In the past few weeks we have covered How I Double My Browser Productivity With Just 13 Free Browser Extensions and How to Double Your PC Productivity With Just 65 MB of Free Software. But in order to stay organized and keep on top of your daily work obligations (whether corporate or private) takes more than just good free software! It really helps to maintain an efficient process in the way you do things.
I worked for eight years in the Canadian corporate world and worked my way up to managing large teams of people. During this period I was amazed at how efficient corporate communications are… at filling your email inbox with junk!
The problem is that when you receive anywhere between 80-100 general emails each day, it’s very easy to lose track of the few important emails I really needed to action, I was literally drowning in junk. I was also delegating a lot of work by email and spent a lot of time checking my inbox for replies and answers. In the end the whole thing became too cumbersome to believe, so I decided to take action to streamline my email process and make it work for me, instead of against me.
One more point. About four years ago I quit corporate life and started a small marketing company. I love what I do, but the big surprise is that communicating with small business owners still presents me with the same problems as I faced in the enterprise world, so this guide should help both categories. The process applies just as much to Thunderbird and Gmail users as it does to those using Microsoft Outlook in the enterprise. The goal? To spend as little time on email as possible, even when managing multiple email addresses.
* Disclaimer 1 – I got to this simple setup after trying lots of productivity software, reading multiple work management books and checking out a ton of work process improvement materials on the web. Don’t be disappointed by its simplicity … take a couple of days, try it and learn to appreciate its power!
* Disclaimer 2 – The guide below assumes you are comfortable dealing with Gmail and Outlook settings at an intermediate level. If you are a beginner, please check the basic tutorials that Google and Microsoft offers before attempting the setup below.
The system is simple and it implies the usage of only 3 labels (folders): Jinbox (like J from Junk attached to Inbox), Inbox and Waiting For.
STEP 1 – Gather All Your Email In One Place
This applies if you manage more than 1 email address. If you only have only one email account to manage, pass to Step 2.
Set up your software (Gmail, Outlook, Thunderbird) to receive all your email messages in one place.
If you use Gmail, go to Settings/Accounts and set up “Check mail from other accounts (using POP3):” and “Send mail as:” for EACH email account/address you own.
- If you use desktop software as Outlook, Thunderbird etc, set ALL your email addresses as individual accounts
This will allow you to receive and send emails from only one place – no need to log into multiple inboxes and check multiple email accounts every couple of hours.
STEP 2 – Set Up Your JINBOX ™
For the first couple of days work as usual and make a list of all the email addresses that are filling your inbox with non-urgent information (note I said “Non-Urgent” and not Non-Important!!! – e.g. all company wide communications, automatic notification emails, promotional mailers, etc …). These are messages that do not require an instant response. Just start with a few and continue adding new addresses to this list every week, as they come in.
- Once you got a decent list, create a folder, call it – ‘Jinbox’ (or anything else!!!) in your email system and create a filter that archives all incoming emails from those addresses to the new created folder. For Gmail users – create a Label and filter the incoming addresses by skipping the inbox.
By doing this you immediately take control of your inbox. You basically create a second inbox for non-urgent items, which is therefore an inbox you check only when you have some time available. I check this folder once a day – I even have 15-20 minutes booked in my calendar for this activity.
By the way – don’t skip checking these emails. From time to time you will find some hidden gems inside. And don’t give it more than 15 minutes of your time per day either … as it would simply be wasted time!
STEP 3 – Set Up A Follow-Up Folder (Waiting For)
This part is about making sure you never lose a follow-up message, and how to manage your delegated work flow while investing a minimum of time and effort.
The main idea here is to automatically TAG follow up emails with a special label (or place them in a dedicated folder) which allows you to see what you delegated and to whom, and send reminders in seconds.
a) Gmail Users (or any email that allows conversation grouping – that nice feature that allows you to see a 25 email exchange occupying one line in your inbox) – set up a filter (called “Waiting For”) with the following criteria – “from:([email protected]) (cc:[email protected] OR bcc:[email protected] )”. With this, you tell Gmail to tag all emails you send (and which have your address in the CC or BCC) with a new label called ‘Waiting For’.
Note: Outlook Users (and other corporate email software) – There is a big difference between Outlook and Gmail. Outlook works on a message basis, while Gmail works on a Conversation Thread basis. The difference is if you have a 25 message conversation in Gmail, tagging one email will tag the entire thread with the label. In Outlook you need to tag EVERY messages in the 25 message thread with the same label.
b) For Outlook – I create a different signature specifically for use only in follow-up emails (e.g. I was using “John Doe: for regular emails and “John Doe” for follow up emails. As you see they’re both the same, but the one for follow-ups has two spaces between the names. Once this is done, create two filters (one for incoming emails and one for outgoing emails) based on the words “John Doe” (with two spaces between he names) and set the filter to put all such emails into a new folder called “Waiting For”.
Now that you set up your email to automatically track your follow-ups for you in the ‘#Waiting For’ folder or label, it’s a simple task to check on them every day, and send reminders if necessary (I usually send reminders every 48 hours if I have not heard back with a response, you can vary this to a setting you’re comfortable with).
This simple system saves me hours of work and gets all my work done very efficiently indeed! The psychology behind it is simple – spend your time on important stuff. Generally, I get about 5-10 real, actionable emails per day, the remaining 70-100 emails per day are general emails that will patiently wait for my attention until tomorrow, when I DECIDE I have time for them. You will never lose another follow up again, and people (including your business partner or your boss) will be amazed how efficiently you manage your workload. And guess what …you will be the one who stays on top of projects, tasks and following up on reminders and keep them on their toes. How cool is that?
STEP 4 – Keep Your Inbox Empty
The inbox was designed to be a reception box for communication and tasks. Keep this in mind and every time you check you inbox remember this statement. I use the GTD concept of manipulating inbox items as follows:
- If an item needs less than 2 minutes to be solved – do it on the spot
- If an item needs more than 2 minutes to be solved – schedule it in your calendar and allocate some time to it for completion
- If an item is informational (news, info, new procedures, etc…) read it later when you have some time scheduled or available. You can use apps like GetPocket.com or Readability to read the piece on the move – they even have Android, Blackberry and iOS apps.
Whatever system you use to get things done – make sure your Inbox is used as it was designed – “to be a reception box for communication and tasks “.
POWER USER TIPS
Finally let me share a couple of very powerful tip with you. Once mastered, your email management skills will improve dramatically.
1. DO NOT use any labeling or folder system for archiving email. I know it sounds weird, but placing emails in folders makes you lose precious time twice over. First when you file the emails, and also when you are trying to find info in your messages. I gave up on labels and folders five years ago and it’s simply amazing how much easier it is to locate old messages.
Instead of browsing all messages looking for a particular one – search them (e.g. looking for an Excel file sent to you by Jack around two months ago? – search for this in Gmail: “from:[email protected] has:attachment filename:xls after:2013/03/15 before:2013/04/15“. The same can be done in all major email systems (here are some details for Gmail, Microsoft Outlook)
2. This second power trick applies to Gmail users. The same can probably be achieved in Outlook and other systems too, but as I have not spent much time testing these, I can not recommend it definitively for those systems.
Gmail allows you to divide your email homepage (where your Inbox lives) into a multiple inbox page. Why is this cool? Well I have my Gmail set up to display the Inbox at the top of the page, and just below I have inserted my Waiting For inbox. This allows me to constantly keep an eye on my follow-ups and delegated work. No additional effort (disclaimer – this will not work if you use the Preview Pane in Gmail. It’s an ‘either/or’ kind of deal unfortunately).
Here’s how to achieve this:
Go to Settings / Labs and enable the feature ‘Multiple Inboxes’
- Once you save you should see an option on the Top Settings Bar – ‘Multiple Inboxes’
- Set up the options as set out and you’re ready to roll
I hope this helps you achieve the email Zen you’re seeking.
I’d really like to hear your email management tricks and what you do to stay on top of your email inboxes, as well as how you optimize your delegated work management. Let us know in the comments below.