Wednesday, February 06, 2008

 

Seven Proven Tips for Conquering the Email Mountain

While working through a particularly gnarly problem with our company’s virtual helpdesk, I was told that my email usage (measured largely by the size of my deleted items folders) is in the top 5 percent of users they see across their various clients.

This actually surprised me, in that I had always assumed that others get much more email volume than I typically do. This assumption is based on frequent observation of colleagues and friends with overloaded inboxes, sometimes with hundreds of unread emails. These colleagues talk about drowning in their email, which makes both focus and staying on top of things far more difficult.

Despite my high inbound email volume, my inbox is almost always empty. What’s more, I have peace of mind in knowing where (and how) to find anything, and have built myself an email system that allows me to tackle every email “action” in the right time.

The net result of this system is that I no longer let my email run my day. I can stay focused on what’s most important throughout the day, get to my email when I need to, and still keep the inbox clean.

How? Listed below are my top seven best practices:

(Note: These tips assume you’re using Microsoft Outlook as your email client, although some will work with Gmail and other Web email services as well).

Rules

I aggressively use Outlook’s email rules to manage my inbox. This automates much of the filing and sorting I’d otherwise have to do manually, especially when Outlook can recognize patterns and help me save certain types of emails for quick scanning or processing later. For example, I subscribe to several email newsletters, but every one is automatically filed in a “reading” folder (more on that below). I get “watched item” alerts from eBay, which also get filed in a separate folder. There are certain reports I’m copied on, which I found that I rarely read but want filed away for future reference. I have an Outlook rule that does this filing for me automatically. This tool alone saves me countless clicks and minutes every day.

Three Main Folders: For short-term processing, I typically sort the rest of my email into three folders: Action, Waiting For, and Reading.

· Action: If I receive an email that can be responded to in two minutes or less, I just tackle it right away. Any degree of procrastination on such a short-term task can literally double (or worse) the amount of time I spend on it. Anything else that takes longer than two minutes goes into the Action folder. Very, very few of these requests need immediate response. Putting them together in an “action” folder allows me to tackle them later, and all at once.

· Waiting For: I often send an email to a colleague or vendor, and wait for a response. I typically blind-copy myself on these emails, and have an Outlook rule set up so that these emails automatically get sorted into a “Waiting For” folder. This gives me a complete inventory of the outstanding emails I’ve sent for which I haven’t received a response. I’ll quickly scan this folder a few times a week, deleting emails that have been responded to, and occasionally following up with people that haven’t yet taken action.

· Reading: I get to this once a day, usually on the bus in the morning or evening. None of it is urgent, and I have no problem deleting an unread newsletter if the folder is getting too large, or if more recent emails (especially in the case of news summaries) are piling up.

I file these folders in my Outlook folders with an “@” symbol in front of them, so that they all stack up at the top of my Outlook folders list. This way they’re always in front of me for easy clicking and viewing when I’m ready.

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wsletter if the folder is getting too large, or if more recent e

Work in Offline Mode

Right-click the “online” tag at the bottom, right-hand corner of Outlook, and click the “work offline” link. This will essentially “freeze” your Outlook based on what emails you already have received, and will allow you to manually control when emails are sent, and when new emails come into your inbox. Any emails you write and “send” when in offline mode will be queued up in your Outbox, and will automatically be sent when you click the send/receive button (or click F9). This is a great way to stay focused on what you’re currently doing, and not get distracted by new emails coming in. Plenty of productivity experts tell their clients to turn off “new email” notifications already – get rid of the little beep, the preview pane, the “new email” graphic in the taskbar. All of those suggestions are moot if you work offline. How often you click that send/receive button is up to you. Many gurus suggest you don’t need to check your email more than 1-2 times a day. I’m more addicted to email than that, but still typically go at least 30-60 minutes between checks. This helps me stay focused on getting the right things done in the meantime.

Keep Storage Folders for Everything

I keep folders in Outlook for everything, and open new folders on a regular basis. I try to organize them in a consistent manner, and use lots of subfolders. This gets anything that no longer needs an action – that’s purely for future reference – out of sight but within reach.

Xobni

This new Outlook add-on has saved me hours of searching through email archives, and I’ve only had it for about a month. In a nutshell, Xobni is a search engine for your email, and sits on the right-hand side of your screen. It allows you to search names and keywords, pulling up associated contacts, consolidating document attachments and more. Check out this demo for a better description of the service. I’ve found it invaluable, especially if you aggressively store archived emails in folders like I do, and don’t always remember where you put everything.

Use Outlook’s PST archive folders 2-4 times a year

If you get a lot of email, and store much of it for future reference, your folders will get really big, really fast. Use Outlook’s PST archive folders to create “offline” storage tanks for long-past emails. This will clear up space (and improve performance) with your account on the Exchange Server, but keeps those old emails within reach. You can even set up rules in Outlook to automatically archive files into your PST folders after a certain # of days.

Unsubscribe!

We all end up on too many distribution and subscriber lists. If you’re unsure if you want to stay on those lists or not, simply set up an Outlook rule. But if you find you never read them, unsubscribe. It’ll be that many fewer emails in your inbox, and you can always re-subscribe if you really need it or miss it.


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