The most unproductive thing you can do when it comes to e-mail is to read the same messages over and over again. This has the effect of doubling, tripling, or even quadrupling your workload.
Instead, you should read each message once, then decide what to do with it. Read-decide. Read-decide. This is the pattern of effective e-mail processing. The goal is to end up with an empty inbox daily or, at the very least, every couple of days.
According to author David Allen (Getting Things Done), you need to first decide if the message is actionable. There are only two possible responses to this: yes or no. If the answer is no, it is a Non-Actionable Message. You then have three possible choices:
- Delete the message. It is no longer needed. Spam, most ads, and many e-mail newsletters fall into this category.
- File it for later reference. It may be useful later. However, you don’t want to let it sit in your inbox consuming psychic energy. Instead drag it into a folder. Personally, I drag everything into a folder called Processed Mail.
By the way, I don’t use a complicated set of folders. Instead I use the Spotlight feature of Mac OS X to instantly find the message I am looking for. If you are using Windows, you can use Google Desktop Search.
In my opinion, if you use additional folders, you only add another layer of complexity. You have to ask and decide, “In which folder does this message go?”
Instead, with a good search engine, all you have to do is remember a key word or two and call up all the messages that contain those words. Using this methodology, I can find almost any message in a matter of seconds.
- Incubate it for later consideration. No action is required now, but something might need to be done later. I drag these into my Someday folder.
If the message is an Actionable Message, you also have three choices:
- Delegate it to someone else. If the action requires an action, you have to ask, “Am I the right person to do it?” If not, then you need to delegate it.
Even if you don’t have a staff, you can still delegate it to someone else in the organization. The best way to do this is to forward the e-mail message to the person who needs to act on it.
Then—and this is critically important—immediately go to your Sent folder and drag the message to a @WaitingFor folder. You can then review this folder periodically to follow up on assignments you have made. (I’ll tell you how to automate this in a future post.)
- Do it now. Assuming you are the right person, and assuming you can do it in two minutes or less, then do it now. Just take care of it, and get it off your plate. This is David Allen’s “Two Minute Rule,” and I have found it to be a great boon to my personal productivity.
- Defer it for later. If you can’t do it in two minutes or less, then you need to make another decision. One option is to schedule a specific time to do it. This is particularly useful if you have a deadline you are trying to meet. The easiest way to do this is to drag the message to your Calendar folder and schedule an “appointment” with yourself.
If it needs to happen on a specific day but not a specific time, then make it an all-day event. If it doesn’t need to be done by a specific time, you can drag the message to your Task folder and schedule a Next Action. I then periodically review my tasks through the week and select things to do that take longer than two minutes.
If you are a visual learner, then you will want to take a look at David Allen’s Advanced Workflow Diagram (this is a PDF file). You will find this diagram useful for both your electronic inbox and your physical inbox.
Finally, I also recommend David’s Getting Things Done Outlook Add-In (Windows only), which automates the entire process I have described above. It adds a toolbar to your Outlook inbox that looks like this:
With this toolbar, you can perform the actions I have described above (and more) with one click. The software is not cheap ($69.95), but, considering what it will do for your productivity, it’s a great investment. Best of all, you can download a fully-functional trial version and use it for 30 days before you decide.