How to Be More Effective Processing Your Email
For a guy who doesn't like spending time with email, I do seem to be writing a lot about it lately. So far we've talked about:
- email's proper place in our lives (hint: it's not at the top).
- that email management should be a guilt free activity. Do your best and forget about the rest.
- how to ensure that email from your high priority senders is reaching you.
- structuring your inbox so you can use the lowest amount of mental energy possible to process your email.
My last word on email (for the foreseeable future at least) and the last piece of the email puzzle we need to discuss is how to actually process your email.
A Process for a Process
Let's be honest, processing email is not rocket science, but it is an activity that has most of us perplexed. Search "how to process email" in Google and you will find nearly 1 billion pages offering tools, tips and suggestions to help you manage your email overload.
We should be aware that there is no perfect email system for everyone. People have different work styles and demands and what works well for one person may be a detriment to another person. However, here are a few suggestions that will improve your performance at processing your email backlog effectively.
These suggestions are tool agnostic. When applicable, I give the relevant information for my email client (Microsoft Outlook on Mac) but these same techniques should be applicable to all clients.
You're about to do battle with your inbox.
Processing email is a necessary activity; it's not supposed to be fun. When you're in your inbox, you are madly Archiving, and Replying to the emails that are waiting for you. And you're doing it as fast as you can.
Processing email is not a fun distraction. Get in, get out, stay focused.
2. Batch your email processing into discrete sessions
I process email twice per day for about 45 minutes each time. 45 minutes works for me, my schedule, and my current workload. This doesn't mean I can process all my email in only 90 minutes, but I can handle the most important items. Beyond 90 minutes per day, my return on time invested decreases substantially.
The time you need to spend working with your email will undoubtedly be different than mine, and will likely evolve over time.
How much time should you spend? If you regularly process your inbox down to zero it tells me you are spending too much time. Give yourself positive constraints by reducing the amount of time available for processing email. It should always feel like a race against the clock.
I average about 200 unprocessed (ie. "unread") emails in my inbox after a processing session (I measure the number of emails that have been received in the past two weeks. Older unread emails are not counted.)
Keep in mind that I always have zero unprocessed emails from VIP senders (hint: set up special processing for your high priority senders).
3. Keep your email program in "Offline Mode" (or simply closed down) when you're not in a processing session
I use Microsoft Outlook which means my calendar client is integrated with my email client. I tend to look at my calendar frequently throughout the day so I leave Outlook open for reference. To avoid the distraction that is inherent with an ever updating inbox, I keep Outlook in "Offline Mode" (Outlook -> Work Offline) so it doesn't fetch any new email until I ask it to.
4. Disable all email notifications
Disabling notifications in general is an important tool to give yourself the space needed to focus. This includes sounds, popup windows, and the seemingly harmless 'icon change'.
It is important for me to keep Outlook in "Offline Mode" to ensure the icon in the dock doesn't change to alert me that there is a new email. In Outlook for Mac OS X there is no other way to disable the icon change. When I see the little envelope on top of the Outlook icon, some part of my brain says:
"Oooh, something new. I bet it's more interesting than what you're working on now. Let's check it!"
Don't let the silly things like icons distract you from your task at hand. Disable it, close the app, or put it in "Offline Mode".
5. When you process email, keep it time-boxed and measure yourself
As I mentioned previously, I typically process email in sessions of 45 minutes. If I have less time than that, then I will reduce it to 30, 20, or even 15 minutes. Having a regular routine of processing email is more important than doing it for exactly x minutes each day.
I feel like this is a strange confession but I keep a spreadsheet to measure my email processing performance and to help me stay focused. It sounds crazy and obsessive to measure email processing performance but it truly works by using a concept called gamification (giving gaming elements, in this case, achievement, to a non-game activity, email processing). Since I know the spreadsheet will tell me my results at the end of each session, I move fast and stay focused because I want to achieve a "personal best" in Emails Processed Per Minute.
Remember the importance of having the correct mindset. If you're like me, you can easily get distracted. Processing email is like a tactical raid against the enemy (that is your email backlog). Get in, handle as many emails as you can, and then get out. Don't linger. Don't get distracted. Then feel good when you're done.
6. Prioritize the high priority senders first, then work your way from most recent to oldest
When you start a session, process the email from your high priority senders (like your boss or your key customers) first. This is best done by using the concept of "high priority senders" discussed here.
Without this crucial step, you will not be able to leave unread emails in your inbox without the nagging feeling that you're missing something important. Remember, you want to be able to do your best and forget about the rest not stress about everything you missed.
After you've dealt with your high priority emails, start at the top (most recent) of your inbox and work your way down (to the oldest).
In general, issues at work have a tendency to resolve themselves with time (typically via other means such as phone calls, other people replying to the email, or as discussion topics in meetings), therefore I've found that the most relevant emails are also the most recent.
Microsoft Outlook and most modern email clients allow you to display your emails in Conversation Mode or Threaded Mode (in Mac Outlook, this is enabled by View -> Arrange By -> Conversations). Conversation Mode simply means your client will group conversations in the same email thread together allowing you to process them all at the same time, increasing your speed.
7. Process until you run out of time, then stop
Don't be tempted to let email take over and expand to fit the time you have. Keep it timeboxed and when you're out of time, be done!
Let's finish by looking at the complete process. Here are the basic steps I use during an email processing session:
- Open my email processing spreadsheet. Add a new row for today's date.
- Put my email client into Offline Mode (if it's not already).
- Look at the total number of email in my inbox (I use a Smart Folder to show only the email received in the past two weeks). Enter that information in my spreadsheet.
- Set a timer for x minutes.
- Off to the races! Start processing email.
- If an email will take me more than 5 minutes, I move it directly to my Follow-up email folder to handle as a separate task.
- When the timer goes off I am out of time and stop.
- Tally up the number of emails I sent (sitting in my Outbox waiting to be sent) and the new number of emails in my inbox. I add this data to my Email Processing spreadsheet and calculate my stats for that session.
- I put the email program back into Online mode (to allow sending of the email I just wrote).
- I go through my Follow-up folder and create tasks for those emails. After a task has been created, I move that email to the Archive folder.
- I put my email client back into Offline Mode.
- I feel good and move onto something more productive with the rest of my day.
Take care, and I'll talk to you next time.