Managing Email and getting stuff done

Having blogged about the book The 4-Hour Workweek, and particularly the Low Information Diet (checkout Tim's manifesto available online), I thought it worthwhile looking at methods of implementing some of these concepts.

The two key approaches Tim advises (he does offer three): decrease frequency and decrease volume.

I can attest having implemented this when I moved into my last role @ Adobe, it works. I choose to implement it because I was working 'till midnight each day and seemed to have less and less time for the important tasks that were going to make the biggest impact on the business.

Now, there is line in the manifesto that makes me smile: "Multi-tasking is dead. It never worked and it never will". I love this because I prefer to focus on something rather than trying to juggle 2-3 things at once - so much so that my partner is always joking about it.

Tim really took on the topic of disciplining oneself in his blog entry The Art of Letting Bad Things Happen (and Weapons of Mass Distraction):

Once you realize that you can turn off the noise without the world ending, you’re liberated in a way that few people ever know.

Just remember: if you don’t have attention, you don’t have time. Did I have time to check e-mail and voicemail? Sure. It might take 10 minutes. Did I have the attention to risk fishing for crises in those 10 minutes? Not at all.

As tempting as it is to “just check e-mail for one minute,” I didn’t do it. I know from experience that any problem found in the inbox will linger on the brain for hours or days after you shut-down the computer, rendering “free time” useless with preoccupation. It’s the worst of states, where you experience neither relaxation nor productivity. Be focused on work or focused on something else, never in-between.

Time without attention is worthless, so value attention over time.



But these are concepts. What many of us need is a framework to manage this process.

About 18 months ago (exactly the same time I moved into my last role), I came across Marc Andreessen's The Pmarca Guide to Personal Productivity.

The whole article is worth reading (and it eerily makes the sames points Tim does), but of particular note is handling email:

When you do process email, do it like this:

First, always finish each of your two daily email sessions with a completely empty inbox.

I don't know about you, but when I know I have emails in my inbox that haven't been dealt with, I find it hard to concentrate on other things.

The urge to go back to my email is nearly overpowering.

(I am apparently seriously addicted to endorphins.)

Second, when doing email, either answer or file every single message until you get to that empty inbox state of grace.

Not keeping a schedule helps here, a lot, if you can pull it off -- you can reply to a lot of messages with "I'm sorry, I'm not keeping a schedule in 2007, I can't commit to that."

Third, emails relating to topics that are current working projects or pressing issues go into temporary subfolders of a folder called Action.

You should only have Action subfolders for the things that really matter, right now.

Those subfolders then get used, and the messages in them processed, when you are working on their respective projects in the normal course of your day.

Fourth, aside from those temporary Action subfolders, only keep three standing email folders: Pending, Review, and Vault.

Emails that you know you're going to have to deal with again -- such as emails in which someone is committing something to you and you want to be reminded to follow up on it if the person doesn't deliver -- go in Pending.

Emails with things you want to read in depth when you have more time, go into Review.

Everything else goes into Vault.

Every once in a while, sweep through your Action subfolders and dump any of them that you can into Vault.

(And do the same thing for messages in your Pending folder -- most of the things in there you will never look at again. Actually, same is true for Review.)

That's it.

You can get away with this because modern email clients are so good at search (well, most of them -- and you can always move to GMail) that it's not worth the effort to try to file emails into lots of different folders.

Obviously you may need some additional permanent folders for important things like contracts, or emails from your doctor, or the like, but these are exceptions and don't change your standard operating procedure.


Hopefully using this technique, which totally works for me, you can avoid having to declare e-mail bankruptcy, but it doesn't end here. The techniques above are largely focused on managing email coming to you. A significant issue that creates more email than necessary is poorly written emails - a topic I'll attack shortly.

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posted by Lee Gale @ 2:23 AM,

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