Hello dear reader,
this is the second post in a series dealing with the fundamental questions about processing your emails. The first post (available at this address) tried to answer the Why, What and Where questions. Now is the turn of When, Who and, above all, How.
I have a strong opinion about this: “Everyday, not during weekends, as little as possible and only when it is vital”.
Gosh! It sounds like you should already know what’s in your inbox before looking at it! Before you fret too much, let’s see the rationale behind this answer.
“Everyday but weekends” is the minimum possible frequency in today’s business world. You can be busy in meetings one day, but everyone expects a reply the next working day at most: you’d expect the same, be honest!
“As little as possible”: unless you act as an administrative assistant to someone, your work is not to repeatedly check your mail app, but to deliver something which adds values.
“Only when it is vital”: some things just have to be acted upon yesterday. You don’t want to miss those.
If you take this rationale as an equation, the space of solutions is not very large; you may indeed reason that the “vital” part is impossible to achieve without setting up a constant watch.
I don’t claim to have an answer: I’ll just tell what works for me. Personally, I try to check for new emails once in the morning before hitting the road, a couple of times during the morning but not before having performed at least one or two very important/urgent tasks (adding worries while you are already doing something challenging is never a good idea). A similar pattern plays out in the afternoon and a I take a look in the evening in the case that some long-staying colleagues were in need of help. And… I chek emails too many times between those listed! The temptation to hit that app is too big; I’m planning to hide it in a folder on a secondary view of my cellular phone, just to be safe. It goes without saying that I have disabled all desktop and smartphone notifications for new email.
To stay safe of “vital” (I use this word too liberally, there is nothing really life-saving in the work of many of use, I guess it’s one of those words we got used to without pondering its real meaning) communications, I do three things: I keep notifications for calendar meetings, I gave my company the permission and encouragement to call me on my personal phone if there is an urgent matter and, devised but never put into practice, I could set up an automatic forwarding of emails (with certain sender and/or specific subject lines) to a personal address for which notifications are in order.
Hmmm… unless you enjoy the services of a personal assistant, only you can keep yourself ahead of emails. I have some ideas, which will be discussed in a later post, for avoiding emails to be sent you in the first place, but that’s an entirely different, although related, matter.
I want to be very brief about this point, to avoid losing the point among technicalities, and defer them to a later post. In three sentences:
- Be ruthless!
- Be efficient!!
- Do the things that are easy to do but easier not to do!!!
Go to your inbox and start hitting one email after another. For each one, reflect and ask yourself:
- Can I ignore/delete it? Yes means DO IT RIGHT NOW!
- Is there something to be done about it? If no, put it into the right place for future reference (a folder, send it to Evernote, whatever works for you)
- Can/should it be delegated to someone else? Do it right away.
- If there is something to be done, apply the famous “two minutes rule”: does it takes less than two minutes to do it? If so, do it now. Personally, I give myself more time, up to ten minutes, since I don’t like my to-do list to be cluttered with too brief tasks.
- Does it takes more than a few minutes? Put it in a list or, better, block some time in your calendar to complete the activity and be adamant about your schedule. Very important: move the email away from your inbox, you don’t need to see it again next time you are processing mail, the work related to it has find another place in the world.
- Can it be automated? Can you invent a procedure to avoid receiving that email, or to process it automatically? If so, put away some time to implement your plan.
Disclaimer: there is nothing new from my part in what’s above: it is straight “Getting things done” methodology, 100% David Allen style. What I want to emphasize is that the steps sketched above are extremely simple to follow, but at the same time it’s easy to leave a message lagging behind in your inbox, forcing you to go over it again and again each time you check for new emails, and this is a source of anxiety for me. Remember, your inbox is neither your to-do list nor your calendar.
I’m usually pretty good at managing my email, but last week I decided to raise the bar: instead of leaving the usual 6-7 messages every day in the inbox, I resolved to aim for zero. The result? So far, no anxiety when looking at email, my calendar is fuller (meaning that activities are well managed on on their way to completion) and I feel more relaxed. So much for those who think that applying the steps above is tiring or troublesome!
In future posts, I’ll deal with some details of the “how” session, especially folder structure.
Until then, live long and prosper.