This time, we’re discussing the last piece of the organisation puzzle – and the one people tend to dread the most – email management.
As with folder management and file naming conventions, email management requires a lifestyle solution. You need to develop rules and principles that you can live with every day. Remember that staying organised is similar to maintaining a diet and exercise regimen. Not doing so and treating organisation like it's a one day spring cleaning project is similar to going on a crash diet. Any results you do see will be very short-lived.
Before you dive into your email reorganisation project, take a moment to realise that you don't have to be perfect. The goal is to come up with rules that you can reasonably stick to for the long-term – rules that make your work or personal life easier, more productive, and better.
See the bottom of the box
The moment I realised I needed a systematic approach to email was the first time I opened my inbox and had more than three pages of stuff just sitting there. Most of the files had been marked "read," but because I hadn't acted on them, I left them in the inbox. I remember feeling overwhelmed and thinking that if I didn't start throwing away emails that very second, the problem would be worse within the hour, and would surely be unbearable by the next morning.
As a result, I set one simple goal for myself: To always be able to see the bottom of my inbox. In other words, I want to be able to see entries for the most recently received message and oldest message in a single screen.
I don't hold myself to this standard every moment of every day – that would be neurotic and counterproductive. But I do aim to see the bottom of my inbox before I leave work every day, and if that fails, at least on Fridays.
I also stay sane about email overload when I'm off sick for a day or take time off. After I've returned from a holiday, I give myself at least a week to catch up on email and try not to stress about it the first day or two back in the office.
The way I manage my business email account is exactly the same way I manage my electronic files into folders. Everything goes into a folder.
First, I create a few basic folders by project, such as Project A, B, and C. Within each project folder, I create subfolders for each month, labelled with the two-digit year and month, and an underscore preceding the month letter abbreviation. For example, the folder for June 2013 is named 1306_JUN.
When new emails come in, they often sit in my inbox for a few hours, a day, maybe even a week or two. But they never overwhelm me because I have a system in place that keeps everything at a manageable level. Here are the rules for my system. These might not be right for you, but they can provide an example of one solution. Tailor your own solution with rules that fit your lifestyle.
Rule 1. If the email doesn't require action (including re-reading), I throw it away immediately.
Rule 2. If an email is critical – meaning it requires imminent action or deep re-reading and possibly a reply – it stays in the inbox until I act upon it. It can stay in the inbox for up to a month. After a month, I must act on it. That's the deadline. Once I've taken action, the email is filed to its corresponding folder.
Rule 3. If the email contains information I need, but does not require immediate action, it should be moved to its corresponding folder by the end of the day, or the end of the week if I'm busy. If I'm afraid I will forget to act on it because it's not immediately visible in the inbox, I can create a calendar item as a reminder. The email must be filed in a folder. No exceptions.
Rule 4. On Friday afternoon, I give myself 10 to 20 minutes to sort through whatever is in the inbox and perhaps act on the items that don't require a lengthy response. By the time I leave the office, I should be able to see an inch or two of white space at the bottom of the inbox (room to fill up again over the weekend).
Rule 5. After a year, archive it or chuck it. I tend to keep email data for about a year and archive everything else, which is extremely easy to do when your information is sorted into folders by month and year.
Another organisational method that was popularised back in the day of physical paperwork is to create 31 folders, labelled numerically, with each number corresponding to a day of the month. Rather than create a daily to-do list, you're supposed to file paperwork and reminders (and birthday cards, and bills to pay, etc.) in the folders corresponding to the appropriate action date. When the date arrives, you open the folder and are now tasked with taking care of whatever is inside.
Yet another method is compartmentalisation. If you use a project management tool such as Basecamp, you never need to save emails associated with projects that are managed in that system. Basecamp does that for you. A lot of people use compartmentalisation in their personal email life by dedicating one web-based account to listservs and mailing lists, while reserving the other for communicating with friends and family. Why not use the same concept in business?
Get rid of email anxiety
I am by no means advocating that my system or the 31-day-folder system is right for everyone. My system works for me because I tend to remember things based on when they occurred. Additionally, I actually look forward to those few minutes at the end of every week when I do my once-over on the inbox. Lastly, the basic goal of always being able to see the bottom of my inbox gives me comfort. Seeing information bleed beyond one visual screen hits some kind of tipping point in me. It feels unbearable, like I can't find anything and I will never dig my way out.
Other people, however, may feel anxious at having to manage more than a dozen folders, or meet self-inflicted deadlines. It might be more productive for you to be able to see your mail in one single, scrolling pane. At the risk of getting too touchy-feely, it's not a bad idea to write down the kinds of things that make you feel overwhelmed, because if you can identify what you don't want in your email, you can create rules and guidelines to prevent it.
Whatever organisational system you create for yourself or your business, focus on lifestyle-like habits and general rules. You don't have to be perfect every single day. You just need to come up with a system that will keep you on track.
The important ideas to take away from this article are:
1. Having a manageable amount of email will make your work life easier and better.
2. When developing principles for handling email, focus on lifestyle habits rather than hard-and-fast rules.
3. Determine how you will handle email daily, weekly, and monthly, as well as how often you will archive email data.
4. Figure out what you don't want from your email, and then create habits which prevent that from happening.
Hopefully you’ve enjoyed this series of organisational articles, and they have given you some valuable ideas, tips and strategies to employ. Feel free to add your own in the comments section below.