August 27, 2013
How I Changed The Way I Work With Email
For the past two months I have been conducting an experiment to see if it was possible to change the way I work with e-mail. In my role I receive an average of 126 email messages per day. Many of my clients prefer to communicate via email, so many of the messages I receive are important, with questions or details that are significant to projects on which I’m actively working.
Something about email feels like I should treat it differently than I do for text messages and voicemails. With voicemail, for example, I automatically delete the message after I listen to it. But with email, for some reason, for me it just felt wrong to delete it. I think that stems from the quantity of the messages that I receive, and the fear that if I deleted the message, I might need some information in it later, and something bad would happen.
Because of the sheer quantity of messages I received, any time I tried deleting messages, if I didn’t stay on top of it, the inbox would quickly fill up again.
For years I went by without deleting messages. I would just sort my messages so the new messages were displayed on the top. This worked, but I always felt like I had some important message that I was missing, and occasionally would get a “did you see my message” or “I didn’t see a response” message from one of my customers. I was probably missing 1-2 messages of value per week.
Also, my gut feeling that by deleting messages I would lose something of value was not supported by the reality of having 100,000+ email messages in my inbox. Email is not a good filing system. There were several times where, even though the message was in my inbox, I could not find it by searching.
Also, after I had especially busy days or weeks, I always had the feeling in the back of my mind that I was missing something important. I found these thoughts would work themselves into weekends and downtime, and make me feel like there was something important that I was overlooking. It just felt like email was a burden, rather than a useful tool.
So in early July I set out to change the way I’ve work with email. First, I archived out everything from before 2013. Anybody who has asked me for anything before this year that hasn’t received a reply is probably not expecting one now.
Then I set some rules for myself. Like when you are cleaning your house, everything should have a home.
1. Stuff that can be deleted after reading it (or before reading it, if I’m extra busy).
E-mails in this category include e-mail newsletters, emails from various distribution groups, emails from people in my company not directly addressed to me. I just deleted these emails.
2. Stuff that should be filed for later.
Like when you clean your house, everything should have a place. The place should be accessible when you need it, where you need it.
· Passwords/logins for project work I filed in 1Password, my password management system. I love 1Password because it is accessible on just about any platform, and all my computers and devices synchronize. When I get involved in a project and they send me credentials to use to access the server, or I have a server IP address to remember for remote desktop purposes, I store it in 1password and delete the email. The same could apply to other password management apps, such as LastPass.
· E-mails that concern a customer or project that are of interest to other people in my company I track in Microsoft Dynamics CRM. I have always tracked business relevant e-mails in CRM, but I have also left a copy in my inbox. The big change for me has been giving myself permission to not have to hold on to a local copy. Track and delete.
· Personal attachments, such as insurance documents, 401K statements I store in my personal SkyDrive. I have folders for Insurance, medical, taxes, and other common documents. Skydrive is available from any device, so I have my insurance documents available to me when I am at the doctors office.
· Business relevant attachments I store in our company SharePoint, using the CRM document library integration.
3. Stuff that requires a response
If I have a question from someone inside of my company, or a client with a question that requires a response, I reply to the message and delete the original. Outlook 2010 and 2013 have a great new button called “Reply & Delete.”
I love the reply and delete button, because it allows me to reply to a message and automatically delete the message to which I am replying. I’ve found that if I just hit reply, chances are I will forget to delete the original, and the inbox will pile up again.
4. Stuff that requires a future action
If an email requires me to do something in the future, like prepare for a meeting next Thursday, I will copy the contents of the email to an appointment on my calendar. If you are more task oriented, you could also use tasks; however, for me, I find I work best with appointments, because they block off time to work on the task, and give me a firm due date. One trick I love is to drag an email in Outlook from the inbox to the calendar. This will create an appointment containing the text of the email, which I can schedule for a convenient time to work on it.
So with my system in place, I now cleaned out my inbox. I had a few days of nerves, worrying that I may have deleted something that I needed, but after going over a month with my new system, I now find e-mail much less of a burden. I check my messages a couple of times per day, and quickly track and save what I need to keep, reply and delete to the rest.
I do maintain a small number of “work in progress” folders in my inbox specific to some projects that I am working on, but I limit what is in there to e-mails that I am not yet ready to reply to, and short term filing. I don’t let anything get old in those folder.
I find that I no longer have nagging thoughts in the back of my mind that I am missing important messages, and I can focus more on the tasks on which I am working.
My inbox today
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