3 folders to manage your email

The Inbox Zero is a fantastic way to manage your email. One way to support the method is to create an simple folder structure that will allow for quick access to relevant type of information. One way to do that is to use create a set of three tags or folders to manage all the email:

  • Archive
  • Do
  • Waiting for

Why would you need just those three folders? These three are enough to support the need to keep a track of open itmes and maining a record of conversations. Let me explain one by one.

Archive

This is fairly self-explanatory. You need Archive folder to store your correspondence, keep a record of discussions held, any agreements made etc.
Depending on the system used to store emails the Archive can a giant single folder were everything gets lumped together. This can be easily applied in places where web-based email is used. Services like Gmail provide great search functionality so maintaining a large and complecated sub-folder structure is not be necessary. If you use other tools like Outlook which are not so good in search you will be better off with small set of folders.
In fact this is how I manage email in my workplace. I have two archive folders for major areas of my work. Each archive contains a limited number of folders. I’m trying to keep this number to a minimum but at the same time don’t let it to constrain my ability to categorise and file messages in a way that allows easy retrieval.

Do

One way to manage to do items that arrive via email is to put them on your task list. This is an approach that I follow. The main reason for it, is that dealing with email is only part of my responsibilities so  emails should be kept with other actions.
However my approach may not be most effective in environments with heavy traffic. During the processing phase once you’ve established that there is something to do with them  it maybe easier to drop emails into the Do folder. When finished processing, open that folder and start working on one item at the time.

Creating a specific folders for items that require action will provide two benefits. First you have a copy of the original correspondence at hand so it’s easy to know what’s required. Secondly a separate folder allows to split todo items from other types of messages and especially remove them from the inbox leaving a clean slate.

Waiting For

Last important category of emails that you should be kept separate from others are waiting for items. Again you could keep track those on your task list and this is how I do it. If you have to deal with a large number of waiting fors, it may be easier to keep them in separate folder and review it regularly, at minimum once a day. Keeping this folder makes it much simpler to find the open items and follow up with someone.

Setting up your email client with these three folders allows you to better support excecution of inbox zero approach. It reduces the obstacles for accessing email, keep things cleas and nicely separated.

This was a last post in the series covering manging email. If you’re interested in the previous post please check email category on this blog.

Organising tasks into contexts

The initial idea of context was coined it referred to a specific location where a task could be completed or a tool necessary to do it. More popular context were @office, @phone, @computer @home etcNowadays the ubiquity of internet access and portability of devices makes location and tool dependency obsolete as we can work almost anywhere with all tools available at hand.
Yet contexts are still useful way of categorizing tasks. What we need to change is the categories of contexts used.

There are two solid ideas on the topic that I would like to share. First one a post by Sven Fechner explores the task classification from the perspective of necessary brain power. So you can setup tasks in to buckets like @braindead or @thinking etc.

The reason it approach comes handy is that you’ve already decided how taxing the activity will be. Now all you need to do is check how you feel and then select the appropriate context to work form.

Second approach from Matthew Cornell, looks at the contexts from a bit different angle . It’s more about creating balance of things that have your attention.

The idea is based on the traditional matrix of urgency vs importance but this time you can start with defining tasks into different classes like dull, boring, fun, long, hard etc. Simply draw simple horizontal and vertical axis and then put selected categories. Now take your task list and see where your tasks fit against selected contexts.

As result you will be able to see what area, context takes the most of your time and attention. Then you can decide whether your happy with it or should you re-balance.

Inbox Zero

Over the last couple weeks I have covered some ground talking about various aspects of email. Check part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4.
Too much email is now an old cliche and pretty obvious statement, the key question remain then how can you deal with it.
Different people will approach managing email in different ways however there is one method that it’s simple to apply and very effective. The method is called inbox zero and has been created by Merlin Mann based on the principles of GTD methodology.

Inbox Zero is not a magic wand that waves a way all email troubles although I’m sure many people would like that. If you need that try using DELETE key more often. The approach is about making decisions about the content of messages and clarifying the outcomes by regular review of the inbox. Once processed to zero you create a clean slate for new messages to arrive.

As Inbox Zero process takes a lot from David Allen’s GTD methodology there are five stages of the workflow:

Delete/Archive – you first decision should be to decide whether the message should be deleted or archived. By making it first item you gain a lot momentum and cut out a lot of unwanted stuff.
The alternative is to archive if the message might come handy in a simple and flat folder structure.

Delegate – People have different strengths so rather than spend hours sweating over a task, see if there is someone who can do it better faster etc. Even if you’re not a manager see if one of your colleagues is not better suited for this task. Trade something with them. This way both of you would benefit from working of your strengths.

Respond – some things are not worth tracking. If you can respond in 2-4 minutes, do it immediately and have it done. Keeping track of smaller items will take more time and effort that it’s worth.

Defer – bigger items or those where you need to do some preparation should go in your task list. Email is not the only thing you are responsible for so keeping separate list for email isn’t most effective way for managing todos.

Do – When it comes to task execution never work directly from your inbox. Refer to task list a pick an item from there. Once one item is done, don’t check the email just yet, complete two more and then see if new emails have arrived. Since email is only part of your work it should share the same space with other tasks you have to do. This way you can start making progress on things you’ve decided before and not spending time constantly reviewing new emails as soon as they arrive.

If you want to get into more details of the concept and listen to the author, I’m recommending booking some time to watch this video on YouTube.

 

Quotes form the 99% Conference

I was catching up on my Read it Later items and came across this post summarizing the key insights and ideas from the 99% Conference.  Below are some very interesting quotes from some of the speakers.

Andrew Zuckerman:

What gets projects done for me is not inspiration. It’s curiosity and rigor.
It’s the aptitude for hard work that separates the ones who reach a different level of stardom.

Beth Comstock:

Make heros out of the failures. Pay attention to the learnings.

Johshua Foer

The ‘Ok Plateau’ is the point when we turn on autopilot and stop getting better at a certain thing.
Experts treat what they do like a science

Is email your work?

Very often we find that after a long day we haven’t made that much of a progress and all we can remember is email and the countless number of of the messages we’ve gone through.
On the other hand email provides us with instant gratification of completion. Simply take one message, respond to it and problem solved. If compared to few hours of continuous effort to close out a project not wonder email wins.

When someone takes a day to respond does this annoy you? We came to expect that since email provides instantaneous delivery people will behave in the same way. For many few hour response time is not acceptable. However we tend to forget that email is just one element of work. Unless you work in client service team and receiving requests via email you have plenty of other responsibilities. Managing email is only one of them.

What’s in your job spec?

Lets start at the beginning. When you look at your job description does it say deal with email? Most likely not.

For majority to of people the job spec includes things like reporting, writing, attending meetings and discussions, gathering information, routine tasks etc. Sure some of responsibilities will involve dealing with email but the connection is always indirect. Yet somehow we end up spending majority of our days dealing with email and complaining that we are not doing what we were supposed to to.

How much value?

When email came about initially it was this great tool for instant communication. When letters took days to deliver, email was this tool to deliver messages instantaneously.
Nowadays many people have this expectation that we should respond to email very quickly. Yet they forget about two things. Each of us receives plenty of mail, so when sender thinks he’s creating one to one connection for recipient it’s one of many connections to deal with.
Secondly we have limited number of hours at our disposal hence we need to make very smart choices and allocate time where we receive the most value in return.

Better choices

Since we can spend our working day on countless activities each similarly important we should consider following question: does responding to email is more important than working on a project Y or task Z? Unless you work in a call center and dealing with email and your primary responsibility it’s more than likely that you can wait few hours before responding.

Question

Before your start a new day and dive into unread messages consider what bring more value.
Can emails from yesterday evening wait until lunch time so that you can spend some time on this important project?

We need more artists

Fascinating talk by sir Ken Robinson explaining how current school system favor other disciplines over arts and dance and how important it is to bring up more balance.
To date arts and dance were neglected and considered less important as they don’t give students tangible skills or a trade. When we hear people decide to go to arts school most ask them with polite smile: what are you going to to after that? how are you going to make living.

These are valid questions but what we seem to miss and where Ken Robinson makes a good case, is the fact that arts help us develop creativity. Stuff can be outsources or made for nothing but creativity will the thing which will help us realise our potential.

 

http://video.ted.com/assets/player/swf/EmbedPlayer.swf

Now go buy crayons or drawing pencils, go to dance classes express yourself. See what are the effects.

What’s the problem with email?

Many people seem to be struggling with email, drowning in constant stream of messages.The simplest answer to that question is volume. The amount of email received daily exceeds people’s capacity for processing and reacting to them.However I think this answer is simply scratching the surface. There are three basic elements that contribute to the problem with email.

Equality

Anyone can send you an email message all they need to know is you address. I can send an email to anyone in the world no matter who they are provided I know their email address. There are no barriers in terms of access, special costs, permissions. Think of spam or so called unsolicited email, the reason we receive so much of it is the fact that someone with computer can send email messages to everyone. Every email message is equal, when emails are passing through the wires each message looks the same no matter what’s the content. Sure there are filters to block things we don’t want but this does not stop it and spam still forms 90% of email traffic.

Simplicity

Email is one of the simplest communication channels we have available. Just type the email address, content of your message and hit send. You’re done. Your message will be received in seconds, minutes at most. Getting access to email is plain and simple  too, all you have to do is access one of major portals in your country and go through sign up process. Usually it takes three steps because email providers want to make it easy. It’s equally simple to communicate on one to one basis as to email dozens or thousands of people. All you need is their addresses.

Ubiquity

Thanks to recent technology advancements and popularisation of internet connected devices we can receive, read and write email anywhere. Our smartphones and tables periodically check for new messages to grab and alert us with a loud ping. Email knows no delivery hours, unlike standard post email can reach you at 1p.m. or 1a.m. regardless what you do or where you are. Email does not know any boundaries a message from Africa will be delivered to Europe in the same way as a message from South America to Australia. Email is not bound by platform restrictions and difference that’s why you can receive emails from a colleague that uses Linux, a family member using a Mac and you can respond to them using your Blackberry smartphone. All platforms can read and understand the which makes it truly system agnostic tool.

Circling back to the original question, the three elements above on the face of it the seem to be main offenders. One could think it should be possible to make it more difficult to send email or we should ban use of  devices in some places. Unfortunately these three features of email make up exactly what it is now. A highly effective tool, available to millions that is easy to use and that be be accessed from any where.

Back to the Question

So where is the actual problem? I think it’s our behavior. Email is just a tool, a very useful one, if you consider all the benefits that it brings.There are many people preaching email bankruptcy or that we need new tools because email is broken. The problem comes from the fact the people abuse email, make it more difficult for and others to read and respond email. Put various expectation on it with out consideration for how other people function.

Try to think how you use email and how you can improve on it so it’s easier others. As much we can complain about email and how others misuse it, the power to change is in your hands. Change your own behavior. Let others learn from you.

Remember one last, thing the more email you send the more you receive.

Why full inbox is bad for you?

What happens to things that are left in a pile for too long? They start to rotten. First the process is slow and invisible but after a while it gains momentum and it’s almost impossible to stop.

Transfer this to managing email an you get the same result. The more email piles up in your inbox the more difficult it becomes to react in time, to stay on top of things. Messages lie there for weeks even months and people are chasing you two or three times before you react. This is not a way to work. If just these things don’t convince you that working out of your inbox and keeping it full here are few more reasons:

Difficulty to prioritize

Every email in your inbox looks the same and unless you have done something with it like flagged it or moved to a special folder. When emails are unprocessed in you inbox there is no difference between an email form your boss, friend’s photos, daily news update. However if you process your emails and put them in your system only those that are important will be there.

New stuff pushes the old off

Most email clients will show new messages on top of the screen. When email was its early stages this made sense as at that time email provided rapid communication channel so it made sense to show you the most recent stuff first. Nowadays we are far past that time. Whether it’s an email from your boss or another newsletter they will always take the top spot. There is no pardon for importance or context of the message.

Constant re-reading

What happens when you hear a ping on your computer? More than likely you scan the message quickly and then go back to what you were doing before. After a while you go back to your email and read the very same message again. As result you look at twice the number of emails you receive. This is highly unproductive behavior, firstly you break your concentration by checking the message and then you review the same message to see what’s required.

It’s easy to loose them

With large number of messages in your inbox means that important emails will mix with newsletters, company updates, thank you notes etc. With such unstructured setup  it’s very easy accidentally delete email or file them in some random places.

Something is waiting to blow up

An inbox that’s full of uprocessed emails is sign of out of control status. You need to scramble to identify important email, issues that may get you in trouble. Since more and more email arrives in your inbox all the time,  it becomes impossible to maintain any degree of control and then changes of dropping the ball are far greater.
We can debate what’s full inbox, whether it’s 3000 or 10 messages but that does not matter. Also it does not matter that you keep your inbox at zero constantly. More emails will arrive and you will deal with them but you’re not here to do just that.
What’s important is creating a habit of regular review of your email inbox, as often as you need. Do it regularly and do it properly i.e. review, decide, action.