I used to think that I received way to much email, then I started working for my current employer. Maybe I thought that because I have mostly worked for small to mid-size companies in my past and this is my first time working for a large company for any significant period of time, but the amount of email I receive that actually requires my attention is unmanageable. The amount of email has amazed me enough that I whipped a few database queries together to extract the amount of email I have received on a monthly basis.
The above chart represents incoming email to my inbox after being through checks for malicious content and Spam. I have also removed most (if not all) bulk email (subscribed lists, etc.) that I subscribe. I could spend all day and night just dealing with, responding to and actioning email items I receive and I would still be behind. Managing from my inbox and trying and the end of each day or week to obtain the cherished state of having no email in your inbox will not be a reality for me (at least not in the foreseeable future). I decided that I need to make a change. As a result, I have started to more aggressively delegate many of the technical and design requests to my team. I also decided that I needed to come up with a way to get and stay in control of my inbox.
Using Google, I searched and read interesting articles and blog posts from many experts on how to effectively mange and prioritize. I have queried a few of my friends at work that have the same issue, as well as observing and asking some senior executives that I have a respect for and who have been in large companies for much longer than myself. Taking all that into consideration, along with some assumptions, this is the current way I am handling email at work.
I made two assumptions. First, my inbox will never be empty. I have not done a rate analysis on my inbox, but just eyeballing the number of messages per day, an empty inbox will be very short lived even if I managed to get it to empty. The second assumption is that my inbox is a representation of my interactions with a very large organization across many teams with different objectives and priorities within the organization. Each party will always feel what they need is more important than someone else. Therefore, from my perspective there is no over-reaching set of priorities one can follow that will fit everyone. I have to make my own decisions on priority of requests and concerns based on my understanding of the goals of the company, business units and teams I deal with.
Rather then manage my email from folders, I manage it using search folders (Microsoft Outlook terminology). In Outlook, each search folder creates a ‘view’ into your email based on a set of criteria. These ‘views’ are not folders you store objects into, but rather a dynamic folder that changes as the underlying folders change. They remind me of database ‘view’ features that you find when designing applications with large scale database systems like Oracle or Postgres. In my case, these search folders or ‘views’ are different ways to look at a single folder (or datasource), my inbox.
I have the following search folders:
significantExecsAndTheirAssistants: There is a subset of executives I work with or are involved in projects that I am responsible for in one way or another. If they or their administrative personnel is to send an email, I want to be aware of it. Any emails sent from them or their administrative staff will show up here.
upwardVisibility: This is basically the reverse of ‘significantExecsAndTheirAssistants’ folder. If anyone sends a email to myself and any of the subset of executives I am interested in, it will appear here. This allows me to understand what is being communicated upwards in the organization. I can more quickly be aware of any questions or concerns these executives may have, and if necessary respond or offer additional information if required.
leadershipTeam: This folder will highlight any correspondence sent from my peers in the Network Services Organization or the VP of Network Services himself.
significantPersons: Any emails from family, friends, and others that I have a close personal relationship with will appear here. It is a pretty small group, but they are important to me, so I want to be aware if they send something.
currentProjects: Emails in this folder include team members where my team or myself are involved in current and active projects. It is usually just the core team members, not everyone on a particular project. I spend a good portion of my time working in this view.
activeVendors: If you are an active vendor, your email will appear in this folder. That being said, there is a very strict definition of ‘active’ that I follow for this folder. Active means there is a signed P.O. or S.O.W. with your company that is currently executing or we are actively involved in some very strategic planning or consulting with you that is likely to end in a P.O. or S.O.W. Once completed, you are removed from this folder (as by the definition above you are no longer active).
meetingRequests: Any meeting request will appear in this folder. Unfortunately, I spend way to much time working with this folder, which is effectively requests for my time. In this view, I can look at the request, decide if I am going to attend, delegate, or decline.
From a folder storage perspective, I have 3 folders that I am using:
Inbox: This is where all my email arrives and where it stays until I deal with it. All the search folders listed above, use this single folder as their source for deciding what to present. Once an email is dealt with, it is removed from this folder and placed into either the ground0 folder or the emailBankruptcy folder effectively removing it from any search folders above.
ground0: This is a folder where email goes once it has been dealt with. I don’t categorize it or have any sub-folders. I can search it if required.
emailBankruptcy: The idea behind this folder came from a blog post by Michael Hyatt in 2009. There are lots of emails that arrive in my inbox but do not appear in my search folders as they don’t meet the required criteria. Eventually, they get stale and for whatever reason are no longer applicable. Every so often, I move these older emails in a batch to this folder. Similar to my ground0 folder, this folder is can be searched. Any items in this folder are emails that I never did action, but keep so I have a copy in case it is ever needed.
I may need to make a few tweaks to this setup and process over time, but I am starting slowly to see some beneficial impact. I expect there will be a few tweaks still in the coming months, but as of this writing, I am finding my email more manageable and I feel better about how I am handling it.