Email Productivity

I manage email differently that just about everyone I know. I find my method to be tremendously productive. Maybe you will, too.

My system is adapted from Inbox Zero, which is based on Getting Things Done. It works like this:

1. I organize my Inbox with categories, rather than folders

All mail lands in my Inbox, and that’s where it stays. There are currently 5708 messages in my Inbox. If I need to go back and find a message, I use the terrific search mechanism built into Outlook 2007. This alone eliminates hours upon hours of filing messages into an appropriate folder structure. Plus, search is much quicker than trying to remember where I put something.

A rule deletes any categories and flags on every incoming message. (You’ll see why in a minute.) And, more rules categorize each message as follows:

  • imagePersonal
    • From my wife
    • Marked as Personal
  • Important
    • Marked as High Importance
    • From my boss
    • From members of my team
  • Interesting
    • From interesting distribution lists
    • From upper management
  • Neither Important Nor Interesting
    • Marked as Low Importance
    • Everything else

This allows me to focus on the most important email first, saving me time weeding through my messages.

2. I track whether or not I’ve dealt with a message with flags, rather than Read/Unread

Messages without a flag (including all incoming messages) appear in a search folder I created and named “Triage.” These messages need my attention. So, I start here, whenever I check email. My goal is to empty this folder every time I view it by taking one of the following actions for every message: (This is from Inbox Zero.)

  • imageDelete
    • Do I really need to keep this?
    • I’m very aggressive about this, especially in the “Neither” category.
  • Delegate
    • Can someone else handle this better than me?
    • Flag message for follow up on a specific day
  • Respond
    • If responding takes less than 2 minutes.
    • Flag message as complete
  • Do
    • If action takes less than 2 minutes.
    • Flag message as complete
  • Defer
    • If responding/acting would take more than 2 minutes.
    • Flag message for follow up on a specific day (which could be Today)

I spend almost zero time in my Inbox. I spend approximately 15-30 minutes a day in this folder. You’ll be surprised how much mail lands in that “Neither” bucket and gets deleted immediately!

3. I manage any “deferred” mail as tasks, rather than email


Messages flagged for follow up automatically appear in the Outlook To-Do List along with other active tasks. So, after I empty my Triage folder, I head over here to focus on completing tasks (including those emails I deferred above). And, since I’m no longer in the Mail portion of Outlook, I won’t be distracted by incoming messages. (I also turn off all the new mail messages and sounds for the same reason.)

This reduces the time I spend switching tasks significantly. I stay focused and things get done.

In summary

I’ve found this to be an extremely productive email management system. Though, it does require a bit of discipline. Staying focused always does.

Note: As I mentioned above, I use Outlook 2007. I highly recommend that you upgrade, if you haven’t already. The new search mechanism is worth the upgrade alone!



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