J.D. Meier's Blog

Software Engineering, Project Management, and Effectiveness

Email Therapy

Email Therapy

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One of the scenarios I get asked to coach teams on is, “Email Therapy.”

Basically, this translates to, “Help our team deal with email overload” or “Help our team get un-swamped” or “Help our team process and manage email more effectively.”  In a lot of these scenarios, it’s where the team uses email as a heavy part of their workload.

Why do they ask me?  Usually it’s word of mouth where somebody I’ve mentored shares the approach.  In other cases, it’s a team that wants to adopt Getting Results the Agile Way, but want to first get a handle on their email challenge.

Why Keep an Empty Inbox
I deal with hundreds of email each day, but I keep my inbox empty.  Having an empty inbox is not only a good feeling, but it streamlines things.  My inbox really is for incoming messages.   I keep my inbox clear because I have a place for actions and tasks, a place to stick the email I’ve read, a simple way to schedule time for things that take time, and a simple folder system for archiving useful reference information.   I avoid “death by a 1000 paper cuts” and “paper shuffling” using this approach.  Because my approach is designed to easily deal with large volumes of email, it’s easy for me to batch process.  I limit the amount of administration time I spend, so I can optimize the time I spend on higher value activities.

5 Patterns for Keeping Your Email Inbox Empty
To share my approach, I use patterns.  This way whether you use GMail, HotMail, Outlook, etc., you can still apply the same concepts.

  1. Pattern #1 - One Folder for All Read Mail
  2. Pattern #2 - One Rule to Filter Out Everything Not in Your Immediate World
  3. Pattern #3 - Tickler Lists of Action
  4. Pattern #4 - Schedule Items You Need Time For
  5. Pattern #5 - Reference Folders

Here are the main ideas behind each pattern:

Pattern #1 - One Folder for All Read Mail

  • Don’t use your inbox as a holding station.  Use your inbox as one place to look for incoming messages.
  • Do have a single folder where you can dump all the email after you’ve read it.  In Outlook, I create a folder either on the server or locally.  In GMail, this would be the “All Mail” folder.   In HotMail, you can simply make a folder for all your processed mail.

Pattern #2 - Filter Out Everything Not in Your Immediate World

  • Do create a simple rule to filter out everything that’s not part of your immediate world.  For example, in Outlook, I create a single rule to filter and allow only email sent directly to me, CC me, or to my immediate team, and a few organizational aliases.

Pattern #3 - Tickler Lists of Action

  • Do create a a place to dump your action items outside of mail.   For example, you can use a pad and pen, or keep notepad open, or a single email to dump all your actions.  The power of a separate list in text, means you can quickly prioritize and sort based on any rules you want.  The trick is to extract just the action item from the email.
  • Do use your action items list or “To Do” list as the place to drive your action, not your inbox.  This is your “One Place to Look” for action items throughout the day. 

Pattern #4 - Schedule Items You Need Time For

  • Do create appointments for things that take more time.  For example, in Outlook, you can Drag+Drop the email item to your calendar and create an appointment or reminder.
  • Don’t create a bunch of separate appointments.  Instead, create a block of time to batch process your work.   For example, you might block off time each day, or consolidate to a couple of days, and use that as your “catch up” time.

Pattern #5 - Reference Folders

  • Do create folders for storing copies of emails that you think you will reference key information.
  • Do keep the folders flat.  Avoid nesting.  For example, I simply have a set of folders, A-Z, that I use as a light-weight, email knowledge-base.
  • Do use your Reference Folders to keep copies of key emails.  Rather than keep searching for the information, if you have to keep looking for it, just make a folder for it, and stick it in there.  Key tip – if you find that when you look for the email, it’s not where you expected, then rename the folder to whatever you expected.   This will help you refine your naming strategy over time.

The main anti-patterns that these patterns help you avoid are:

  • Filing email into a bunch of folders.
  • Sifting through email that’s not primarily for you (such as sifting through discussion lists, or other tangents outside of your immediate world or scope.)
  • Nesting folders and having deep-trees of email.

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