Managing email, managing focus

Is it permissible to use a blog as a kind of public Dropbox ? I made this presentation on how to use email quite a while back, and thought I’d share (or more realistically archive) it here, in a shortened form.

Confession: I’m a bit of a GTD freak – David Allen’s productivity system for Getting Things Done in order to manage… well, pretty much everything in your life more effectively. I’m not naturally organised, so it helps to have a system which helps you make that decision, so… what now? 20 times a day. This presentation deals with a specific, but important part of our working lives – managing email, and the content is also influenced by Merlin Mann’s Inbox Zero.

Although the presentation is nominally about getting to grips with email, the real subject is about how to manage focus within your day. But promising people quick and simple tricks for dealing with their inbox seemed like an easier way to grab attention than by speaking directly about focus.

I prefer to speak about focus than time management because… well, here’s the edited PP slides complete with rubbish clipart, with my added comments in italics.

Managing Focus (not managing time)

•We can’t control time… it passes
•We can control our focus – or what we do with time
•Multitasking is a myth – we can focus on one thing at a time
•Rapid re-focusing is an essential skill… but only if you press the shutter as well!
•Email can suck away our focus, and make us less productive

Multitasking works well for me… as long as one of the tasks doesn’t involve thinking! When I’m working, though, it’s focus which is key
. Even getting real focus for 10 minutes can move you forward more than 2 hours of trying to do everything and achieving nothing. So… how to apply this to email?

When to do email?

  • Use roadblocks
    We can’t stop email coming in, but we can block it away from our attention.
We don’t check email when we are in a meeting, so why when you are at your desk?
If you send an email to someone (outside the office), are you surprised that they don’t answer within 5 minutes? What do you think? Probably that they’re busy. So set some reasonable expectations about response times, and block email off from your attention at other times.

Dropping everything to answer an email every 5 minutes strikes me as being ridiculously unproductive, and I suspect that this urge to respond immediately is often driven by a fear that, ‘if I don’t do it now then I’ll forget about it’. The solution is a ‘trusted system’ which will give you the confidence to know that deferring does not mean forgetting.

  • Putting the Inbox back in its box: How to limit email interruptions

•Fix a time for email: and include both start & end times
•Don’t touch email outside of those times
•Fixing time periods 3xday, 1xhour, 1×15 min…

How often should you check emails?
– ideally twice per day, not first thing in morning
– start by limiting, email-free periods
– aim to arrive at scheduling email time as the only time you look at your inbox

These rules are often pretty tough for email addicts to abide by. If you are used to having email permanently open, then detaching yourself can take some time. I would advise starting by aiming to check email only once per hour, even that can make a huge difference compared with being interrupted (or more accurately interrupting yourself) every 2 minutes.

The suggestion to avoid checking email as a first task of the morning is one I find difficult to follow as well. But I’ve seen too many people spending the most productive part of their day (when they are freshest) dealing with trivial emails, and then ending up doing the real work late in the day, when they are tired (and have finally run out of other excuses!). I’m guilty too, but just being aware of this can help to limit your time in the inbox.

  • Killing Distractions: stop the popups!
I thought this one deserved a slide of its own – just stop the email notifications in Outlook! Having a little window popup every 30 seconds to tell you that ‘you’ve got mail’  is like having someone sit next to you all day, and stab you in the leg with a needle 120 times per hour. Email is a pretty useless medium for really time-critical information… you wouldn’t email your co-workers to tell them that the building is on fire, after all.

How to do email?

How to use your inbox: an answer machine, not a task list. We often use our inbox as a physical reminder of things we need to do – like putting an important file on your desk to remind you to deal with it.

At first glance this works ok, after all, an inbox lists stuff to do, right?
No – there are several reasons why this doesn’t work:
  • an Inbox makes a bad reminder system because action items get drowned out by new mails
  • Mixes action with reference
  • Unclear when tasks done
  • Repetitive (one task can be repeated in different emails)
  • Lack of clarity because inbox is unprocessed
  • Need to process as actions
  • Allows others to set priorities
  • Lack of context means only serves as reminder when reviewing inbox – poor reminder
  • 2000 emails = no reminder because they are hidden in a stack.
Using your inbox as a reminder system is like writing a to-do list… then emptying a week’s worth of random papers on top of it. You can’t find the important stuff anymore, and you can’t sort the things which are ‘actionable’ from those which are not.

We can’t do everything straight away. We can’t remember everything. So we need lists. And in order to do that, we need to process email. But how?

No PP presentation is complete without a flow-chart! This is a pretty simple one though, just designed to make you decide on what action is required by each email.

I find the ‘Delete’ key particularly useful myself…

Do It
For those emails which you want to deal with now, think about 3 rules:

Next Action rule
What does this message mean to me, and why do I care?
What is the next action I need to take?
Touch & Go rule
Re-reading (or re-re-re-reading) email is a waste of your time
This is one of my favourite email rules – try to only touch each email twice at most. What does that mean? When you read it, decide immediately what action is required. Don’t leave it in your inbox so that you have to re-read (and re-think) about it every time you review your emails. Note: this doesn’t mean that you should answer all emails straight away, but that you process it once. If it needs a discussion with a co-worker first, or a long and considered reply, then move it to your defer list, and get it out of your inbox.
Look at your inbox like an A&E ward (emergency admissions at a hospital). It’s your job to decide who gets seen now, who gets admitted for further treatment, and who can safely be discharged straight away. You need to make those decisions to avoid the ward getting out of control!
Two minute rule
The two-minute rule simply says that if you can deal with an email straight away, in less than two minutes, then you probably save more time by doing so, since you’ve already just read the email once. If you don’t, then you’ll have to repeat the process next time you see the message, which is a waste of time.

Remember – this doesn’t mean reply to emails as soon as they hit your Inbox (you’re only checking email at set times, right?), but rather reply to quick easy emails during the time you’ve allocated for email.

Defer It

Not all emails can, or should, be dealt with straight away. When you defer an email, you should move it from the Inbox, to an ‘action folder’ (or tasks list) – a place which lists the outstanding action items you need to deal with.

Some people have entirely separate to-do lists, but others can use their email for this purpose, by creating an action folder (or by using labels in Gmail). It doesn’t really matter how you do it, but that list should hold only the things which you need to act upon, so you can make a quick judgment about which is the most important… without having to sift through newsletters, and pictures of lol cats.

Some shortcuts

•Use templates for repeat responses
•Colour emails from particular people (or to indicate which emails are addressed directly to you)
•Filter emails – newsletters etc – into a separate folder
•Sort by conversation, or sender, to quickly process
•‘I don’t know’ – may be a valid response. ‘I don’t know’ sent now is definitely more valid than ‘I don’t know’ sent a week later
These are some pretty simple email management tips – colour-coding by sender in particular is something I find useful when email threatens to overwhelm!

Inbox Zero

•It is possible to get your inbox to zero everyday. Even several times per day.
•It’s easier to see what is new, and to create a clean working space.
•Your computer, and you both work more efficiently that way.
•And it can get rid of that nagging feeling that there’s something hiding in your inbox that’s going to jump out and bite you.

An empty inbox can seem a bizarre idea to many… check out Merlin Mann’s 2006 talk to Google which coined the phrase Inbox Zero.
And that was pretty much it, just the summary slide to end:

Email Summary

•Don’t let email distract your focus
•Restrict email time – 30 minute rule
•Turn off pop-ups
•Don’t treat email as a task-list
•Separate action items from reference
•Do, Delete, Defer or File
•Use the touch & go rule
•Use the 2 minute rule
•Setup shortcuts
•Inbox Zero


3 responses to “Managing email, managing focus

  1. Simon, this is a really great post, thanks for the tips! I particularly liked this bit:
    “Using your inbox as a reminder system is like writing a to-do list… then emptying a week’s worth of random papers on top of it.”

    Here’s a follow-up question for you: do you think you can apply the same set of rules apply for managing the distractions from the online mobile devices (Blackberry, iPhone etc) that everyone is using these days?


  2. Dear Simon, thanks for this great set of tips. I’m going to apply them immediately and send them to my colleagues in the office. If everyone follows your advice, I’m sure we will all be working more efficiently. I’ll let you know how it goes. Cheers,

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