The email beast – be gone!

Taming the seemingly unending avalanche of email we get each day can be a challenge.

But is it possible to make your email work for you, the way you want it to?

‘Yeah, nah’, I thought – but I’d give it a go, implement some of the ideas I’ve read and listened to and see how I went.

Make your email work for you

This is what I discovered and what I’ve done using Outlook (and Trello more recently) this year.

My aims were:

  1. Maximise my productivity by following the ‘three d’ rule – deal with, delegate, or delete;
  2. Ensure I did not miss any key emails that came in but de-clog the main folder itself; and
  3. Implement a follow-up system, which given my role, means I’m often waiting on replies or actions from people in my organisation and external to us.

What I did

I made my inbox my action tray, and created a trio of triage folders (Action Today, Pending, and Filing) as well as one called Media Releases for the myriad of releases I get.

For Media Releases I created a rule to action the dozens of media releases I get, especially when Parliament is sitting. The rule (which isn’t hard to set up) sees them moved automatically into a folder where I scan, read and either action or delete periodically throughout the day.

I instituted the ‘three d’ rule –  deal with it then and there (including delegating or deleting on the spot), or I moved it to Action Today (i.e. important but not urgent where matters can be looked at later and either read and deleted, deleted, or delegated). I pop the FYIs and stuff I will need later into Filing, which I then sort briefly once a week.

Action Today has been a great help – it gets the email out of sight and out of mind, and allows me to focus on what is important. I batch my time too so I can read Action Today all in one hit, three or four times a day and aim to get it down to zero each night.

Pending is where I categorise emails that need action from a colleague or an external person and I use the Task List function and view to tell me when I need to look at the email again. This means I triage as I go, and because Tasks Lists categorise by follow-up such as tomorrow, next week, etc., I have a quick reference of what’s coming up and when.

Once an email is dealt with, it’s popped into one of about two dozen folders, or, if I want a more permanent record, I save it on our server, or I delete it.

The folders above, along with the key project folders I’m using are marked in Outlook as ‘Favorites‘ [sic], so they are at the top of my email folder lists.

I scan, decide and triage as needed throughout the day, and am brutal with email. Time is a finite resource so why spend more time than absolutely necessary on what’s essentially admin?

I also made a decision early on to encourage my team not to send me emails when they could reasonably wait till a good time during the day / week, and batch ‘stuff’ which can be dealt with in one hit. The Task Lists and Pending mean I know what we need to discuss from my end, and so they become a quick reference guide to frame the chats.

One of my principles has been to call people externally where I can when I get an email from them – it’s been amazing the response you get when you call someone and you sort something out with them quickly, professionally – and cut down the email for you both. It’s a reminder that email is only one form of communication – not the one.

How I make email work for me

  1. I deal with, delegate or delete email as I go during the day, minimising my time on stuff that takes away from what I need to be doing. Being brutal is a discipline.
  2. I call or talk with someone when I can rather than email back, reducing the often-long email conversations that can occur.
  3. I use my Pending colours and Task Lists to track who I’m waiting on for a reply or call back and why and when I need to follow-up with them.
  4. I make time each day to review and deal with Action Today and media release folders, and at the start and end of each day double-check my email in Pending to ensure I am on top of stuff that needs to be finalised. If need be, I simply move an email that needs further actioning (such as a call to follow-up) in my inbox, signifying it needs to be done today.
  5. At the end of the day, literally, I stop ten minutes prior to my leaving and go over what I have left in the inbox, what’s in Pending that my Task List tells me is coming up the next day or few days after, and I check my senior colleagues’ diaries to see what they’re doing that I might be called in on and how that impacts my plans for the day.
  6. I leave, I aim (!) each night, knowing what’s been done, what I’m likely to be actioning in the morning and leave my desk ready to kick off the next morning, with the most important task sitting at the top of my Action List on Trello, which I have running all day and is on my phone and tablet.

The take-away

  • Make your email and its associated functions work for you – take the time to set things up, use the customised categories Outlook Tasks have and cross-reference them to your calendar.
  • Use rules to action certain email and reduce the time you need to spend scanning and deciding, which, when you think about it, is unproductive.
  • Get off email where you can and talk with people or call them.
  • Be brutal with your time and make the technology work for you – not you work to it.

Have a listen and read to

Tom Henschel from Essential Communications’ podcast The Look and Sound of Leadership takes this one step further and is well worth the listen.

Next time

Auto correct short cuts and how they can save you heaps of time.