Interesting approach. I particularly appreciate the directness and simplicity, which is a crucial requirement for any solution for this burning issue. I think that many approaches fail or gradually degrade due to their over-sophistication. Step Five (Evacuate processed mail) is crucial and often overlooked. We have built a solution that automates this step: Tagwolf. Tagwolf offers one click filing of Microsoft Outlook emails. It’s an intelligent add-in that can reliably predict in which folder an email should be filed and files the email with a single click of the mouse.
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Tame your Email Monster with a Tickle
Turns out that the same filing system that allows you to corral the paper that clutters your desk and mind can work just as well for your inbox, with a few simple modifications.
Tame the Email Monster with a Tickle
Technology is often a double-edged sword, and email is a prime example. Email has revolutionized the way we live and work, and it is a vital tool for communicating with clients and colleagues. Faster than snail mail (the message is delivered almost immediately) and phone calls alike (it’s often quicker to dash off an email than it is to get your recipient on the phone), email has been our “go-to-gal” for corresponding in the digital age.
The trade-off for this convenience, however, is that email can become the ultimate distraction from important work and sometimes even a barrier to efficiency and effectiveness. Often the sheer volume of messages one receives in a day is overwhelming. The result is usually some combination of the following (re)actions. I call them Compulsion and Procrastination.
- Compulsion: You allow each “you’ve got mail” notification to distract you from the task at hand and side-track you into responding to each email in the latest batch;
- Procrastination: You read the email, then set it aside with a mental note to get back to it later.
No matter your email client or industry, we each suffer from Compulsion and Procrastination to varying degrees. I’ve had the opportunity to explore and suggest a number of possible solutions for these problems over the years, and I must admit that none of them proved effective for the busy executive or entrepreneur. Why? They were just too darn complicated…
Enter the Tickler System. Turns out that the same filing system that allows you to corral the paper that clutters your desk and mind (see my last blog post) can work just as well for your inbox, with a few simple modifications. The idea has been floating around for some time, so I cannot lay claim to the method, but like its paper sorting cousin, its genius lies in its simplicity and ease of use. My commitment to keeping it simple (for me and my clients) has caused me to not just adopt the method, but embrace it. Imagine an empty Inbox and the freedom that comes with it!
Step One: Use your email client (Outlook, Gmail, Yahoo, etc.) to set up five sub-folders in your inbox – one labeled for each day of your work week (i.e. Monday - Friday). Make sure that these five folders are visible and easily accessible when using your email client. As before, accessibility is key, or you won’t use it!
Step Two: With a calendar handy, go through each email in your Inbox and QUICKLY assign it to a day of the week that you will commit to handling the item. Move the email to the corresponding folder immediately. The advice from my last blog post bears repeating:
“It is likely that you will have a large number of emails that need to be addressed but in no particular time frame. Just assign it to a folder and move on… DO NOT GET SIDE-TRACKED! Trust me: you will run across something that should have been dealt with a month ago. Or you will start to feel bored or even discouraged. Stick with it! Continue with this process until every email has found a new home in your tickler filing system.”
Step Three: Set aside a regular time each day to open the day’s folder and attack its contents. For example, on Monday, open the “Monday” folder and methodically address each email item. (You may even decide to delegate it or delete it.) If a particular email was meant for the following Monday or the next, simply leave it in the folder until its assigned time. A few personal recommendations:
- Once you have completed work with your Paper Tickler System, go right to your Email Tickler System so that you don’t have to: a) spend the entire day dreading it; or b) leave yourself without enough time to address a project.
- Do NOT check your email before addressing the items in that day’s folder. This brings us back to the purpose of the entire system: email can be the ultimate distraction – don’t let that happen before you’ve dealt with your folders.
- You may have hundreds of emails in your Inbox. Start with oldest first and work your way to the most recent, reasoning that many of the older ones have already been addressed and therefore can be quickly discarded. Break the task into small sessions if that works easier for you.
- Feel free to discard unimportant emails. Often we save emails that seem important at the time, but by the time you return to them, the message is no longer needed. Let it go!
Step Four: As email arrives in your Inbox that cannot (or should not) be instantly addressed, assign it a day and immediately drop it into the corresponding electronic folder. Your empty Inbox is like a clean house – once you get it to that point, you want to keep it that way.
Step Five: Once you’ve effectively dealt with the email, you must decide whether to keep or delete the message. Be decisive. Ask yourself if you will ever need to access the message again. If not, then get rid of it. If you need to retain the record, then file it in the appropriate electronic subject file according to your system.
After you’ve gotten accustomed to handling your email messages in this manner, a few added benefits will naturally appear. First, you will begin to notice a pattern to the messages, to your work, to your habits. It may behoove you to organize your week around these patterns. For example, you may reserve time on Mondays to work on your business (as opposed to IN your business), so email messages relating to the management of your business are automatically assigned to the Monday folder.
Next, you will likely see your work transition from a focus on the “urgent” to a focus on the “important,” and the effect of this one simple shift cannot be underestimated! By avoiding panic mode and the adrenaline rush that comes with it, you will become more effective in everything that you do, and your energy levels will increase. You may even have time to pursue other ideas, projects, or hobbies!
Clearly, the Email Tickler Filing System is a common-sense method for managing the email that clogs your Inbox, no matter your industry and occupation. And like the paper version, it does not have an autopilot feature. For the system to work, you must discipline yourself to maintaining the system as outlined above.
Many busy executives and entrepreneurs commit themselves to being better organized as part of their New Year’s Resolutions! If this is your intent for 2011, I suggest making this step your second baby-step – a February project, if you will – after you’ve attacked the paper clutter.
Learn more about the author, Jennifer Eckhardt.
Comment on this article
Posted by Guy Wyers, Leuven, N.A. Belgium |
Jan 05, 2011
Posted by Jennifer Eckhardt, Buda, Texas |
Jan 06, 2011
Thanks Guy! I'm anxious to take a look at your product and see how it works. Appreciate the tip!
Posted by Mark P Friedman, Boulder, Colorado |
Jan 31, 2011
Jennifer - I love it! I try to clear my inbox daily, but this is a great build.
I'd appreciate your thoughts on the system I've been recommending. See this post: http://fastgrowth.biz/blog/2010/09/empty-inbox-clear-mind/
- email management
- time management
- tickler system