Ditch Your Archaic Email Organization Routine
Several months ago I sat down with a colleague, Steve, at their desk to jointly review some slides I was going to present the next day. Previously, we'd decided to have an ad-hoc meeting to walkthrough and review a draft of the material I sent him several days before.
Steve had already reviewed my presentation and filed it away in his email program. When I joined Steve at his desk, he apologized for not being prepared for our meeting and informed me he needed a moment to open up the presentation.
Fine, no problem at all. I thought.
And then I watched an email management train wreck occur before my very eyes.
Steve knew he had read my email and the attached presentation, and afterwards had filed the email away, so he began looking through his various email folders to find it. Apparently he couldn't quite remember where he had previously filed it because there were several folder names that looked applicable to my email.
As I was watching him frantically scroll up and down through his email folder list, I was able to see just how many nested folders and sub-folders Steve had created over the years. His email folders looked like a complete taxonomy of our operations and projects over time. Plus, a few temporary-turned-permanent folders were added like "Important", "Look at these", "Process this week", "tax stuff", "Project", and "shopping".
As time passed, and I was sitting next to him quietly amazed at the ridiculousness of his inbox, he began to panic and scroll more erratically. After another minute or so, Steve admitted defeat and apologized that "it was just here somewhere but he wasn't sure where. Would you mind re-sending it?".
Amazed, I walked back to my desk and re-sent the presentation to Steve. We were able to review the material and get prepared for the next day. Besides wasting 10 minutes of our time, no real harm had been done. But Steve was embarrassed, and I was embarrassed for him. He was a solid professional in most aspects of his job, but apparently email management was a weak spot for him.
A Common Problem
After my experience with Steve, I developed an interest in how my colleagues manage their email. I made it a point to talk to people at their desks and I saw many of their inboxes and offline folders during the process.
What I thought was an isolated issue Steve had with his inbox was in fact a very common occurrence in my office. Apparently Steve is not unusual in his love for complex folders and email filing habits. In fact, unnecessary email taxonomy seems to be a chronic affliction with knowledge workers today, and it's slowly stealing away their time and energy.
The Email Priority Rule
Steve couldn't remember where he put my email. But why should he have to? Also, how long did it take Steve to choose which folder to archive my email into originally?
Because email is so prevalent in the day-to-day existence of knowledge workers today, it's crucial that processing email is as quick and painless as possible.
The Email Priority Rule:
- Use Case 1: Easy to file (the common case)
- Use Case 2: Easy to find (the less common case)
You file away a lot of email because you receive a lot of email. Since this activity is so common, it is important to optimize your workflow such that filing email is uber fast and effortless.
The second most common email use case is looking for a previous email that you filed away. It's important to be able to find that email easily, but it's okay if the process is a little slower than use case 1 (filing email).
Make sense? If not, one place to take inspiration is from Google's Gmail service. Gmail provides a way to 'archive' email (removing it from your inbox) with a single button click. They also provide a way to search for email (in any 'folder') with a single click and then typing a search string.
Google successfully follows the Email Priority Rule and they make both use cases simple and fast.
So, if you don't use Gmail for your business email, how can you replicate it's speed and power in your inbox?
A Cure for the Disease
Remember back to the Email Manifesto. Keeping a neat and tidy inbox is not how you create value in the world. In fact, I've yet to see anyone who gets paid to process their own email. Email processing is a method to help you create value, connect to your colleagues and customers. It is not a purpose unto itself.
To help you get through the email processing stage as painlessly as possible, you now get only three folders in your email program.
Only three. I'm serious.
The email folders are:
- Inbox: this the default place where your email comes in (and likely piles up)
- Archive: after you've processed something from the Inbox, you put it in the Archive folder
- Follow-up: if you don't have time to process the email right there, move it to the Follow-up folder and take action on it later. For me, if the response/action will take me more than (approximately) 5 minutes to process, then it goes into the Follow-up folder and becomes a task to prioritize and execute in the future.
In this new model, you are unable to spend time moving mail to and from various folders.
Optimizing the Workflow
But we can do even more to optimize our workflow for processing email. The goal is to avoid spending any mental energy thinking about where an email should go; all you need to do is get it out of your Inbox and move on to the next email.
Like any workflow, the fewer number of key presses and mouse clicks you can use to accomplish repetitive tasks, the more efficient (and happy) you'll be. To support this goal, I use the mouse as little as possible, and use keyboard shortcuts wherever possible.
Once you get proficient with the keyboard shortcuts, the entire process of processing an email will be fast, fluid, and subconscious.
|Set up keyboard shortcuts for all of your commonly used email processing actions|
|Archive||Move email to Archive folder||Applescript I use for Mac that I map to COMMAND + DOWN-ARROW|
|Follow-up||Move email to Follow-up folder||Applescript I use for Mac that I map to COMMAND + UP-ARROW|
|Reply/Reply-all||Create a new email as a reply (or Reply-all) to an existing email||COMMAND+ R (on Mac) |
COMMAND+SHIFT+R (on Mac)
|Send||Send an open email draft||COMMAND+ ENTER (on Mac)|
|Scrolling up and down through the inbox||Scrolling up and down through the inbox||UP-ARROW, DOWN-ARROW|
Two Additional Tips
- Deleting email. There is almost no reason to delete email in today's world. Storage is cheap and searching through email is easy and fast. Archive it and move on. No need to spend any energy deciding whether to delete or to archive an email. Even if it looks useless now, you never know when you might need that email again in the future.
- Use a "Reading Pane", "Preview Pane" or similar function in your email program. If you email program supports it, enable this function to allow you to view contents of an email without actually opening it. You'll find that many emails can be skimmed in the "Reading Pane" and archived, without going through the extra effort of actually opening them.
Take care, and I'll talk to you next time.