I’m sure that many of you agree that Email has become the strange necessary evil of the workplace. Many of us go so far as to wrongly 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 method to inform our teams and have important discussions leading up to critical workplace decisions. 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 constantly switching between mobile devices while 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 into folders and then managing those contents. Ugh!
I’d rather spend my time creating great things and having fun – not wading through an overbearing sea of information that I know darn well isn’t going to organize itself. So I stepped back and defined a process for managing email that I thought would be “good enough.”
I defined “good enough” as the following:
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 Intuit QuickBase offices, the more I’m convinced that my method of keeping this under control will help others too. What I find great about my approach 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.
Step 1: Flag what’s important
As the Six Flags amusement park folks say, “More Flags, More Fun.” Every modern email client has a way to flag emails as important. Depending on the email client you use you might find that there are options to add Project, Task, Due Date fields, etc against any email. I only use the flag itself and never bother to unset it. The important thing to making Inbox flags a success is to use them often and the first time you read a message that needs an action to take the time to think through if the email is a priority or not. If there is 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. I read it, I’m up to date. I can move on.
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 a QuickBase or some other business application to keep myself and my team organized, updated and on schedule. Actually managing projects in 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. It’s also good to try and stem the flow of email before it hits your inbox. Email is great for sharing notes, inviting folks to meetings, and things like that. But it’s not great for collaboration. In fact, if you think you are collaborating solely over email with your teammates you really aren’t collaborating at all, you are just adding to the email problem and probably impeding progress.
There’s never a better solution then a good old fashion face to face or phone call to work through an issue.
Step 2: Archive the Stuff You Don’t Flag
I never delete any email (unless it’s obviously SPAM). Years ago folks thought I was crazy, turns out Google took the same approach with their Gmail service. Proving that it can be really useful to have a pile of data around that my team and I can refer to easily in the future. How many times have you thought to yourself “If only I had that note Ben sent me last year about his Realtor 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!
So when do you archive mail? Right away! 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.
Step 3: Move Important Sent Email to the Inbox and Flag It
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 immediately into my Archive folder. This keeps things tidy and easily glanceable.
Step 4: Rule out the static
A lot of folks ask me what I do about frequent informational emails that I receive that I end up just always putting in my Archive folder and thus wasting time viewing or moving at all. It’s simple really. Most current email tools including Microsoft Outlook and Gmail include a way to add a few simple rules based on the sender, subject, or content of the email. I tell these informational emails to jump into my Archive folder automatically upon their arrival. I almost never look at them but I know that they are there and when I need them I know where to easily find them.
Step 5: 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.
Works on the Go Too!
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 quicklist of what’s important and also a convenient way to quickly triage what’s come in that’s new.
It wasn’t always easy to file things away on mobile devices. This has been fixed more recently with the latest version of iOS, Android, and Windows Phone. For example, on my iPhone when you are reading a message at the bottom of the screen there is a flag icon you can touch and instantly flag something that is important. There’s also a great little file icon that lets you quickly file away items to your Archive folder. Everything is always in sync. Awesome!
Saying Goodbye to the Email Shuffle
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 at all 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! In the meantime, be sure to register for the free live GTD online event (or webinar recording and assets) below to learn a simple, effective way to plan your projects for greater success.