Many of us consider email to be the most efficient way to communicate for work. How’s that been working for you lately?
The trouble is, the fundamentals of email technology haven’t changed significantly since its invention, but many of us use it as the de facto place to inform and have important discussions. For a lot of folks, myself included, staring at a huge inbox and wading through email to find that really important thing you need to do can be a nightmare. It becomes even harder when you live a mobile lifestyle between multiple devices, and are trying to keep what’s important at top of mind.
This was a huge problem for me. Just ask my team members. So I started looking around for solutions and attempted a few GTD techniques around Inbox Zero that worked for quite a few folks. The problem I found was that changing my behavior drastically and becoming super organized wasn't easy, especially if it meant I needed to spend lots of time sorting my Inbox. I’d rather spend my time creating things and having fun – not wading through a sea of information that I know darn well isn't going to go away. So I stepped back and defined a process for managing email that would be “good enough.”
After identifying my goals, it was easier to create a formula that seems to work. I know it won’t work for everyone, but the more I talk about how it cured my Inbox nightmares at the QuickBase offices, the more I’m convinced this process might help others too. What’s great about the method is that it gives leeway for some chaos, and at times demands chaos to be successful. I call it my Near Zero Inbox Recipe, and I thought I would share what I've learned and see if others have some great ideas to make the process even more successful.
As Six Flags says, “More Flags, More Fun.” Every modern email client has a way to flag emails that I absolutely need to address. I only use the flag itself (and never unset it) – ignoring the Project, Task and Due Date fields on any task.The important thing to making Inbox flags a success is to take the time to think through if the email is a priority or not. If there’s someone on my team driving a task or project, I don’t need to spend the energy to keep dibs on it in my Inbox.
Its also good to try and stem the flow of email before it hits your inbox. Emails great for sharing notes, inviting folks to meetings, and things like that. But it’s not great for collaboration. If my list of flagged emails is too large (my comfort level is 20 flagged messages at any one time) the project should be tracked outside of my Inbox in QuickBase or some other business app solution to keep yourself and your team organized, updated and on schedule. Actually managing your projects in your project management software! There's a thought. If my projects didn’t live in QuickBase I’d have a deluge of 100-email-long threads and could miss important details. Not fun.
Oh, and one more thing. There’s never a better solution then a good old fashion face to face or phone call to work through an issue.
I never delete any email (unless it’s obviously spam). It sounds crazy, I know. Google is taking this same approach with their Gmail service. I’ve found it really useful to have a pile of data around that I can refer to easily in the future. How many times have you thought to yourself “If only I had that note Karen sent me last year about the Zoo it would be so useful!” Folks around here know I keep all my email, and often ask me to help them fill in the blanks with my archive. Gladly.
If you didn’t flag it, it’s not something you need to be worried about this moment…so take it off your plate. I have a single folder called “Archive” where I store all my read and un-flagged email. The trick here is to get stuff moved there quickly so that you have good line of sight on what’s important.
BTW: I use this same trick for documents on my desktop - Near Zero Icon Policy. Unless I’m working on it, it doesn’t belong on my desktop so there’s a single folder on my desktop called “Stuff” that I use to store those files.
One of the more flustering things about email is remembering where a conversation stands. Did I ever get a reply I needed? Do I even remember I needed a reply? To help solve for this I simply flag the message I sent and move it into my Inbox where all the other important flags are. I’ve learned that I only need one message from any thread in my Inbox to remind me of what’s important about it so I also take other emails on the same topic and move them into my Archive folder.
Step 4: Trust in the Power of Search
The big simplifier that pulls this methodology together is that I can control all of the chaos with Search. What’s interesting about search is that we use it daily to find information on the Internet but we don’t often think about using the power of search to simplify our Inboxes. The good news is that recent versions of Windows & Mac OS X have wonderful search engines built right in – and it’s indexing your email already! If you prefer the simplicity of Google’s interface – Google offers Google Desktop which can also do the same thing to help you wrangle your email.
What’s great about having a relatively small Inbox full of only things marked as flagged or unread is that you now have a great mobile snapshot of what’s important and also a convenient way to quickly gage what’s come in that’s new.
It’s not always easy to file things on a mobile device. On my iPhone, when I read a message it marks it as "read," so if I think it’s important I mark it as "unread" (because iPhones don't have flags). Later, when I come back to my desktop, I scan my Inbox – automatically flag unread messages that I marked as unread while I was away and move all the rest of the read messages that aren’t already flagged out of the way into my Archive folder.
My old methodology for email control was fanatical categorization. This took a ton of time upfront for each message deciding where to put it, and in the end my category choice required me to spend time sorting through a pile of email anyways when I wanted to remind myself of content from the past. My new methodology has me spending zero time categorizing up front, and trusts the search system to do it for me. What’s great about this is if I can remember a few things anywhere about the email thread, I can quickly find what I’m looking for much like I do when trying to find something on the Internet. It works great! And sure I might spend a few extra moments when I do need to go back in time trying to find what I’m looking for, but the process is very similar to how I already look for info online and the amount of non-productive time I used to spend categorizing emails I’m now spending having fun working on projects or spending time with my friends and family.
I’m sure there are questions about what I do in certain cases, or ideas you all have about how you handle the same issues in your digital life. Care to share your tips and tricks? If you do give Near Zero Inbox a try, please do check back in and let me know how it goes!