Optimize your life #4 – how to manage e-mail (2/2)

This post is the second post in a series on how to manage your e-mail.  The first post is here.

Tip #3 – Use a “Getting Things Done” workflow for managing e-mail.

I’m a huge fan of the “Getting Things Done” system for managing commitments, and managing e-mail using GTD’s workflow definitely works.  Here are some specific guidelines for setting up your e-mail according to GTD.

1. Set up GTD folders.

Create a folder called “Action Required” under your Inbox. Then create a folder called “Reference” under your Inbox.  Organize and create any extra subfolders under Reference as necessary…this is like your filing system for e-mails and depends mostly on personal preference.

2. Move all your existing e-mail out of your Inbox and into the Action Required or Reference folders.

One of the big principles of this system is keeping your Inbox empty.  So, if you have stuff already sitting in your Inbox, you need to move it out.  Decide whether each e-mail needs to be acted on, and either move it to Action Required or Reference as necessary.

3. Moving forward, keep the Inbox empty by filing incoming e-mails.

Always move new e-mails to the Action Required folder or Reference folder after you’ve read them and figured out whether action needs to be taken.

The analogy David Allen uses for an empty Inbox is the blinking answering machine light.  When there’s an e-mail in your Inbox, the light is blinking.  The way to stop the blinking is to grab the e-mail and file it correctly.  If your answering machine light was blinking all the time, it wouldn’t be much use…and so it is with an Inbox that you leave items in.  Your Inbox has to be emptied, or why do you have it in the first place?

Now, you might be asking…what does doing this buy me?  Allow me to explain further.

The “normal” e-mail workflow…why it doesn’t work

Let’s take a look at a typical inbox.
The problem with an inbox where every e-mail stays in the inbox by default is that your commitments (aka the
stuff you need to be taking care of to avoid irritating other people) are
completely intermingled with e-mails that you’ve already taken care of
and other e-mails that you never ever need to look at again.

What happens all too often with an inbox lacking in GTD organization is the following.

1. User receives e-mail, reads e-mail, decides he needs to do something with it but can’t get to it right this instant.
2. User checks inbox several times over the next few days. The important e-mail in question continues to drift further down the list. Meanwhile, every time the user scans his e-mail, the important e-mail is visually drowned out by the white noise of the surrounding crap, AND the user wastes time scanning through e-mails that have already been taken care of trying to remember what still needs doing.
3. Several days later, the user eventually forgets about the e-mail becuase he’s busy dealing with some other e-mail that he got an hour ago. Oh well, hope nobody really needed that information!

Now, does that sound familiar to you?  I’m betting it does.  I’ve seen it happen with many folks, and, honestly, it used to happen to me too.  It’s not the best way of handling e-mail.

There’s usually a person on the other end that was waiting for you to reply. When you don’t, it slowly, but surely, lowers your capital with them.  Conversely, when you know how to deal with every e-mail responsibly, people begin to exhibit trust in you.  They know you’ll move the ball forward…and that’s equally good for building your reputation with co-workers and friends.

Here’s a better way to deal with e-mails.

The Getting Things Done e-mail workflow…why it works

Let’s look at the advantages afforded by using the Action Required and Reference folders.

The workflow I described before essentially forces you to decide which e-mails are commitments and which ones aren’t. Any commitment you have needs to be in a single place where you know you won’t forget about it.  Hence the Action Required folder.

The benefits of organizing this way are:

1. You cannot forget to take action on something, since everything you need to take action on is all in one place. Instead of having to remember where each individual e-mail is that you needed to do something with, the only thing you need to remember is to look at your Action Required folder once in a while.

If you want to get work done, you just go to the “Action Required” folder and start hacking away. Suddenly, your co-workers are calling you Mister Reliable because you don’t miss anything.

2. There is now a clear visual warning sign whenever you are overcommitting yourself.

The amount of e-mail you get doesn’t necessarily correlate well with your workload, so having e-mails scrolling down your window doesn’t raise any red flags. Heck, everyone’s e-mail boxes are overflowing…it’s normal! The amount of stuff in your “Action Required” list, on the other hand, is directly correlated. If you have a scrollbar showing up in your action required folder, you’ve definitely got some work to do, buddy.

For me, if I have over 15-20 e-mails in the “Action Required” list, I know I either need to buckle down or start warning people off when they ask me to do more stuff. Usually it’s a combination of both.

3. You don’t have to keep wasting mental effort looking at e-mails you’ve already dealt with. Wasting a few seconds here and there glancing through old e-mails isn’t the biggest problem…the real danger is that legitimate e-mails that need action from you get drowned out by the sea of other e-mails.

Hopefully, I’ve done a good job of explaining why organizing e-mail in this fashion works so damn well.  Trust me, this really helps.

Tip #4 – Use filters to help sort automated e-mails from actual people e-mails.

Most automated e-mails and mailing lists require no response from you whatsoever and have much lower priority compared to e-mails from people.  Therefore, having to sort through them all the time is usually more distracting than beneficial.  My suggestion to you is to use rules or filters to route those e-mails directly to your Reference folder.  That way, you can read them at your leisure without mixing them in with your potential commitments.

In Outlook, you can accomplish this by going to “Tools/Rules and Alerts…”

And then setting up the appropriate filters in this dialog.

Tip #5 – Know when to use e-mail

E-mail, in the grand scheme of things, is a relatively new medium of communication.  It is not the best, any more than you would call a plane better than a car.  And it’s not the worst…any more than you would call a bike worse than a car.  It is important to remember that e-mail took hold because it filled some gaps in the way that people communicate. When you move away from those strengths, you start losing what made e-mail good for communicating in the first place.

It’s actually fairly important for everyone to understand when e-mail adds value to communication vs when it doesn’t.  Let’s dig into that statement.

Most of the time, using e-mail is just fine…you send a document around and ask people to take a look, or you check in with friends and ask them to get back to you at their convenience.

But have you ever heard jokes/horror stories about employees getting berated or even fired over e-mail?  The manager who sends those e-mails is a classic example of someone who doesn’t understand the rules of communication. Although criticism is sometimes warranted, you can at least communicate some level of maturity, respect and constructiveness face to face as you offer feedback.  That sort of dual meaning is nearly impossible to communicate over e-mail…it’s just outright criticism.  And, of course, firing someone over e-mail is simply a cop-out of egregious proportions.  Not only can you not show maturity or respect in such a situation, but any manager who does such a thing brings real risk on himself and the company.  A recent HBR article shows that employees tend to file complaints not based on the actual merits, but on whether or not they felt they were treated respectfully and fairly.  Misusing e-mail can literally be an expensive mistake!

When you misuse e-mail, at best, you simply waste someone’s time.  At worst, you irritate, offend, and escalate situations inappropriately.  That’s why understanding the strengths and weaknesses of e-mail is important.

Here’s a simple list of the pros and cons of e-mail as a medium of communication.

  • Good because you can fire and forget.  Before e-mail, you had to send letters to people or call them.  Thankfully, there’s virtually no reason to send a letter now as opposed to sending an e-mail.  E-mails are easier to send, cost virtually nothing, and get there nearly instantaneously.  As for the phone, calling people often costs money and requires you to be prepared for a potentially lengthy discussion…and you have to try repeatedly to get a hold of the person in question if they aren’t available.  If the situation isn’t urgent, the fire and forget style of e-mail is much easier on the sender and the receiver.
  • Good for detailed communication or attaching documents.  You can send a whole lot of detailed electronic information over e-mail as easily as you can a few sentences, and that’s important.  For example, if I’ve written a detailed product spec or taken notes at a meeting, I’m not going to try to read the thing to someone over the phone.  Score one for e-mail!
  • Good for one-to-many communications.  Need to tell a whole bunch of people something? E-mail is a great way to do it. Calling a meeting takes a lot of steps and is often too much effort relative to what you need to say.  Using the phone? You’d have to call each and every person and hope you got a hold of them.
  • Bad for urgent communication.  Most people don’t live on e-mail.  Even if some people do, most of the time you probably don’t know who they are.  As I stated previously, in a proper organizational culture, the majority of people will not be checking their e-mail constantly…they’ll be figuring out and implementing your next big thing.  That’s a good thing…let them do it!  My point is, if you need a response quickly, use the phone, IM, or just walk up and say hi.  That’s the most effective thing you can do, and it’s respectful to boot!
  • Bad for figuring out or hashing out problems.  Brainstorming, dialogue, and understanding are facilitated heavily by rich communication channels.  That’s why complicated or vague matters should be handled face to face or over the phone.  First, because in unclear situations you run a very high risk of parties misunderstanding other parties and confusing the problem solving process.  Second, because complex discussions change direction so rapidly, the cycle of feedback that normally takes place very quickly in a face to face situation will often take place incredibly slowly over e-mail.

My opinion?  If most of your communication with team members is over e-mail, it usually means something is wrong.  Teams need to communicate face to face to build momentum and  gel with each other.  In many teams…and especially in software development, difficult problem solving is a daily fact of life.  Trying to get that done over e-mail only slows that process down.

It’s usually OK to handle more communication with external parties over e-mail, as long as you keep in mind that there are appropriate times to transition to phone calls and meetings.


I think that about wraps up my little series here on e-mail.  The bottom line is that e-mail is a wonderful tool for communicating with other people, and I wouldn’t want to live without it.  But, as with many things, there are good ways to use it, and bad ways to use it as well.  I hope that by reading these articles, you’ve gained some understanding of how to avoid the distractions and pitfalls of e-mail.  Once you understand those, you can focus
on taking advantage of e-mail in ways that enhance your productivity and respect the time of others.

Thanks for reading!

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