Email Mastery: Wham, Bam, Thank You Ma’am

Sorting incoming email faster is one of the critical ingredients of email mastery. You need to be able to process without acting on things. First, know what you have. Second, do the right next thing.

Taking as few seconds per message as possible whip through your inbox and delete, file or label everything as appropriate.

If you don't already have labels set up for your mail, do that quickly now. These labels should reflect the order in which you need to deal with things and I find it helpful to group by how long I think it will take to move this issue forward or perhaps even resolve it. My labels, once again, are Urgent, 2 minutes, 10 minutes, 30 minutes and Waiting For Someone. Also I recommend creating a Tickler folder for things you don't need to deal with until a certain day.

Before you begin, decide generally what you file and what just gets deleted. The only things that remain in the inbox are those that require some action.

If you have a very full inbox, work your way through this in 10 minute bursts. Set a timer (I recommend Minuteur for Mac users) and do not let yourself get distracted in that time. It's just ten minutes; you can do this! If you aren't done after 10 minutes, then go deal with some other discrete task that needs to be handled today – preferably something on paper or involving talking to someone so you get a break from the intense mousework – and then when you've had the pleasure of checking that off, come back and do another 10 minute burst. Repeat as necessary.

For some messages, the obvious action will be to give it the 2 Minute label because it's a long message you know you have to read and may need to act on, but your few second scan of it makes clear that that could wait until tomorrow if it had to. Read it later, even if later is just after this burst. Do not act while you're processing the inbox – you are only spending a max of 10 seconds per item to sort it into stacks.

Those folks who regularly need to send the same reply will benefit from creating a few mail templates to make this a matter of a few clicks rather than a bunch of redundant typing. If you can say the usual thing without having to create it afresh every time, you can often close out those kind of messages in your processing – just be sure you're only doing it on the ones you can truly handle in 10 seconds or less. The ones that need the standard message plus one or two more sentences belong with your "2 Minute" label.

Your goal: a prioritized inbox which contains only things requiring action and all the contents of which are generally familiar to you.

This will reduce your stress, help you focus your time on the most important actions, and give you the ability to respond much better to demands for status reports.

The Week of Email Mastery

Is your inbox a source of despair? Fear not! You can conquer it and develop good habits which will reduce its negative impact on you in the future.

First, a few basic principles:

1. Discard the idea that every email you get deserves your full attention.

2. Discard the idea that every email you get deserves to be answered with a correspondingly lengthy reply or, in many cases, any reply at all.

3. Discard the notion that you must file everything you save. Mail programs have search functions; unless its a category where you regularly need to know the last action on it or something that would be hard to capture in a search, just throw it in one big Archive folder.

4. Discard more email. Delete delete delete!

If your work is like mine, you have probably five main kinds of email:
– incoming, haven't looked at it
– action required
– action required, but not by any particular time (e.g. articles to read, someday/maybe projects)
– filed by topic (in my case, at minimum, folders for each customer and folders for each product release & sometimes the particularly discussed line items within that)
– archive (all other "dealt with" mail)

Additionally, those who subscribe to mailing lists or who are on group aliases will want to segregate any incoming mail to those which do not require reading on a daily basis. For example, my department has a group alias but that's often very timely information, so it goes into my regular inbox. Our customers have a mailing list where they trade tips and discuss issues but they are instructed to open calls with our help desk for anything urgent; since I could ignore the list for days at a time if more urgent matters arise, I have set up a filter to direct that mail into a separate folder. (And I have that folder inside a folder called lists so that I can't see the count of messages in it and get tempted to go "clean it up" when it is really not the first priority).

Some people like to have their inbox separate from their "action required" folder, but I adhere to a different approach: label quickly and then act on things in the right order.  My labels are: Urgent, 2 Minute, 10 Minute, 30 Minute, Waiting For Someone. This last label has a special meaning if it's in my inbox: check on this if you don't get a response quickly. Otherwise, things that I don't have to do anything on until someone else moves it forward can go in my Waiting For Someone folder.

More about specific techniques tomorrow!

Not interested.

You don't need sales calls or junk mail. You have better things to do with your time.

Here's a good page of tips on eliminating unwanted solicitation (linked from Lifehacker among other places).

Today do at least two things:
– call 1-888-5 OPT OUT and get credit agencies to stop selling your information.
-  send a
postcard or letter to
Mail Preference Service, Direct Marketing Association, PO Box 643, Carmel, NY 15012-0643
Include your complete name, address, zip code and a request to "activate
the preference service".  For up to five years, this will stop mail from
all member organizations that you have not specifically ordered products from.

(This tip might be United States only, but it's possible that Canadians can benefit from these as well).

Just Do It First

Okay, yes, lovely to relax and putter around, but there's something you've been meaning to do "on the weekend" for how many months now?

Before you get distracted into sedentary activities, just go work on it right now.

Walk away from the Web and make it happen.

(In my case this was "sort out the stuff for yard sale into '$5/each or 6 for $20' and '$2.50/each or 6 for $10' boxes. This morning I did not turn on the computer until AFTER I had done so. Sometimes the siren call of Flickr, blogs, news, and cartoons can be resisted! And since the first thing I did was read a chapter of that book I've been meaning to finish, I still felt like I had had a gentle start to the day.)

Manifesting Decisions

Yesterday I asked you to think about what you are and are not going to be spending time on henceforth.

Did you come up with some projects or commitments to bid farewell to? Today, take time to close those things out.

If there are physical materials that you won't want/need around anymore, decide their fate. Put things in the charity box or the trash. Take a picture of that unfinished painting or whatever to document how far you got (and maybe write a little story about why you chose that project and why you're now parting with it).

If it's something less tangible, say, participation in a club you don't have time for anymore, write a thank you & farewell letter or make a call to conclude your involvement. Acknowledge the good in the activity and then move on to what's a higher priority for you.

If it was something you'd added to your plate just for yourself – "I will learn Swahili in my spare time" or "I will read an entire new book every week" – don't forget to make some kind of parting gesture to confirm that this isn't just it fading down to the bottom of your current list, but coming off that list. It is not still floating out there as an obligation anymore.

Do watch out for those unconscious commitments you've made which show up when you examine where your time goes. By subscribing to magazines or the daily paper, you're committing to at least flipping through each issue. By getting Tivo or switching on the telly every night when you get home, you're choosing to spend your energy keeping up with tv shows. By buying video games, you're planning to spend time playing them. These are all perfectly okay choices, but make them consciously, weighing them against the other priorities you have in your life.

Make your choices and take some time today to rearrange your life to support that choice.

Me? I moved the tv out of the living room, took some of the games off my computer, and said  "kwaheri" to Swahili.

Make the path of least resistance be the path you most want to take.

Not everything started must be finished

We all have pet projects, social commitments, goals for personal or professional growth, and hobbies to which we devote our time. We stroll past the buffet of life and we start loading our plates. The problem is that we make a lot of trips back to the smorgasbord of options and pretty soon the dining table of life is groaning under the load.

Do you really like everything you picked up thinking it would be tasty?

Can you really finish all that? Or would doing so leave you feeling painfully over-stuffed?

Look at what you've obliged yourself to – including those things you aren't actually putting time in on, but which weigh on your mind – and at where the hours of your day go.

Think about how you would prioritize that list. What can you just get rid of because you don't want it anymore? What should you abandon because it just isn't as desirable as the other things on your plate?

Read more about this idea in D. Keith Robinson's To-Done essay, Knowing When To Quit.

Take Control of Your News

Here's a good tip from Bob Walsh of  To-Done!:

Nowadays, with text, audio and video feeds from every major and minor news organization a click away, Google News, news alerts, RSS,
IM and all the rest, you have about as much chance of getting your head
clear as surviving 10 fire hoses turned full on at your face.
Too much news, way, way, way too much.

All the news doesn’t fit: on paper, on your screen, in your head.

Continue reading All The News Doesn't Fit

Let go of procrastination

United States citizens:
You know, you really probably do have time today to do your taxes. Or at the very least pull together all the papers you'll need and find the form. (a hint and have you considered filing online?) There are three possible outcomes: you get your refund early or you figure out you don't have to pay a significant amount or you have extra time to budget for a large amount owed. It's all better than waiting until April.

Rest of the world:
I bet you have some bureaucratic task you've been putting off. Really, it won't take THAT long. Just do it. Or at least get together everything you'll need to have in front of you in order to do it.

It doesn’t have to happen all at once, just begin

Most of us are busy people, busy with work, busy with play, busy
with our communities and friends and families. We look at our homes and
think "Oh my gawd, there is no way I can get this clutter under control
without spending weeks working on it full time!" It's so easy to be
overwhelmed by the seemingly vast distance between the way things are
now in your life and the calm, clear, open life we'd like to be

But don't worry. You will get there and you don't have to take giant steps. Every little bit counts.

[read more of Where To Start]

Slay the Vampire

I highly doubt that anyone seeking a less cluttered life is someone who finds way too much time on their hands. So where is all your time going?

Put a piece of paper up where you'll keep seeing it (on the fridge is a good spot) and all week write down where your time goes. "90 minutes reading blogs", "30 minutes cooking dinner", "110 minutes commuting", "8 hours working", "20 minutes lunch",  etc.

At the end of the week, compare what you did to what you wish you were doing. What's the biggest chunk of time invested for the least payoff? What could be completely or mostly eliminated and replaced with something more important to you?