Easy way to follow up on email

For many email is a productivity killer. Constant inflow of data is more of a distraction rather than productivity enabler. Yet at the same time email is the primary tool for communication, exchange of ideas and collaboration.

Jason Womack, a productivity and performance speaker and consultant, in his recent post for the Entrepreneur shares some of his favorite three tips in which you can improve your email management.

One that specifically struck with me is to bcc: yourself on an email that you need to follow up on and flag or move such email into a follow up folder so. This is an excellent way of making sure you have quick access to the items you need to keep and eye on.

To automate this process even further you can cc: your self not could set up a set of rules in your email client which would recognize that you bcc: yourself and would automatically tag or move messages into the right folder. 

As in my day job more and more of my work is tied to email this will be an excellent solution which will simplify tracking of follow up items.

Be sure to check the other two tips as they are very handy too.

How to Transform Your Email into a Productivity Tool

Update 07 May 2013 – while working on setting up my rule to take advantage of this follow up method I realised that I can’t use the bcc: field when sending emails (bcc: means the recipients are hidden).
If you want to automate filing and still use above method include your email address in the cc: field. Then set up a rule to flag or categorise items for follow up when you’re the sender and your email is in the cc: field.

I tested this today and work flawlessly in Outlook.

Email – a productivity drain

Oscar Berg shares some thoughts on email as the biggest productivity drain.
“one thing that has made email the biggest productivity drain for knowledge workers is the burden this style of communication puts on the recipient.”

This is unfortunate consequence of using email, anyone can sent it to you and now you need to react to it event if it’s deleting.

Oscar proposes a following solution: “In an opt-in culture, each and everyone can choose which conversations they want to participate in and contribute to”.

With this approach the communication is moved off email exchanges and to team blogs, SharePoint sites etc. This way all interested/relevant users can participate in making progress on the project.

Unfortunately this only reduces the problem of too much email hence strategies like the Inbox Zero are still useful and worth practicing.

Email is the biggest productivity drain for knowledge workers 

Dealing with email after the holidays

Three weeks ago I wrote about returning to work from holidays and moving back into the production mode. This week I wanted to talk about dealing specifically with email as it’s a such big part of our daily work life.
Returning from holidays means you need to deal with email en mass. There is a ton of masseges that need to be dealt with quickly and efficiently so that you can get to real work.

Start before you go

You can make dealing with email easier by simply preparing before you leave. Firstly set up filters and rules to automatically flag and move emails when you’re away. Define your specific criteria whether these are corporate updates, newsletters that you’re subscribed to or messages sent to your team address. Create specific folder where those messages will be filed. Once when you are back, you can deal with your smaller inbox first and then move to review those special folders to see if there was anything relevant. Very often you will be able to simply delete those messages without reading them.

For those emails that you still would like to review setup some time to catch up on them by blocking your calendar for 15-30min.

When you’re back

Once you’re back your main goal is to get to the relevant messages and get up to speed on different communications and updates.

Start off by reviewing all the meeting requests and task assignments to catch any instances where someone asks for your presence on the first day after the holidays. These items can be easily spotted as they have a little calendar or task icon next to them instead the usual envelope.

Then sort all your emails by sender. Review all the correspondence that was send from different distribution lists and newsletters you maybe subscribed to. Decide whether these items are relevant or not and delete them.

Apply the same approach to emails send by individuals. If those messages don’t contain anything useful delete them too.

Then sort your emails by the topic. Review the last email in the chain and decide whether it’s something that you need to reviwew and keep. If the answer is no then simply delete the whole topic whether that’s 2 emails or 15 and move to another one. If you need to keep the conversation, retain the last message only, as that one will contain the full exchange. One element worth considering is to decide whether you need to keep any of the attachments that may have been exchanged. If you think there is a need for that simply review the emails with the paper clip symbol and check the attachment(s). Save those that seem important.

Now that you have only the messages that are relevant and some that you should review.

Review the remaining

Complete a scan of the remaining messages and establish those that are important and need action first. If they are something easy and quick do them right there. More complex items add them to our task management system.

Those emails that you simply need to read upon later, can be put into a separate folder and you can deal with them over the coming days and catch up on previous weeks events and discussions.

The overall aim is to get up to speed with key events in an hour or so and find the most critical messages and deal with them first.

Stale actions, Reduce the pain of email, Productivity Rules

Couple interesting links and quotes that I wanted to share:
Tips & Tricks Tuesday: Finding next actions that you haven’t acted on – Remember The Milk Blog

I have a list named “Failed Next Action” which contains the Next Action tasks I didn’t complete the last two weeks.

How To Lessen The Pain Of E-Mail Twelve

(1)Send less. Every e-mail you send will eventually generate pieces of e-mail for you; it’s a sort of e-mail karma.

My personal productivity rules

The flip side of making a plan is to make one that is small enough to be done.

3 ways to reduce email friction

In this post I would like to share just three very practical ideas that can make dealing with email much easier and effective.

Filtering

Processing email on regular basis can be a daunting task especially if you receive dozens of email per hour. One of the easier ways of reducing the amount of email in your inbox, aside from changing your email address and not telling anyone, is using filters.

Setting up a filter is very easy. Grab the message you want to filter and look for the message options by either right clik or a selecting the actions from the panel on top of your message window. Next define your criteria like sender, subject, whether your address is in to: field or cc:. This way you will determine which emails get filter out and which not. Lastly decide on the action, whether the message should be deleted straight away, archived or moved to specific folder.

Why it’s worth considering? It takes away time and effort necessary for processing messages which are non-actionalbe or non critical updates. Here is an example. If you subscribe to a number of newsletters that you want to read occasionally, set up ea filter to move those emails from the inbox to a specific folder. This way you don’t have to manage them manually and you can focus on more important emails. Thing to remember is to actually review that folder otherwise it’s becomes this “dust gathering” folder that you avoid. If that’s the case better unsubscribe from those newsletters completely.

Subject line

Very often we need to communicate a single sentence or a brief update that takes one line of text. Best way to pass it is to type it into the subject box. This way the recipient  knows straight away what’s is expected and can skip opening the message.
Instead writing an email which has a subject line “Monthly report” and inside the a one liner ” the report is ready” try putting “monthly report is ready” into the subject line. It’s clear, simple and gets to the point.
One thing to remember when using this method is to be aware of spam filers. Some can pick up messages without text in the body and flag them as spam. If you use auto append signature to emails this will sort the issue.

Keyboard

Throughout the day everyone of us makes a hundred of mouse clicks and moves to find the right option, to change a font, to create a new message or a task. Very often going through these steps can be completely avoided simply by learning keyboard shortcut. Here is a challenge for you. Over then next 3-5 days try to record the functions you’ve have used the most when working inside your email client. Once you know find out if you can use them through a single combination of keys rather the mouse.

You may think that the savings are just minimal and that it’s not worth the hassle but if you compound the savings over a longer period of time you might be quite surprised how much you’re actually saving.

to start with here are some basic keyboar shortcust for MS Outlook and Gmail

MS Outlook keyboard shortcuts:

  • CTRL+N – New item
  • CTRL+SHIFT+A – Appointment
  • CTRL+SHIFT+C – Contact
  • CTRL+SHIFT+M – Message
  • CTRL+SHIFT+J – Journal entry
  • CTRL+SHIFT+N – Note
  • CTRL+SHIFT+K – Task
  • ALT + S – Send
  • CTRL+R – Reply
  • CTRL+F – Forward

Gmail keyboard shortcuts:

  • c  – Compose
  • /  – Search
  • k  – Move to newer conversation
  • j  – Move to older conversation
  • p – Previous message
  • o  or <Enter>  – Open
  • e  – Archive
  • r  – Reply
  • a  – Reply all
  • f  – Forward
  • #  – Delete

Do you have your favorite methods for dealing with email? If so please share them in the comments section.

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.

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.

 

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?

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.

Email as an expectation

Let me start be explaining what’s is email on the basic level. As a primary it’s a communication tool to convey some sort of message. It might be a hello note from a friend, a bunch of photos form holidays, a business proposal, company announcement etc. Email serves this purpose great. It’s ubiquitous, simple to handle and unrestricted.
Second layer of email is to create expectation that the message will cause a reaction of the recipient. This reaction can take various form from a simple delete action to an actual response back to sender.

The unfortunate fact is that email can only pass a very limited non-verbal communication. You can’t see what the sender is feeling when he writes the message you can’t see his eyes, face, body posture etc. Emails have tone and energy but only for the one who type it, the recipient has only words in front and very few cues how to read it. That’s why same text can be read in different ways. This leads to great many misunderstandings, confusions and conflicts.

The problem lies in the fact that senders rarely communicate what is their expectation and what they want from the recipient. This is one of primary reasons we see emails with dozens of people included in cc: field. Unless it’s clearly stated that the message is for information only it mean that the sender is not sure what they do and hope that someone will react and do something.

This approach is not sustainable and not practical for few reasons.

  • when receiving a lot messages a day it makes very difficult to look at every single one and decide what’s needed with out clearly stated point.
  • for sender email is one to one relationship, I’ve sent you an email and I expect response. However repecipent has many such relationships and therefore it’s one against many.
  • Clear expectation gives better chance for desired response. If people know what they are required to do, they are more likely to do it rather than put it for later.

Since you can’t change change other people’s behavior and how they use email but you can change your own. To put it simply lead by example.

Start of by clearly expressing what you want. Use clear and short sentences, avoid long winded explanations. Even complex problems could be explained in a simple way.

You will save other people’s time and energy. You will save yourself hassle and stressing over stuff.