Take control of your email in 2013

Depressed man by a laptop, white background

With new year resolutions upon us, this seems a good time to share my approach to managing emails, which I wrote  down at the request of some of my colleagues. I do so recognizing that I have not completely cracked efficient working. I don’t always answer emails as quickly as I would like, and I do not always set my priorities well. Nonetheless, this system has helped me to stay largely on top of my inbox. This approach has worked for me partly because it has not required big changes in my working habits. It uses built-in functions of Microsoft Outlook, which is helpful because not everyone is allowed or wants to install special software.  If this approach to managing emails sounds useful, here is a guide to setting it up in Microsoft Outlook

What’s the problem?

Here are some things which I hear people say about their email, all of which resonate with me:

  • “My inbox is my nag list. Everything in there is something I need to do something about. I get stressed every time I open Outlook to see hundreds of emails in my inbox, all nagging me.”
  • “I am constantly checking my inbox for new emails.  So I never spend any quality time focusing on the work I should be doing.”
  • “I’m worried that I am going to forget about an important deadline, so I keep scanning through all the emails in my inbox so I can decide what I need to do next.”
  • “There are emails in my inbox which I have read at least half a dozen times but I have not had time to answer.”
  • “I spend all my day feeding the email beast.  I don’t feel in control of my working day. Everything is urgent, so I never do anything that is important.”
  • “I tend to answer everything at the last minute, by which time I have left it too late to think seriously or consult anyone; so it often ends up not being as thought-through as I would like.”
  • “If I am away from the office, I find it stressful to think about all the unread emails piling up in my inbox which I am going to have to answer ”
  • “There are emails in my inbox which I cannot do anything about, because I am waiting for somebody else before I can take the next step. I have to keep them there so I don’t forget to deal with them.”

If those worries sound familiar to you, this approach to dealing with emails may help.

The triage approach is a simplified version of suggestions from several books on how to manage projects and how to manage your time.  In particular, I have taken inspiration from ‘Getting Things Done’ by Dave Allen and from ‘Master Your Now’ by Michael Linenberger. I have tried those approaches, but I found myself unable to make the kind of commitment to new ways of working that they require. (Both approaches revolve around using to-do lists rather than email.) I have no doubt that people who go the whole hog and embrace one of these approaches get significant benefits from doing so; and there is special software, including plugins for Outlook, which they can use.  I am more comfortable with my simpler version which fits my own way of working, and it uses only Outlook’s built-in functions.  (Here are my instructions for setting up Outlook.)

The inaccurately named triage system

Several times each day, I triage my email inbox. This involves going through everything in my inbox and choosing one of four ‘Ds’:

  • Deal with it
    If I can deal with an email in less than four or five minutes, I do so right away. For example, some emails only need a quick, one-line reply. It is better to do this right away than to have to deal with email again later.
  • Defer it
    There are some tasks which will take longer than five minutes, or which cannot be dealt with immediately because they require additional information or some action by someone else.  These I tag with the date on which I want to deal with them – either today or on some future date. (I explain how to do so in the set up guide).  That gets the email out of my inbox and ensures that I’ll be reminded of it again when I need to come back to it.
  • Delegate it
    If I am going to delegate a task, I try to do so immediately when I am triaging emails. That way I can give as much time as possible to whoever I am asking to do the job. I usually then defer the original incoming email to the time that a response is due. When that email reappears in my inbox, it reminds me to check that it has been dealt with.
  • Delete or file
    If an email does not require any action, but I want to keep it to refer to later, I either delete it or (more usually) file it.

Once you have fully triaged your inbox, you will have a zero inbox. Everything will either be dealt with, deleted, delegated or deferred.  You can then turn to your ‘Today’ inbox to deal with the things you need to do during the day.

Some people specifically set aside an hour each morning or each evening to do email triage. I tend to look at my inbox every two or three hours to triage it. It usually takes about 15 minutes.  (I find this is also a good time to check my Twitter feed and Facebook!)

Live for today

If you triage your inbox three or four times a day, your inbox should be close to zero most of the time. I have switched off Outlook’s pop-up notification and sound alert for incoming emails, so that new emails do not disturb me while I am working on something else. (Instructions for how to do this are included in the set-up guide).

Instead of living in the inbox, I work mainly in my ‘Today’ folder which contains the emails which I have flagged for action today. I have set Outlook to open automatically into that folder.  That folder contains emails which have arrived previously and which I have flagged for action today; others have arrived today and I have marked them as needing to be dealt with today.

The art of procrastination

If there is something which I want to deal with later, but don’t yet know when, I kick the can down the road by queuing it up for a future Monday, often the first Monday of some future month.

So each Monday, especially if it is the first Monday of the month, my Today folder is a bit more full than usual with emails for me to review.  Some of them I kick down the road again to a future week or month; some of them I decide I am never going to tackle (or the moment has passed) so they get filed; some of them I can now deal with right away; and some of them I resolve to deal with this week and I put a particular date during the week to look at them.

Context folders

As well as organising work by date, I also organise emails by ‘context’.  I have three key context folders: @travel, @meetings and @Washington

Into each of these I put emails which I am going to need in a particular situation (such as when travelling).  Some people have a context folder for meetings with their boss, or with staff who report to them directly, so that they have a ready-made agenda for their next meeting.

Within the @meetings context folder, I create a subfolder for each future meeting, and I drop into that subfolder any email that I am going to need for the meeting.  Then when the meeting has happened, I move the sub-folder for that meeting from the @meetings context to my filed emails folder.

If you still want to use the defer function described above, you should first put a copy of the email into the relevant context folder (by dragging it there while holding down the Control key) and then defer the original email in the usual way.

Why this approach works for me

There are several characteristics of this system which seem to be important.

  • A trusted ‘to do’ list.
    There are few things more uncomfortable than the feeling that you may have forgotten to do something. It is very stressful trying to keep everything in your head at once, and it makes it difficult to concentrate on the thing you are working on at the moment.  We need to park those tasks somewhere and be confident that they will come back to us in good time to handle them.  By putting a particular date on each email, I can get the email out of my ‘inbox’ and off my desk, secure in the knowledge that it will reappear on my screen on the day I need to do something about it.
  • Zero inbox
    For many of us, it is important to keep an eye on our inbox, and to deal with urgent emails as they arrive.  But if our inbox is also our to-do list (and, in some cases, a filing cabinet), this means that every time we turn to our inbox, we are also confronted with an unsorted list of all the things we need to do.  With the triage system, the inbox contains only recently arrived, unread emails. There is something very satisfying about having a generally empty inbox.
  • Avoid reading emails again and again
    Emails used to sit in my inbox for weeks – I wanted to do something about them, but I was not yet ready or they were not yet urgent enough.  I would read them again and again – sometimes several times a day – to check what was important or approaching a deadline.  With the triage system, I read each email when it comes in. Many of them I deal with there an then; the others are put aside until the day that I have designated to handle it. I still read many emails too many times, but it is much less often than it used to be.
  • Create space for today
    Because I live mostly in my ‘Today’ box, not my inbox, I have more time to concentrate on the work that I should be doing. I do not anxiously monitor incoming emails, because I know I will look at those later in the day.

I have tried lots of different systems, some more elaborate than others, and this particular approach has worked well for me.  It will take about 15 minutes to set it up using this guide (but a bit longer to do your first triage!).

If you use Gmail rather than Outlook, there is unfortunately no equivalent function to put dates on email messages.  You could try Sanebox, or if you use an iPhone the new Mailbox email programme looks quite interesting.

If you have suggestions for improving this system, please put them in the comments below.


11 thoughts on “Take control of your email in 2013”

  1. Boomerang for Gmail is also quite handy. It can return emails to the inbox at a certain point in the future (like a day or a week) which is useful if they can’t be dealt with immediately.

  2. I use GMail via IMAP consolidated into Outlook with several other pop3 accounts. The workaround I used was:
    Have a rule that every mail received is assigned to a category
    Have a rule that every non-GMail email is put into the GMail inbox anyway
    Follow the instructions from this page to be able to make a note on whether an email has been forwarded or replied to http://www.slipstick.com/exchange/adding-extended-mapi-fields-to-outlook
    Make a Search Folder, looking at the GMail inbox only, equivalent to your InboxForTriage, that shows only those that i) have a category, ii) do not have a flag, and iii) are not replied/forwarded to
    Make another search Folder, equivalent to your Future, that shows emails that are flagged
    As emails come in either Flag them for later, reply/forward them, or remove the Category colour. This takes them out of the Virtual Inbox. If there is a specific later to do the item on, then convert it into an event (see the Quick Steps area on the Home Tab to set this up for a click of a button).

  3. Owen – thanks for sharing your approach – it looks very promising. 

    Despite being a knowledge management specialist, I experience many of the same frustrations you mention from not having a decent system to manage e-mail. I’m good at finding things later (a problem many people have with e-mail management), but not at avoiding stress at having lots of things in my e-mail and not knowing what to do next. 

    I learned  another tip last year that might be a useful addition. If like me you subscribe to a of newsletters and online communities etc. then you can end up getting an inbox full of things to read that might potentially be interesting (and that you might feel that you ought to know about to keep up to date). In reality I never find time to read all of these and I keep feeling I ought to somehow and that can be an additional source of stress. The tip I learned is to set aside a fixed time – possibly first thing or just after lunch to very lightly skim these – then pick out anything you want to tweet or forward to colleagues and do that immediately (using hootsuite to space tweets out over the day for example) – then file anything that is “interesting” but too long to read or for which you don’t feel immediately motivated to tackle and file it under “read later”. The trick is you probably never will go back to read this later – but it will be off your mind and out of your inbox – but if for some reason it becomes useful/interesting enough to read you will be able to go back and find it. 

  4. Thanks Owen. Like Ian I get a lot of newsletter type emails, as well as mass sent work emails (notifications that servers are going to be down at midnight etc). For both types of emails I use auto-filters that instantly move the emails into their own folders without any action required from me. I then check these folders at reasonable intervals (maybe daily for work related mass emails; a couple of times a week for newsletters). This reduces my inbox clutter and, theoretically at least, distractions.
    Works pretty well for me.

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