Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Email Zen

I've been on a time management kick for the last 18 months.  When I hit bottom and began my search for a better way to manage my time I kept coming across "GTD" which I soon found was an acronym for Getting Things Done by David Allen.  I incorporated Mr. Allen's method into my time management so I can't take credit for the foundation of what I've put together.  We now use this in employee onboarding and I'm so excited about it I share it with anyone who will listen.

The most helpful application for me has been e-mail and getting my inbox to zero.  That's right....zero emails in my inbox.  It's pretty nice to not open up a list of 100 things that are incomplete.

The problem is, nobody ever taught us how to use email effectively.  If you're like most people (including me 18 months ago) you use your inbox as your "working area" and you have a collection of folders where you file things under people's names, customer names, project names, and you're really not sure why because you rarely, if ever, go back to look at them.  

Try the method below.  Set up the folders I've outlined and follow the flowchart.  I'll explain why this works so well at the end.  
  • Inbox – The inbox is simply that; a folder that contains all incoming messages.   The inbox should be “processed” regularly but only those emails that take less than 2 minutes should actually be completed from the inbox.    Processing consists of reviewing the email and following the flowchart below to determine how the email should be treated.  If it goes to a blue box, reassign it to that folder.  Otherwise, treat it as directed.  
  • Reference – emails that do not require action but may be needed in the future for reference (travel confirmation, etc.)
  • Waiting For –emails that have been delegated or are waiting for a response before action can be taken
  • Someday/Maybe – emails that require action but are of low priority
  • Pending - tasks that require action

When you are ready to process your Inbox, follow the processing flowchart below: 

The reason this works so well is because you use folders to define what action should take place.  You can therefore process your mail once while in your inbox and never again because the email is in it's proper action folder.  Mr. Allen states that the act of changing our focus from one task to another requires us to disengage, reorient ourselves, and being working again which introduces small amounts of stress.  By leaving email in your inbox you're reviewing it over and over in search of a task that may or may not be ready for action.  Once you place the email in the folder which defines the action you can focus only on that type of action.  As an example, I review my "waiting for" folder once a week and follow up on anyone who owes me a response.  I can then leave it alone for the rest of the week and not think about those items because I know where they are and know I will follow up on them again.  I process my emails a few times a day and don't have to live in my inbox.  I then have uninterrupted time to spend in my pending box on emails that require my focus.

Give it a shot and let me know what you find. I hope you like it as much as I do.