Thought I’d share and email management trick that I’ve used for over a decade to have zero emails in my inbox every day. Even when I was managing many simultaneous projects and receiving hundreds of emails a day.
We all know the rule of thumb that we should only touch an email once – and decide if we should 1) Trash/File/Archive it, 2) Delegate it or 3) Handle it. Also, I’m assuming that everyone has already optimized their inboxes with rules to move messages (like daily notifications or reports) to a folder and unsubscribed from annoying mail.
So getting back to the 1) Trash/File/Archive it, 2) Delegate it or 3) Handle it. Remember the goal is to only touch the message once.
1) Trash/File/Archive It – This is the easiest one of inbox management. Trashing is easy, filing and archiving are easy, just move the message to the appropriate folder. Search indexes have gotten so good, that having a great filing/foldering system isn’t as necessary as it was 10 years ago.
My trick comes to help manage the other two 2) Delegate it or 3) Handle it because what if you worry that the person you delegate to won’t take care of it (putting on my follow-up project management hat, not my manager of people hat) or maybe you’re not ready to “handle it” yet – you need time to think and/or more information from other sources.
My trick is a set of folders that help organize items that are still Outstanding (either by you or someone else) that then are subfoldered by context/topic. I name this folder with a “1.” because it is then directly under the Inbox. For example:
- 1. Outstanding
- Project A
- Project B
- Topic A
- Topic B
- Regular/Archive Folders
- Folder 1
- Folder 2
- Folder 3
- 1. Outstanding
I usually only have up to four sub-folders under Outstanding. Outstanding can mean either something that I need to respond to (Handle It) or something that I’ve delegated (when I delegate the email, I bcc myself to have a copy of the email to store in that folder). It makes it very easy to then “Reply to All” and ask for a status. When you send out requests for information to help answer a “Handle It” email, you can also bcc yourself to remind yourself that you reached out to so-and-so and can see when to follow up.
Another example of an Outstanding folder could be a grouping of emails/items that you need to review with someone, for example, for my one-on-one with my boss, I can accumulate some emails/follow-ups directly for him.
In every folder, including my Inbox, I sort the messages by Subject. Some like to use the Conversation Grouping feature, I just haven’t found to like it. Sorting by Subject lets me see the latest in the thread, and I can move the non-latest to the appropriate Archive folder (or delete them if you prefer).
Throughout the day, I clear out my Inbox by one of the following steps:
- Trash/File/Archive the messages (remember clear out the messages that are not the most current in the thread – your Project Manager will thank you for always replying to the latest).
- Delegate/forward the email. If it’s something that I need to follow up on, I bcc myself, move the other emails to the appropriate Archive folder and move the email I bcc’d myself into the Outstanding folder for follow-up.
- Handle It. If I don’t handle it right away, I will either respond back with an email that I need more time (bcc myself so that email goes into the Outstanding folder) or just move the email to the appropriate Outstanding folder.
Then as I have time during the day or at the end of the day, I’ll go through my Outstanding folders. Again, emails are sorted by Subject so that if there are multiple emails with the same subject, they’re grouped together (although I try to avoid this by moving older same-subject Outstanding emails to the appropriate archive folder).
Because the Outstanding folders are organized by context, I’m able to focus on my thoughts on all the items that are outstanding for that particular project vs. jumping back and forth and paying the price for context shifting. It helps to see everything grouped together so see what’s left to be done for each. Once something is taken care of, the emails go to the appropriate Archive folder. When an Outstanding folder is no longer needed, I delete it (even if I need to recreate it later in the week/month – it’s about reducing clutter and noise).
Hope this helps, let me know if you have any questions.