Using the Junk E-mail folder to your advantage

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So, when I said that I don’t use folders to manage email, that was a small fib. Truth be told, I do use the Junk E-mail folder. Here’s why:

Even with all my filters and categories (a.k.a. tags), I still receive more email than I care to triage. For example, now that I’m working with my new team, I get email about all of the support tickets that are sent to the team – even though I’m not capable of responding to any of them.

When I first joined the team, these messages were appearing in my “Important” category because all mail sent to the team DL was flagged as important. I soon realized that some of the mail was not as important to me as it might be to the rest of the team. So…

I tried demoting that mail (mostly from bots) to “Interesting.” This gave me better visibility into my “Important” mail, but simultaneously clouded my view of my “Interesting” mail – mail from executives and my favorite distribution lists. So…

I demoted these messages again, to “Neither Important nor Interesting.” This allowed me to focus on the really important and interesting things. But, it still meant that I had to either flag them as complete, or delete them to get them out of my Triage folder so I could experience that tiny little peacefulness that comes over you when you reach Inbox Zero. So…

I made the decision that I should just delete these messages when they arrive since I never read them anyway. But, since I’m always afraid that a rule will delete something I don’t want deleted, I chose to send these messages to my Junk E-mail folder, instead of deleting them.

This has worked out incredibly well. As the messages arrive, they are automatically triaged out of my triage folder. So, I can completely ignore them until the number on that handy little icon gets uncomfortable, at which point I quickly check the folder to make sure there’s nothing important, then delete my Junk E-mail. (Usually, around 30 messages hits my personal threshold.)

Inbox Zero!

Last year, about this time, I described my personal system for dealing with the large volumes of email that I saw at Microsoft. As hard as I try, I’m not always successful at keeping my Inbox (or in my case, my Triage folder) at zero, even though the volume of email I receive here now is significantly lower. On occasion, however, I do get to see what it looks like, so I thought I’d share:

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There’s a couple of things to point out here:

  1. My Triage folder is empty. (Inbox Zero!)
  2. My To-Do Bar is full of scheduled tasks. (I use flags to schedule things.)
  3. My tasks are color coded, as follows:
    • Red = Important
    • Orange = Interesting
    • Yellow = Neither
    • Green = Personal
  4. My tasks for Today are sorted in priority order (by manually dragging them around).

The one weakness I have with this system is that I sometimes drop tasks that people give me verbally – like in meetings. My system works best for me when I have an email trigger to remind me to go do something. I’ve been trying to be more proactive about asking folks to send me reminders. But, maybe I should just email them to myself.

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

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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!