Thursday, September 29, 2011

How do you cope with the torrent of email?

Several years ago I was out of town at a conference and I didn't have any internet access during the day.  This was before smart phones were in the hands of every teenager, and before 3G wireless internet cards or personal hotspots were common.  And I was staying at a cheap hotel that at the time didn't provide internet access.  (Gasp! Can you imagine!?!?)

Yes kids, it was the Stone Age.

Anyway, after my conference and dinner, I headed to the nearby Starbucks around 8:45pm to use their (then paid) WiFi service.  I fired up my laptop, got connected to the internet, and then opened Outlook to deal with the day's e-mail.

Over 100 e-mail messages slammed into my Inbox, and then the Starbucks employee informed me they were closing in a few minutes.  I sat in my rental car in the parking lot in front of Starbucks, with a weak WiFi signal, trying to respond to messages.  After a few minutes, I realized it was futile.  That was when I realized that there was a specific limit to the number of e-mails that I could handle in a day.  It's an arbitrary number, but 100 a day is where things definitely start to fall apart.

If I were doing nothing else but handling my e-mail, I could easily handle the messages coming in every 5 minutes.  And sure, many are probably the dreadful CC messages that infect every Inbox.  But the ones that required my attention would still potentially take several minutes to respond to and fill my day.

So now let's head back to the real world where I actually have to get lots of real work done completely independent of e-mail, and where I am not paid solely to pounce on every e-mail message as soon as that little Outlook envelope icon appears in my system tray.

Today I was away from my computer at meetings for 3 hours and I received 30 e-mails during that period.  My iPhone was vibrating constantly during my meetings and while I was driving.  30 messages may not sound like a lot, but I have so much actual work piled up with looming deadlines that even if I didn't touch my e-mail at all, my day (and evening!) would be completely full.  Consider the 75 e-mail messages that I received today, and yesterday, and the day before, and I have a pile of e-mail on my hands.  I've received over 1,400 messages so far this month, and although I know there are people who receive far more than that, managing all of those messages represent a major "time suck" for me.

So why am I writing a blog post instead of doing work?  Valid question.  I thought I would share a few of the practices that I have used over the last year to try and deal with the endless stream of e-mail that I receive.  Collectively, these practices obviously aren't enough to fully resolve my dilemma, but every little bit helps.

1. Unsubscribe.  I receive the usual marketing e-mail from dozens of companies, just like everyone else.  For the companies I have used or liked, I used to tolerate their e-mails thinking that I might find something interesting.  No longer.  Unless I actively receive value from the marketing e-mails, I unsubscribe.  If I don't have time to deal with all of my work or client e-mail, I don't need 10 different digests from Linked In groups that I never read.

2. No More Folders.  I used to fastidiously organize my e-mail into folders by client and sometimes by project.  I had dozens and dozens and dozens of folders.  Naturally, I thought I was just being organized, just in case I needed to find that one message for that one project.  I never realized how much time and mental energy I was expending on that useless task.  Based on the recommendation of a friend, I got rid of all of them.  Other than my Inbox, I now have one folder called "Read", which exists solely to get messages out of my Inbox.  Unless I have to specifically reply or somehow follow up on that e-mail, I glance at it, and it then goes straight to the one and only Read folder to get it out of my Inbox.  If I ever need to find an e-mail, I will either use the Outlook Search feature (not so great), or X1 Professional Client Desktop Search (excellent, but not perfect).

3. Quick Steps:  Outlook 2010 has a feature called Quick Steps (a rebranded version of what is available in earlier versions of Outlook).  It allows you to define a "macro" of sorts to perform organizational operations on your e-mail.  I created a Quick Step called "Read" that will send a message to my single Read folder when I press CTRL+SHIFT+9.  I got so sick of dragging messages to the folder using my mouse that I finally looked around and found that Quick Steps would let me do it with a keyboard shortcut.  Now I don't even have to touch the mouse to file messages with a vengeance.

4.  Categories:  I started using Outlook Categories to try and help me prioritize my e-mail.  Although Categories is a nice theoretical concept, it only works if you actually have time to deal with all of the e-mail that you have categorized.  I can categorize my messages, but when the e-mails arrive faster than I can clear out the categorized messages, it's a futile exercise and the categories just grow and grow.  I'll categorize 10 e-mails, but as I start doing actual work on one of the high priority items (or some other actual work), 10 more e-mails arrive, making my categorized list that much longer.  I end up only being able to deal with high priority e-mails, and the "Follow Up" and "Personal" categories just grow indefinitely and collect dust.

5.  Turn Off Notifications:  After installing Outlook, the first thing I do is turn off the annoying Outlook desktop notification messages that appear every single time an e-mail arrives.  What a horrible feature that is designed to distract people and keep them from doing any productive work.  I then disable the sound that Outlook makes when a new message arrives.  Now I only have the little envelope icon that appears in the system tray, and I'm considering disabling that.

6.  Define "Email Time" and "Email Free Time":  If I were to respond to emails as they arrive, I would be constantly interrupted.  Even if I just have to glance at an e-mail and file it away, it takes may attention away from the proposal, the code, the estimate, the query, the report, or whatever billable task I'm working on.  And if I start to reply to some messages, which is a bad habit I have, then before I know it, 5, 15, or 30 minutes slips by while my real work is left unattended.  Now, when I have to focus on certain tasks, I now close Outlook entirely for several hours at a time.  I also close my web browser, just to minimize the opportunities for distraction.

7.  Smart Phone: When I got my first Blackberry, I thought that it would be handy to send or receive the occasional e-mail.  It was definitely handy, but one thing it made me realize was how much waiting I did when I was out of the office.  I realized that at a minimum, I could file away messages while in line for 2 minutes at Starbucks, or while waiting for my order at lunch, and especially while sitting at the airport.  Even if you don't compose any e-mail or actively deal with a task related to your e-mail, you can at least file away the messages that don't need to be cluttering up your Inbox, saving some time when you return to your computer.

8.  Spring Cleaning:  After sever months of growth, my Inbox will be littered with old threads that I either took care of and forgot to file, or are now obsolete.  Occasionally I'll take time to sort messages by sender, quickly scan them, and then file them en masse, clearing out my Inbox to a handful of messages.  An empty Inbox is a great feeling.  After it's done, I e-mail a few colleagues to brag about how few messages I have in my Inbox--and of course they then reply a dozen times to clutter it up again.

I know there are many tools available for managing e-mail, and even more tips and techniques and preferences, but going back to my original point, when the volume of incoming e-mail exceeds a certain threshold, and when I have lots of actual work to do, it eventually overwhelms me.

How do you cope?

Steve Endow is a Dynamics GP Certified Trainer and Dynamics GP Certified IT Professional in Los Angeles.  He is also the owner of Precipio Services, which provides Dynamics GP integrations, customizations, and automation solutions.


Steve Chapman said...

#5 - Turn Off Notifications, was one of the best things I ever did. Keeping that feature on, destroys a lot of concentration and productive work.

Jivtesh Singh said...

I try mixture of GTD, and my project management software which integrates with my email.

You have some good ideas there, thanks for sharing!

Reid said...

One of my main coping strategy is the reverse of #2. I try to auto-route as many emails into folders as possible.

Also #6 is great. You need to dedicate some time to being fully interuption free I feel.

Also, many companies can afford to invest in high level email mgmt software that will keep things organized and can be used to find data fast in case of any emergencies. One highly regarded example of such software for Outlook and Exchange is: