Last week’s post on why you should give “inbox to zero” a try drew a lot of responses from readers. People had some great suggestions on how to tame email and increase personal productivity. So, I thought I’d use this week’s post to capture those ideas while we’re all still thinking about email.
The problem of email
The average office worker receives or sends 121 emails a day. That’s a lot of information to read, judge, and action. No wonder people are starting to talk about “email stress“. Anything that can help us regain a sense of control over our email will go a long way to helping us maximise flow in our work.
So, here are five ways to gain some control over your email, as suggested by readers of this blog.
1 Use your phone to undertake “triage in reverse” on your email
We have our phones with us all the time. This is the insight that is driving Facebook’s highly successful mobile strategy. And that mobile strategy is paying dividends. In its first quarter 2015 update Facebook had some really interesting stats:
- Of its 1.44 billion monthly active users, 1.25 billion (87%) access Facebook on mobile at least some of the time.
- More interestingly, 581 million (40%) of monthly active users exclusively access Facebook on mobile (and that number is growing 10% per quarter).
What Facebook has recognised is what we all need to recognise. Our phones are becoming the devices we use to fill in the “empty spaces”, the “interstices” if you like, in our daily lives. Those little (or extended) moments of time that occur between the other things we do. Those few minutes before a meeting, the time on a train, the time spent waiting for the “walk” sign, the five minutes in the supermarket checkout queue. We are now no longer alone with our thoughts in those bits of “blank time”. The smart phone is always with us.
So, if you don’t already, consider using your phone to process email during those inevitable “interstices” in your day. You might be reducing Facebook’s active daily user stats, but you’ll also be reducing your own email related stress. A number of readers have spoken about, or modeled, this to me over the last week. But there are some important points to note:
- You should see this as a “triage in reverse” process. That is, your phone is a lousy place to deal with the most important emails you have (a traditional “triage” process would identify the most important – that’s why I call it “triage in reverse”). Your phone is a much better place to deal with the least important emails. The junk mail. Or the FYI email. The ones you can read, or even immediately discard. The ones you probably don’t have to respond to.
- Don’t count this as one of your two email sessions in the day. Remember last week I said you should try to limit email to two focused sessions in the day. Well, you probably shouldn’t try to count a phone session as one of those sessions. Email needs focus at a keyboard for you to properly clear things and respond.
- You may end up double-handling some emails. And that is a downside. One of the keys to a successful inbox to zero strategy is to try to handle every email only once (as I said last week). Nonetheless, you’re undertaking a “bonus email session” with the phone (since it shouldn’t count as one of your two focused sessions), so maybe that’s OK.
- Try to file as many emails as you can straight away. If you do read an email on your phone, and there is nothing more you have to do with it, don’t leave it there in the inbox. Make sure you file it straight away, or delete it. The folders I’ve set up in my Outlook are reproduced easily on my iPhone’s native email app. I haven’t had any problems moving emails on my iPhone and having them move in Outlook. I haven’t tried using Outlook for iPhone yet. If anyone has used that app I’d love to hear what they think.
2 Work with a good task manager
Some readers have said they use their inbox as a “to do” list. This makes them clear their inbox quickly. One reader is even using Outlook’s categories as a task manager function. She categorises each email as “actioned” or “to action”. It’s an interesting approach, but I’m not sure it would work for me. Remember, email represents other people’s priorities and calls on your time, not your own. So, I’m not sure that mentally seeing your inbox as your “to do” list is a great signal to send your subconscious. Still, for some jobs, where you have to be reactive to boss or client demands pretty much all the time, it could well work.
My preferred approach is to process email immediately. Get it out of your inbox, and into a separate “to do” list, if you can’t deal with it immediately. (Remember the “four Ds”: do it now; dump it; delegate it; decide when you’ll do it.) One reader uses their Outlook calendar to schedule when they will action the email. Effectively their calendar becomes their “to do” list. I have seen this work well. The key thing is to treat these calendar entries with as much respect as you would a meeting with another person. You have to show up for them!
Still, I prefer a good task manager. I have been using Remember the Milk (“RTM”) since 2007. I have tried other task managers, but I always come back to RTM. It has a great web interface, but also great apps for iPhone and iPad. It also works on Android. It integrates with Evernote. It has a lot of flexibility: you can prioritise; set up different lists; set due dates; estimate time required; input “sub-tasks”; and it has a flexible tag system that makes organising a complete breeze.
I use RTM this way:
- I’ve set up three lists called “Now”, “Next”, and “Later”.
- When I enter a new task I tend to put it in the “Next” list.
- I assign the task a priority (1 to 3, or none). I might give it a due date (not always). If I need to link more information to it, I either put a note in the task (RTM has great extra fields), or I link the url of a relevant Evernote note to it (again, there is a url field available in every RTM task).
- I tag the task. Some of the tags I have include: “business” (for stuff to do with my business like lodging a BAS or writing a blog post); if the task is to do with a client I make the client’s organisation name a tag; “personal” (eg making a medical appointment); “house” for tasks around the house (eg get the arborist in to check if the trees are going to fall over).
- At the start of a day I try to look at my lists, especially my Next list. I will reassign tasks in the Next list to my Now list (only a small number of tasks). I then work from my Now list during the day.
The secret to achieving flow is to minimise the noise in your head. That’s why I keep the number of tasks in the Now list to a minimum. And it’s the Now list I work off.
I use the Later list for things that have no pressing deadline, but that I want to get out of my head and not forget. I check the Later list from time to time, but not every day.
The tag system is great. If I want to see all the tasks due for a client, I click on their tag.
3 Set up a rule to automatically file certain emails
One reader shared how he set up a rule in Outlook to automatically file emails from certain senders into one email folder. That way those emails never hit your inbox, but they are waiting for you in a folder if you need them. (In this reader’s case, he never read them and was never asked about them!).
I have used this system in the past for emails from some blogs. I set up a rule in Outlook to send emails from some senders straight to a “To Read” folder. This is easy to do. Right click on the email in your inbox and go to “Rules”, choose “always move messages from…” and it’s pretty easy after that. Just make sure you’ve set the “To Read” folder up already so you can choose it. But – can I warn against this idea. In my experience you never go back to the folder – or at least not frequently enough. So just be careful what you use this for. If you’re getting value out of someone’s emails, I wouldn’t use this!
4 Don’t look at email till midday
Last week I said try to do your most important thing first in the day before looking at email. This suggestion from another reader goes a step further. Don’t open your email till midday. That’s certainly going to ensure you get stuff done! Give it a go if it can work for you. I had a number of readers point out last week that even limiting emails to twice a day might not work if you have a particularly demanding boss, or demanding clients. So, I’m not sure waiting till midday would work in those situations. People these days seem to think that emails will be read within an hour. I’m not sure that’s a helpful expectation. I’m still old enough to remember the office mail man dropping memos in your physical inbox (yes kids the email inbox is a metaphor!) only twice a day. If you wanted to get in touch with someone straight away, you didn’t send them a memo – you rang them up!
5 Carve out blocks of uninterrupted working time
Whatever you do, schedule times in your day when you are working on what you need to do. Block out these times in Outlook and keep them as appointments with yourself. Turn off your email (or, as I said last week, turn off the email alerts). One reader, who’s a writer, uses the Pomodoro technique to structure these chunks of time for her writing. I think that’s a great idea. I use this Pomodoro app on my iPhone.
In these uninterrupted blocks of time you should also consider putting your phone on to “do not disturb”. That’s the little crescent moon in your iPhone. And in your iPhone you can set up the do not disturb function to still allow certain numbers through, or some numbers through if they try you a second time. That way, you can keep your demanding boss happy if you need to!
Over to you
Let me know what you think of this in the comments below, or on Facebook or LinkedIn (which is where most of the conversations are taking place). What other productivity techniques do you have with email? Let me know if you are using Outlook’s categories and how you use them – they seem like tags for emails – but I’ve never focused on them before until a reader mentioned them last week. Also, if you are using the Outlook app for iPhone, let me know what it’s like. As always, you can subscribe to this blog by hitting the “Subscribe” button in the top right corner of the screen.