We all live in an ever growing flood of messages and communication. The more technology surrounds us, it makes it simpler to get a hold of us, grab our attention and demand our reply. Some of us are in extreme cases, with hundreds or even thousands of new emails flooding our inboxes daily. Others, only have to deal with the daily routine, which typically consists of a few dozen messages (SMS, WhatsApp, etc.) and social posts on Facebook, Twitter, etc. In any case, the pressure is felt across all platforms and is continuously increasing…exponentially. This is what has been recently known as the Information Overload Syndrome in the industry and no real solutions have been provided for combat.
I’m going to provide real, actionable productivity tips for Microsoft Outlook, as to gain some relief with email overload.
A little about me, as a Group Engineering Manager in the Microsoft Cortana team, I am constantly being flooded by email coming in at all times into my inbox. On a typical day, I receive over 250 new email messages and must reply to a good chunk to keep up with goals and objectives, as well as ongoing tasks. As most enterprise employees in multinational organizations know, getting through their inbox and still doing our “real” jobs is extremely challenging, frustrating and definitely stressing. I would like to share some of my personal techniques and methods which I’ve been using for many years that help me get through my inbox flood, quite effectively.
With these techniques I reach ‘absolute zero’ inbox state every day, while not skipping any important message. I’m also able to send many emails to many individuals and track their response and progress effectively. Most importantly, I am able to retain the mental state of ‘being on top of things’ despite the increase of message influx.
Note: as my techniques have proven to be extremely effective and generate real results, I have personally been in charge of frequent productivity workshops within Microsoft, teaching and coaching employees on how to get control of their Outlook inbox. Still, each individual must decide for themselves which methods to use, how to use them, and where.
Caveat emptor: these techniques require practice and discipline. You should treat them like balancing your budget or even flossing. They are really easy to neglect and fall back to the old routine, but if you manage to make them into new habits, you will gain immense value…for work productivity as well as work life balance. They have proven effective for me yet some adjustments may be needed for a personal fit to your needs.
All together, I have 3 rules (or steps) to attack your daily mountain of emails. Here we will begin with rule #1, and the following rules will be published accordingly, so you may understand the needs and adapt accordingly without adding to the information overload.
Rule #1: the unified inbox
We must remember that our email inbox is only one pipe for message communications. We also receive voice mails, texts, social updates, comments in the corridor, notes on the fridge, add post-its to our monitor and have many other ways by which we manage our global ‘inbox’ of things that demand our attention. My attempt is to unify them all into a single inbox, which is my main email inbox. I use Microsoft Outlook and make sure that all of these other ‘inboxes’ find their way into my one Outlook inbox. I frequently ask friends and colleagues to “send me a quick note on email” when they ask me to do something since “there’s no way I’m ever going to remember that by the time I sit down in front of my PC”. I have auto-forwarding rules for all of my ‘other’ email accounts into my single account Inbox. I also take notes in my notebook during meetings but very quickly dump them into an email addressed to me for further processing later. As for Outlook rules, which put different items in different folders, I have a very strict rule: I only allow rules that put unimportant items in other folders. By unimportant I mean items that I will probably never read and no harm will be done by that. If there’s a slim chance I need to read, or even respond, to something, its appropriate place will be in my one and only ‘unified inbox’.
The purpose here is clear. It’s hard to get it all done, so let’s at least make sure that all that needs to get done sits in one place, and I don’t need to chase it down.
For this first step, you must make sure to understand what are important vs. unimportant emails, so appropriate filters can be put in place. This first hurdle will require careful thought and action, yet it will immediately set up your inbox to include only items that you should focus on, rather than begin juggling all emails just to understand where to put your priorities at.