Emails… the modern tool or the modern scourge?

Emails are great…. and they are not great! Emails allow you to ask the same thing to a number of people at the same time and get answers back quickly – that’s great! …and it can be a nightmare! How many of you get cc’d into things and wonder… “why has someone included me in this!?” For such emails there is the ‘delete’ button! Emails let you send things to people wherever you are and whatever time it is! That’s great…. and that’s not great!

Like them or loathe them they are here to stay I’d imagine though. They appear to have caught on! There are various estimates but it appears the average person at work sends and receives about 130 emails per day. In ‘Organised Mind’ Daniel Levitin tells us that even outside of work we process around 100,000 words every day! That’s remarkable. How do we manage this information overload.

Well, as David Allen, author of ‘Getting Things Done’ says…. if you don’t control it, it will control you. And, as a manager I had was fond of saying, ‘you need to get ahead of it’. Steer it from the front rather than chase it.

How many are in there!?

So, how do we manage this onslaught of information, and particularly for this article, how do we manage emails. David Allen says that your Inbox is a capture tool not a storage tool. Your job on a daily basis should be to ‘get in to empty’. How many emails are in your Inbox at work? I bet for some of you it’s hundreds and once they disappear off the bottom of the screen they disappear out of your mind. ‘I emailed you about it’, ‘Don’t think I’ve seen it’, ‘It was a week or so ago’, scroll scroll scroll…. ‘oh there it is’. If your Inbox is empty, or at least down to a handful of emails, there can be nothing in there that’s more than a few hours old, or a day at most.

If your Inbox is overflowing set yourself some time aside and systematically work through it. You’ll feel great! I bet anything that’s older than a week or so can be deleted or saved somewhere. And then once you are down to a manageable amount you’ll find it easy to keep on top of them.

There’s a process you can go through to get in to empty – and it comes to us courtesy of the wonderful David Allen again! When working through your emails, take them each in turn and either ‘Do it, Delegate it, Defer it, or Delete it’.

Let’s have a look at each of them in turn. There will be some things in your Inbox that you can just ‘Do’. Here’s your chance to apply the 2 minute rule. If it’s going to take you less than two minutes to do just do it. Don’t procrastinate, don’t leave it till later… just do it. There’s a thing called the planning fallacy that leads us to overestimate how long small tasks will take and underestimate how long big tasks will take (more on that last one in a different article later). There are loads of emails you can do in two minutes. And when you have dealt with the email either save it off to a folder or delete it. You’re done with it.

The next one is ‘Delegate It’. Delegation is not a ‘down the command chain’ activity. It is merely passing something on to someone because they need to do, or you need information from them so you can do it. So you can delegate up, across, or down depending on what you need. So if you can pass it over or ask for information then do that and then file or delete the email.

Then you may need to do some work in order to respond to an email or, the email may have given you a task to work on. So you ‘Defer It’ for these ones into what Allen calls a Trusted System. We’ll talk more in another article about ‘trusted systems’ but essentially if there is something to do, put it somewhere where you will be reminded to do it. For me, if things are time and date specific they go in my calendar in a time and date slot. If something is actionable but not time and date specific it goes into my calendar as an ‘all day’ event on a day where I might be able to get to it. If something needs some thought and planning and isn’t time and date specific it goes into my master spreadsheet. Once it’s in one of those places I save or delete the email.

Finally, in this process, if something isn’t for you or of interest to you ‘Delete It’! Go on you’ll feel good!

I pick up and work through my emails twice a day. First thing on a morning and last thing on an afternoon. I sometimes have a look in the middle of the day if I have the time and I follow the methodology above. It goes like this. I work through the emails and delete the ones that I can. I then make another pass and use the 2 minute rule to do things or delegate things. This leaves me with the meaty emails that I need to defer into my trusted system. I then work through those and put what I need into my calendar or spreadsheet. And then, by that point, I will have got in to empty, safe in the knowledge that when I next look there can be nothing in there I don’t know about that’s more than few hours old. And if, for some reason, I don’t get to check them again that day, I know the next day that there is nothing in there that is more than 24 hours old. No one has been waiting on me for very long. It make you feel so good and so in control and frees up loads of psychological capital to do other things.

Note though – when I’m not actively dealing with emails my email client is shut down with notifications switched off. When I’m not doing emails, I’m not doing emails, because I’m working on other equally important things! Research by Microsoft showed that if you are working on a task and get distracted by an email it takes you up to 15 minutes to get back up to the speed on that task you were working at prior to going to check the email. That’s a huge productivity loss. So either be emailing or be not emailing. The idea of multi-tasking is a myth. Trying to write a report and answer emails as they come in will slow down your productivity in relation to both and research has shown that you will be more prone to mistakes.

Emails! They are necessary but you can manage them. Having them under control will reduce stress and allow you to focus on other tasks without worrying about what’s in there!

  • Start by emptying your Inbox… you’ll feel great!
  • Use ‘Do it, Delegate it, Defer it, Delete it’ every time you work on emails to get in to empty
  • Set specific times in your day to do emails
  • Outside of those times don’t check your emails

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