In a previous post, I described the 3 core methods I use to manage my email. I described an efficient system I use to manage and file my emails.
However, it is all well and good having a system, but that is all it is – a filing system. In this post I will expand on the foundation previously mentioned, and go over an additional 3 methods I use to efficiently and effectively read, prioritise, and action incoming emails. A lot of things we read about ‘productivity’ tell us to “use this application or that one”. “Use a notepad for your to-do lists”. “You have to use something else to manage your time”.
I’m a huge fan of keeping things simple. Why use multiple applications and trinkets to achieve something, when one application will do? Email applications – especially Microsoft Outlook – are premium task management suites that contain functionality in order for you to fully optimise your tasks, in addition to the usual email functions.
Right, enough time wasting. Let’s move on to getting stuff done.
Read as they arrive
Many productivity tips tell you to only read emails once or twice a day.
Again, Stuff that.
In some industries, it is just not viable to close your email application. Services rely on it, systems rely on it, deadlines rely on it.
For me personally, I hate opening my email after a number of hours (as recommended elsewhere), only to find 20-something unread emails that I need to attend to. My heart sinks, my stress spikes, and it seems like I have too much to do.
A much simpler option is to check when you need to, or after a focus period (I will expand on this in another post).
What I do recommend, though, as a substitute to closing your email completely, is to disable alerts. I don’t have any alerts, but simply check email only when necessary. This can range from a few minutes to half an hour, but never more (unless of course I’m in meetings). Yes, some of our job roles require emails to be attended to as soon as they arrive, but this is rectified as simply as configuring desktop alerts to appear only for those emails required.
TIP: Use your smartphone to check emails during downtime while away from your desk. Read, delete, or file as necessary. This will reduce the amount of reading required when returning to your desk.
Once you’ve read all the email, what next?
We have no unread email in our inbox now, wonderful! But how does this help with task management and getting things done? Prioritisation.
Microsoft Outlook has functionality to assign Categories to your emails and tasks. Create a simple list of categories according to priority. I personally use the following four:
- <5 Minutes
!Next – This means an email is of the highest priority, and needs to be dealt with after your current task.
< 5 Minutes – A task that will take less than 5 minutes. For those times when you have a few minutes to spare.
A and B – Lesser priorities than !Next.
Every, yes every, email must be assigned a priority. Without a priority, how do we know if one email is more important than the next?
TIP: Adjusting the view to show a Category column, will draw attention to the associated priorities of the emails.
Delete anything that you know is not needed. Seriously. Newsletters, notifications, nude pictures. Anything that you know that will not be queried in future. Why clutter your folders with unneeded information?
Archive anything else that does not require your attention. Remember, the objective we’re trying to achieve here is ‘the less you see, the more focus you can give to what is there’.
3. Set a deadline
Wow, our inbox is starting to take shape now. Only email requiring our attention can be seen. We also know which emails are more important than others. But now which one do I attend to first? This is where deadlines need to be set.
Microsoft Outlook has a nice feature whereby we can assign a follow-up date on emails. This is handy, because now we can assign deadlines to our prioritised emails.
Go ahead and do that now.
Your inbox should look quite content now. Everything you see should only be emails that need attending to. Every email should have a priority and a deadline. Without deadlines, they’ll never get done.
One other thing I highly recommend, is to keep your email list as short as possible. Preferably to a number short enough so that there is no need to scroll to find emails. The scrollbar is a dangerous thing. If there is a scrollbar, emails will get missed.
By using these methods, I have a constant handle on what tasks I need to do, how important they are, and when they need to be done by. My inbox is my task hub. I’d be dead in the water without it.