“I know the email is in here, just hold on.”
I was recently asked to forward an email I had received to someone else. I couldn’t remember the exact title of the message that I wanted, so I spent a few minutes searching and scrolling. Fortunately, I only had a couple dozen messages in my inbox. I’ve seen people scroll through thousands of messages in a desperate hunt for that one phone number, street address or appointment confirmation. It’s agonizing. Why do we do that to ourselves?
An interesting thing about email is that, for many, it’s both a delivery system and a storage facility. When we “check email,” we often open our email software, browse the many messages contained therein, and then quit the application without removing any of the messages.
Consider the paper mail that reaches your mailbox: you don’t open the box, sort through the envelopes and then close it back up again, leaving everything inside. Nor do you return from the grocery store and leave brimming bags on the kitchen counter. Yet, email is often ignored in this way, to our detriment.
I recommend using a simple four-step process to get your electronic mailbox as close to empty as you can, every day. The steps are:
- Decide what each message is.
- Decide what must be done.
- Do what must be done.
- Delete the message (or archive it in a separate folder, if that is what your employer directs).
It’s an adaptation of David Allen’s Getting Things Done method for processing email, which is a highly formalized system of productivity improvement. You can read David’s book (and I recommend that you do), but you needn’t follow his instructions in full to reap huge benefits. Here’s a simplified adaptation that I use for managing email.
Defining Work Time
Before we begin exploring the how, let’s define the when. The good news about email access is also the bad news: it’s nearly ubiquitous. You can send and receive email at various points of the day. For those of us with connected smartphones, email is almost available during every waking moment of our day.
As such, it’s easy to succumb to the temptation to check it whenever the opportunity arises. Instead, tame that tendency by defining email time. I like to check email at 8:00 AM, 12:00 noon and 5:00 PM. This has several benefits. First, it familiarizes others with my communication schedule. It also helps me stay focused when I do sit down to work through email. Finally, it alleviates the guilt of not checking during off hours. Define a time to sit down with your computer, smart phone, or tablet and work with your email. All set? Now, let’s begin.
What is it?
When a new email message arrives, you must ask yourself, “What is this?” It sounds silly but it’s crucial. There are three possible answers:
- It’s garbage
- It’s something I need to do
- It’s something I might refer to later
That’s it. Every message you ever receive will fall into these three categories. Now that you’ve identified what each message is, proceed to step two.
Decide what must be done
The first one is simple: garbage. As soon as you see it, delete it. Spam, advertising you aren’t interested in, messages from old mailing lists you’ve lost interest in, etc. It’s all trash, so trash it. Immediately.
The next category is the action category. These messages require someone — typically you — to do something. For instance, “Call Jane about the committee meeting,” “Forward the presentation to Frank,” or “Ask Faith about the campout next week.” Once you’ve identified what the required action is, make note of it in the appropriate place (on your to-do list or calendar) and then delete the message. Yes, delete it. (Unless, again, your company requires you to retain your email for legal reasons. In this case, move it to an archive folder.)
The final category is reference material. These messages do not require action, but they do hold information that could be useful someday. Identify what that information is, store it in the appropriate place and then delete the email. Yes, delete it. On to step three.
Do what must be done (the appropriate place)
This step is a biggie. Just as you don’t pull a hot turkey out of the oven without first knowing where you’re going to set it down, you should’t delete that email message until you’ve identified a trusted place to put its important information. This is what David Allen calls a “trusted system.” Essentially, it’s an obvious, reliable stake in the ground that holds your information.
It can be anything you want. You might choose a paper notebook — I carry one around for jotting a daily task list. There’s lots of software available, from simple to involved, which you can use for this purpose. My choice is Evernote, because it’s simple to use, powerful, cross-platform (Mac, Windows, web browsers and an increasing number of mobile devices are supported) and above all, reliable. Evernote works by creating virtual Notebooks, each of which can contain several notes. Notes and notebooks can be sorted, categorized and organized to your heart’s content, and online sync keeps them up-to-date across all you devices. So, if you create a note on your computer, it will show up on your phone or iPad without you having to do a thing.
Evernote is fantastic for storing reference material, or what I call “cold storage.” Receipts from online purchases, how-to’s, restaurant menus, theatre schedules, the kids’ sporting information, contracts and more. Once you have the pertinent information in a reliable system you trust, you can delete the email message.
As for action items, how you handle these is up to you. Evernote will create an action list, if you decide to use it. You can also create a list in a notebook or task-oriented software like Remember The Milk, Teux Deux or even Omnifocus if you want to go hard-core.
The important thing is trust. You must have faith in the system you choose, whatever it is. That way your brain will stop pestering you and, more importantly, you’ll be able to delete those messages. So, to recap. When an email message arrives, follow these steps:
- Decide what it is.
- Decide what must be done (trash, define a task or place in cold storage).
- Do what must be done.
- Delete the message.