Email is not my job. It is a tool I use to do my job. At least, that’s what I tell myself. And yet, more and more often, I find myself spending most of my time writing, answering, filing and deleting emails. It has gotten absurd.
I’m not alone. The problem of email overload is so bad, my college is drafting policies to try and define who can email who and the rules for using email in the workplace. The policy won’t help. Email is a useful, but limited, communication tool. We overuse it and try to make our emails do things for us they were never intended to do.
The problem with email is that messages are wickedly easy to send and, on the receiving end, wickedly difficult to deal with. Handling my email inbox usually feels like hand to hand combat with somebody else’s to do list. Every email brings with it a decision. Do I reply? Do I delegate this? Does this person really need my response? Is the sender really a person anyway or is it just a semi-clever software program spewing invitations to review someone’s latest [fill in the blank]. Many messages get deleted. Others get flagged. Some get answered or delegated. Every email is a decision. It is exhausting.
Enough is enough. I’m building some new rules for myself regarding email. I want efficiency. I want clarity. I want control.
My brother manages manufacturing workflow processes. He treats his inbox like a project. Everything that comes in gets immediately color coded. Certain senders (his boss, his boss’s boss) are colored special colors to help them stand out. Every message is quickly reviewed for action type and given a color category using Outlook’s category options. One color for urgent. Another color for not urgent. Anything that doesn’t deserve a color is deleted.
I’ve been working with this idea for a week now. I already have my most important email senders pushed into a priority, VIP email folder. Messages from my boss, my staff and my related work teams get pushed to the VIP folder. Messages in this folder can be viewed as a group. They also display on my iPad as a special alert to help me keep track.
All incoming messages are quickly scanned for possible action. Easy things get answered or addressed right away. Most things aren’t easy and require a color. Red for urgent. Pink for important but not urgent. Green for waiting for an answer or more information. Purple for things to read.
My new rule: every message gets scanned and immediately answered, deleted or categorized. I then use Outlook category filters to view my urgent emails all together. This helps me prioritize my work for the day. After those are gone, I will view the important, but not urgent set. Some day, in theory, I will read the purple items labeled to read.
It isn’t a perfect system. I’m still not entirely in control of my inbox but, after a week of using categories and filters, I already find myself less stressed about the hemorrhaging inbox. I’m dealing with the things that need my attention most a little more quickly. At least, I think I am.
I still need to fine tune the system. Today, I added another step. I close my email software when I’m not actively using it. Today, I read email first thing in the morning, again mid-morning and then right before lunch. I opened email midafternoon and then once more before I left for the day. The rest of the time email stayed closed.
From time to time, one of my VIP senders showed an alert on my iPad. I glanced quickly over to determine if the message was urgent, knowing that truly urgent things always arrive via phone call or text message.
It felt good to close my email when I wasn’t actively using it. I felt more in control.
I have written about my personal struggles with email before. You may think I’m daft. You may think I’m making things too complicated. The truth is I’m just trying to feel more in control and capture that feeling that email is a tool I use rather than a tool than uses me.
You may be reading this and feeling upset because you’ve sent me an email or 5 and haven’t yet gotten a response. Try not to be upset. There’s a good chance your email to me has a pink cast, in which case I’ll get to it.
There is also, of course, a chance that your email(s) have been deleted. If that’s the case, you are going to need to decide how many emails you want to send me to try and get my attention. My new rules are still young so I’m not sure how they will play out. I am declaring a kind of war here. Email is not my job. It is a tool I use to help me do my job.
I need your help. What rules or processes do you use to manage your email? Comments most welcome.