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Email and Time Management

| James Riley |

E-mail is a wonderfully wicked mistress of sorts. The efficiency with which you can communicate certain concepts, without the invasiveness of things like phone calls and instant messages, is amazing. However, e-mail has also become a bit of a behemoth to manage with the overall volume of legitimate e-mail along with spam, being cc’d on threads that have no relation to you and much more. The principles of time management apply to all areas of our life but, for many, e-mail is a great place to apply these as we usually handle a higher volume of information in our e-mail than anywhere else. If we can figure out how to be organized and effectively manage our time with e-mail, I have found that the principles apply in other areas as well.

First, a little about brain physiology and probably a little about psychology. No matter how much we may try, it is impossible for us to process more than one thing at a time. We may be very good at rapidly switching from one thing to the next but we cannot process multiple things at once and that switching process takes up valuable time. Similarly, even if we aren’t actively trying to process something, unresolved items do tax our brain. We have found that, when we allow people to take a task and address it to completion, they are much happier and productive. While this is not always possible, the ideal is a sound target.

If you are anything like I was, originally, I had things sit in my Inbox until I got to them and, sometimes, would forget to do something that was urgent because it got lost in the shuffle. In working with clients, I saw a variety of e-mail management techniques but found that many had similar issues. As I studied how our brains work, time management principles and the technology available around e-mail management, I built an approach that has been very effective for me. First, a few principles:

  1. Touch an e-mail as few times as possible. When I open an e-mail, the goal is to execute on it and get it out of the way as quickly as is reasonable. Each time I have to go back to an e-mail, the cost to handle that e-mail goes up.
  2. If I can’t execute on something relatively quickly, move it out of the way but make sure that, when it is time to address it, I will be reminded.
  3. Finish each day with an empty Inbox. This doesn’t necessarily mean that I have completed everything. Future items have been scheduled on my calendar and will prompt me when the time is right to handle them.

Here is my workflow when handling e-mails:

  1. When I’m reading my e-mails, my goal, which is not always achievable, is to only touch that e-mail once. When I take the time to read my e-mails, I try, whenever possible, to immediately address each e-mail and file that e-mail away so I can cleanly move on to the next task. This keeps my Inbox clean, relevant to what is ahead of me and frees my brain from having to navigate a bunch of clutter. One catch to this approach, as I’ve been burned by it a few times, is to make sure that you are not replying to the first e-mail of a long thread. I’ve replied to an early e-mail on a thread only to realize, as I go through the rest of my e-mails, that my reply was unnecessary due to a later comment. To avoid this issue, I generally do a scan of my e-mails before digging into each one. Another solution, if your software can do it, can be to have your e-mail client organize e-mails into conversations.
  2. If an e-mail is not immediately addressable but will be shortly, I, usually, leave it, marked as read, in my Inbox. Except for rare occasions, these e-mails are not usually left there overnight.
  3. If an e-mail is not to be addressed within, say, the next 24 hours, I will schedule it.

Here are some notes on the scheduling idea:

  • Time management experts have found that scheduling out your day is a critical way to maximize your efficiency. While this is not always possible, the ideal is sound. For me, most of the time, if I’m not immediately going to handle something, I schedule it and remove it from my inbox. This allows me to not have to navigate around it and the activity will remind me to act on it when the time is right.
  • Some will use flags and the sort with e-mails but I find that this ends up being rather confusing as, when you do this, you could leave that e-mail in your inbox but you constantly have to navigate around it. If you move it to another folder, it is out of sight and out of mind and easy to forget about. For me, I will usually create an appointment on my calendar and attach the e-mail in question to the appointment.
  • If I want to handle that e-mail at a specific time, I block out that time on my calendar with the appointment.
  • If I simply want to handle it on a specific day, I place the appointment on the appropriate day for 6 – 6:05a. This gets it in my reminders but stays out of the way of other things. As I handle the e-mail, I will change the appointment to reflect the actual time I handled the e-mail so the result is that my calendar ends up being an accurate reflection of the work I did.
  • When scheduling the work on the e-mail, I will create a summary along the lines of “Reply to Bob’s Request for Time Off – Attached”. If I have a specific deadline, I may set the summary to be something like “Reply to Bob’s Request for Time Off – Attached – DUE 9/5”.

For me, I have found that this approach accomplishes several things:

  1. Helps me not drop the ball. How many times has an e-mail accidentally been put in the wrong folder or gotten lost among 10k other e-mails in you inbox? By definitively addressing everything, I make sure I have a clear path to execution.
  2. Let my brain handle one thing at a time so I can focus. I find myself less tired at the end of the day and I believe that it allows me to accomplish more in the long-run.
  3. Avoids starting tomorrow with a lot of unresolved items from yesterday, sitting in a highly undefined state as to what the next step is.

I hope this has been helpful for you. As with anything like this, my approach does not have to be yours. Take this input for what it is and adapt it to fit what you need and do. If you would like to talk more about e-mail management, policies or anything else, please click HERE to contact us!