Managing Emails

The activity which uses up most of my energy and time during my work day is managing emails. In terms of time-management, its the one where I can rationalise having to spend time now and not feel like I am not working productively. So I have  come up with a two stages to managing emails – review and process. Reviewing is a quick and dirty way of dealing with emails; it allows me to alleviate some workload and give me an opportunity to scan the emails in case there is something I need to be aware of. Processing is where I do the heavy lifting part of the email workload; it allows me to clear my inbox, answer all my emails and document next actions where needed. I review in the morning and midday, and process before I leave the office. That way I have my eye on the emails during the day and can leave work feeling relaxed knowing there are no outstanding emails.

These are my two stages;

  • Review Emails – this stage is clear your inbox of emails except those that require time and attention
    • Answer the ones that can be answered within the parameters of the 2 minute rule.
    • Delete any emails that are irrelevant and FYI.
    • All other emails will be processed later.
  • Process Emails – this stage concerns the emails not dealt with in the Review stage
    • Answer all emails that can be answered. Then moved into relevant folders for archiving.
    • Flag emails which require more actions such as close reading of attachments, more research, consultation and such action. The key here is that the emails are now ‘projects’ – in that they required more than one action before they can be archived or even deleted. However, I think that the point of flagging is not to use the emails as the reminders for further action. If there is further action, then that should be document in a task manager or project manager (I use Omnifocus for that). In GTD terms, a project must be created. Flagging the emails is just a quick way to find them when they can be answered and to differentiate them from reviewed (but not processed) emails. So the creating of projects and flagging has to done at the same time. Obviously, if the actions of the project are more emails, then should be done now and not put as future actions. Also, if the action can be done then, it should be.
    • Examples – if an email is about watching a movie over the weekend, it requires you to get onto a browser to check for movie listings and then email the options. You would finish that project and reply to the email. If an email requires an extended discussion and a phone call might be a better option. For me, phone calls are made usually when walking from one place to another or when on the tram. So if the action can be taken then, it should be. If not, its an action in the project.
    • This leaves the emails that were already flagged. At this point, its time to look at the task manager and switch to context ‘@Email’ (this is really only make sense to the GTD crowd – basically review your task manager such that all the tasks that have to to with emails can be viewed). At this point, you should be able to answer your emails if have already done the actions needed in the project. Once the @Email context is exhausted, you can move on another context or just pack up for the day.

So this leaves us with one last issue – what about urgent emails? The first thing is to consider the nature of urgent. To me that is an email that if not answered by the end of the day (when I process my emails), the results will be catastrophic. More often that not, urgent is more driven by the deadlines of the sender or the importance I ascribe to the email. I am still trying to sort this out. To my mind, truly urgent emails are really rare and it tends to be more either a procrastination tool for me, poor deadline management or just fire-fighting.

If I review my emails in the morning and then midday, I should be able to deal with a truly urgent email should it eventuate. Futhermore, I am leaning towards the idea that an urgent email should be followed up by a phone call. There is never a guarantee that an email sent urgently is received urgently.

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