Staying on top of the never ending tsunami of email can be a significant challenge at the best of times, let alone when you work in an organisation that treats email as it’s very lifeblood.

Inspired in part by a comment made by a friend, I though it might be useful for me to detail the techniques I’ve been using to stay productive and avoid burial by email. These techniques have been pulled from a wide variety of sources over the course of several years and are not presented as a prescriptive “You should do this” but rather as “I found these helpful - perhaps there’s something here you can use”.

Scheduled Inbox Time: I used to deal with email messages as they arrived during the day, and I ended up spending a lot of my time handing the messages. In terms of the classic Urgent/Important grid, I was treating everything urgent as important. Worse, I was inadvertently training my colleagues to expect instant responses from me instead of considered ones. Given that we have a perfectly good phone system that can be used to get in touch if something really does need an instant response, I now schedule time twice a day to triage my inbox and don’t look at it otherwise. One caveat - I’ve left the Outlook “toast” notification enabled - if a message comes in that looks urgent, I may deal with it on the spot, but that’s now by far the exception.

Inbox Triage: When I do handle my inbox, I do so quickly and ruthlessly. Every message falls into one of the following categories:

  • Something to do: If it will take just a minute or two - and I have time to do so within my current triage window
  • I’ll get the task out of the way on the spot. If it can’t be done immediately, I move it into the folder Inbox - Actions (see below).

  • Something I’m waiting on: If the message represents something I’m waiting on someone else to do, I’ll move it into the folder Inbox - Waiting (see below).

  • Something to file: If the message is informational and doesn’t represent an action (either mine or someone else’s), it gets either filed or deleted. Anything that might form a part of an official record, such as messages related to project work or systems support, gets filed appropriately. Other messages - like those arranging lunch - get deleted.

Inbox - Actions: This folder represents everything I need to do, a kind of “to do” list. Once something has been completed, I’ll either move the message to Inbox - Waiting (if someone else needs to follow up), file it or delete it. Once a week - usually on a Friday, I’ll go through every message listed here to refresh my memory and to ensure that everything still represents an active action. Usually I find some messages left over from actions already completed or no longer required, and I clean those up appropriately.

Inbox - Waiting: For every task that I’m waiting on someone else to complete, there’s a message in this folder. Once a week (again, usually on a Friday) I’ll go through and reassess each of these messages. For some, I’ll send reminder emails; others I’ll leave untouched. For any that are now obsolete - because the task is complete, or no longer required - I’ll file or delete as discussed above.

Phew!

This all sounds much more complicated than it really is. What it boils down to is a simple set of practices.

  • Outlook sits open showing Inbox - Actions, my list of things to do

  • Triage my Inbox twice a day

  • Review Inbox - Actions and Inbox - Waiting once a week

This is what works for me, today. Next year, the system will be different - improved. What’s working for you, today? Where can it be improved?

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