 seconds reading and deleting the message.
Third, if the message is an FYI or an article of some sort, include some information at the top about why the message is relevant, or include a crucial excerpt that highlights the importance of the message. If you’re relaying a news article or a message to everyone in your department, make sure it’s applicable to everyone. If it’s not, send it to those who would most benefit from it.
(As an exercise, Let’s assume you have 100 people in your organization, the message is applicable to 10 of them, and 90 of them have to take 30 seconds to skim the message to decide if it’s important. That’s a total 45 people-minutes of company time lost due to one email message.)
Fourth, if it’s applicable (“Here’s the info you requested…”) you can indicate to someone that they don’t need to reply to your message by adding NNTR (No Need To Reply) at the end. This may save them from typing the “Thanks” message and save you from reading it. Eventually people will catch on and start using it themselves.
I know I’ve covered a number of things here, but the important bits are:
- Set aside time twice a day to read email. Close or hide it completely otherwise.
- Process your emails in the order you receive them.
- File messages you need, delete messages you don’t need.
- Do it now if it’s 2 minutes or less. Add it to your todo list if it’s more.
- Don’t use your inbox as a todo list.
- Use good etiquette and don’t send unnecessary emails.