There are 3 key strategies you can use to get control of email overload and use it in an effective and productive way. They are what I call the WWW of Email Management – the When, What and Where.
The first part covered mastering email: when, and this one looks at the second strategy, the WHAT of mastering email – the master skill for getting your in-box empty and keeping it under control!
Email Management of the WHAT of Email Overload
One of the biggest productivity problems with email is that we often read the same email message 2, 3, 5 or even 10 times BEFORE taking action on it! Even then, the message is still often left in our inbox!
The way to avoid this problem (and the huge amount of extra and unnecessary handling of emails) is to make it a rule to handle each message just once. This simple strategy is like the Pareto principle for email and will eliminate as much as 80% of the double-handling of each individual email message.
The way to do this is simply to make a decision by asking ourselves;
- What is the NEXT action to be taken on this message?
- How long will that action take?
Your answer to these two questions will then determine action(s) needed to process each email.
Of course, many emails will require multiple actions but the key is to identify the very next best action that we can take (that doesn’t rely on somebody or something else). Simply taking this action keeps the email moving and is often the catalyst to completing further actions needed with the email.
The 4D Methodology
The good news is that there are only one of four actions we need to take on any given email, as follows:
- Ditch or Delete
If there is no action needed and you don’t need to keep the message, simply delete it (eg: spam, jokes, information you no longer need, etc).
- Deal with it NOW (less than 2 mins)
If you can take the next action (reply or forward, update a document, schedule a meeting etc) in two minutes or less, it’s quicker to do it now than the time it takes to store the message, track it, retrieve it, read it, get up to speed on it, make a decision and then do it later.
If the next action would be better done by somebody else, you can either forward the message onto the appropriate person, print it and hand it to them physically or (if you’re a good user of Tasks) add it to your Task list and then use the Assign a Task function to email it to them (with the option to keep track of it in your own Task list).
Some call this action Defer and it applies when the next action on the email can be deferred to another place or time, as follows;
If no further action is required but this is an email you must keep (ie: you can’t delete it), you can file it in one of your email folders (eg: Client A,B,C; Subject X,Y,Z; Project 1,2,3), just as you would file a piece of paper or document in a physical filing cabinet/system.
Alternatively, you can file the email along with an existing Task, Appointment or Contact that is already in your email software (eg: you can add a meeting agenda or other relevant documents to a meeting appointment that is already set up in your calendar).
For emails that will take more than 2-5 minutes to process (ie: these are actually tasks that have arrived via email), convert the email to a new Appointment in the Calendar (ie: schedule when you are going to do the work that has arrived via email). Doing this makes you ask yourself three questions:
- how long will this take? (improving your skill at estimating task length)
- when do I have time in my schedule for this? (check your calendar for existing commitments)
- of the times available, which would be the best time for this task? (given all the other workload and commitments I already have)
This mental process gives you much more control of the task – it now sits in the Calendar and comes back to you at the appropriate time (proactive) rather than sitting in the in-box passively waiting for you to stumble across it again (reactive).
For those emails where you have to wait on someone or something else before you can take further action on the email, add it to a Waitlist or Watchlist folder as no further action is possible right now (right click on the message to add a reminder if necessary).
Does the 4D Method Really Work?
This process has been used many time by participants implementing these ideas during a dedicated block of time as part of my training workshops and presentations. The results are staggering – here are just a few snapshots of the progress participants have made using the 4D approach for the very first time!
You can download a one page summary of this process here and keep it close to your computer as a reminder to use the process every time you check email. For those who have too many emails in the inbox to clear in one sitting, check out this guide on how to get your inbox empty right now and then use the 4D method to clear your backlog.
And finally (as explained in the previous blog post on the WHEN of Mastering Email), you will find it easier to focus on making a 4D decision on each email if you are sitting at your inbox at a planned block of ‘single-tasking’ time rather than when you receive the email as an interruption (causing you to multi-task)?
So that’s the second W of the WWW of Mastering Email. In the next blog we’ll look at the third W (the WHERE) and some strategies that make it quick and easy to move emails out of the in-box (and find them again quickly later).