Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Email triage

Rarely a day goes by when I don't hear someone talking about how many unread email messages they have (or text messages or IMs or tweets or whatever). To a certain extent, I think it's "pain bragging." The old, "When I was a boy, we walked 10 miles to school, uphill, and 20 miles uphill home."

[Aside... best "We had it tough" sketch ever is below... "We used to DREAM of living in a corridor..."]



So, some of the "I have 1,200 unread emails" talk is anti-bragging. Some of it is truly complaining about something that can be irritating. I do sympathize. I get a lot of email at work. Not as much as some, but more than others. Not gonna say how many, as that would be feeding this particular troll.

What I will tell you, though, are a few of the "triage" tips I use to keep my email a bit more manageable. Some of these come from previous gigs, so if you currently work with/for me and see something here that doesn't apply, it may be from a past life.

  • If you have direct reports, ask them to not cc: you on anything. Period. If you're living in an email hell, cc:'s should go down, but never up. Things important enough to say to your boss, but for which they aren't the main recipient, should be summarized and put in a separate email. I know... more work for you. But if you make a habit of condensing 5 cc:'s a day into one short, bullet-y email for your boss' review, they will thank you. You can even call it "daily review" or something. Consider going one step farther, and not even sending emails on every subject, but putting as much as possible into that one daily missive.

  • Schedule email time in your calendar. Email is important to many of us, and it ain't going away. If you've got 100's of emails piling up, chances are at least one of them is something you care about. If you need an hour a day to push through 'em, give it an hour. When you are doing this, do not do anything that counts as "taking action" on an email item, other than replying, filing, sorting or deleting email. It's very easy to say, "Oh. That request to merge the 10 pdfs into one file. That'll only take me a few minutes." And then, 52 minutes later, you're still armpit deep in email stew.

  • Schedule non-email time in your calendar. By the same, yet reversed token, shut down your email client for several hours a day. Let your most important people know that you do this and that they can call you if something really needs immediate attention. But, odds are, 90% of your email isn't stuff that needs to be acted on within 2 hours. If you combine this and the previous tip, you'll be better at email in general. Concentrated time with and without it.

  • Master the software. I know a ton of people who don't know their email software's hotkeys, functions, features, tricks, etc. If you were having a lot of trouble with your car, you'd get it fixed. If you kept stepping on your partner's feet all the time, you'd get dance lessons. We all use email a LOT. So learn to play it like a grand piano.

  • Sort by topic when in deep doo-doo. If you have more than 100 messages piled up (something that often happens after vacation), sort by "topic" when you go to review. Chances are that there are several of those wonderful, long email strings where everybody replies-to-all to everybody a couple times, and you end up with a string of 20 messages where everyone is replying and saying, "I agree," or "That's fine" or whatever. When they're sorted by topic, just read the more recent one in the string. It'll have all the stuff you need, and you can ignore the other 19.

  • Use folders for both topics and temperature. I keep a lot of my email, because my job involves getting edits/feedback and versions of documents. Because I can sort by name, topic, etc. and search by keyword, I leave much of it in my Inbox. That would make some of my friends crazy, as they want an empty Inbox. NBD for me. BUT I also use a ton of folders for specific projects, and for emails based on "hotness" if I can't answer them immediately. Another friend of mine calls hers the "three parking lot folders." One (red) for stuff that needs action in the near future (hours or a couple days), yellow for stuff that can wait, but should be done soon (within a week), and green for stuff that may be helpful to have, but doesn't require a response.

  • Use rules for personal, listserv, obnoxious, etc. mail. I belong to listservs that pump more than 200 emails into my email every day. But I set up a rule (or Wizard or whatever it's called) to shunt them directly to folders. Then, when I have time, I go and read a bunch all at once, or delete them all if I'm feeling cheeky. But they don't clutter up my Inbox. In a previous job, I did the same thing with all email from a particular employee whose only contact with me was to pass along jokes. On the off chance she'd send me a work-related email, I had the rule send her stuff to a folder rather than delete it off-hand.

  • Power skim. This is for really deep email trouble. It's the Triple-X version of the "don't act on email while going through email" rule above. Start reading an email. If you can't get the gist of it in 10 seconds or less, mark it "unread" and go back to it later. This is like that old test-taking advice; go through the exam and answer the easy ones first, then go back to the ones you skipped. Getting bogged down in an email that takes even 1 minute to evaluate is going to seriously crimp your speed if you're trying to get through 240 emails in one hour. Read the first few lines. If that gives you all the info you need, delete it. If it requires more attention, mark "unread" and come back. This is a hard discipline, as it feels like you're ignoring work. You're not. You're prioritizing getting through all your email as opposed to answering just a few. When you're done, you'll feel more free and able to answer the ones that need time.

That's all I can think of now. If more come to mind, I'll update the post.