This is part II of expert productivity tips for Outlook email users who wish real, actionable techniques to get control of their inbox and attack email overload. If you haven’t started yet, make sure to first read part I, covering the unified inbox, and also check out the final chapter just recently published covering how to clean your inbox.
As previously mentioned, I am an Engineering Group Manager at Microsoft, handling the Cortana project, so I am flooded by hundreds of emails daily and must have an effective way to attack them efficiently, while also attending my actual job. Moreover, as my methods provide real results, I have been teaching internal productivity workshops to share the valuable email tricks with others. Also, each person must assess the steps and decide for themselves what they wish to implement.
Rule #2: when to clean your Outlook email inbox
It’s very tempting to read and reply as soon as an email arrives. We all do that…it’s addictive. But, we have to remember that email was never designed as an instant messaging platform. It was and still is a store-and-forward platform. Technology enables us to experience a sub-minute email transport across all mail providers but that does not mean it should put the burden of replying within minutes…on the contrary.
My rule of thumb is this: “you should expect some reply within one business day. If you don’t hear back after 2 business days, ping me again or escalate”. There’s nothing worse in my book than people who step into your office asking why you didn’t reply to the email they sent an hour ago. There are ways to get my immediate attention: call me, knock on my office door, IM me, or call a meeting. Email is not it.
I fully understand that being the Don Quixote of email etiquette is doomed. So instead, my request is simple: if you can’t fix this illness, at least don’t contribute to the symptoms.
Having said all that, I usually tend to my inbox twice a day. Once in the morning, right before I hit the road to the office and another right before I leave for home. I typically spend 30+ minutes in each session, in an uninterrupted streak, and go through my inbox. Typically, I go from bottom to top – attending to the most historic emails till I reach the most recent. I spend up to 2 minutes per email message, at the worst case. This gives me the ability to ‘clean my inbox’ and process anything between 30 to 200 email messages in one focused hour a day. Of course, I sin like most and handle email throughout my day – but having these inbox cleaning sessions helps me guarantee a clean inbox at the end of the day and I don’t feel obliged to respond right here and now since I know that email cleanup time is coming soon.
How to get started if you are like most people and have 1,000’s (or more…) items in your inbox right now? My most radical advice would be “delete” them all! If there was anything there you needed to know or was critical, people would have resent it or spoken to you about it already. If it feels too radical for you, you are welcome to just move all of your inbox items to another temp folder and let it rot there. In any case, starting from absolute zero items in your inbox would not only be psychologically thrilling, but would enable you to stick to the inbox cleansing ritual I described above.