This Email System Makes Me More Productive and Responsive

If you’re like most people, email is a necessary evil in life.

Even reading articles about email causes your to slump in your chair. What is there to be said? We all deal with emails, and every email we get is minutes–hours–off the clock. In fact, 55% of workers attribute excessive emails as a barrier in getting work done.

Let’s make email sexy again.

Email can be better. Email can be a system, a way of life. Email can help you increase productivity. It can help you to shine, to make you look responsive and organized, to empower you with a reputation of being on top of things.

I’m going to share the system I use for organizing my communication. The key to this system is distilling messages in a layered fashion through a combination of automation and easy rules of thumb. This means I’m left with an empty inbox and emails that I can immediately act on or moved to a place where I can more efficiently manage them in the future.

Control what you receive in your inbox

The first layer of my system involves the intake process. In my line of work, I often receive project updates, requests, and other communication that doesn’t directly relate to me.

These messages are a waste of time.

Instead, I expect to see this communication in other systems, like a project management system or a ticketing queue.

For example, I get many requests for web tasks that must be routed to the correct team member. This is where ticketing software steps in. The ticketing system can handle the communication, queuing, and responses. While I still get an email notification to let me know what’s coming in, I usually delete them immediately because I know the details are stored in a different, better system.

Or, take your typical digital project, like a website redesign. Software such as Basecamp or Asana can help centralize project communication. Yes, I still get emails when the project discussion has been updated, but I treat those emails more like alerts that I can quickly dismiss. I know the good stuff is in the project management system. Not my inbox.

I also like to move more casual conversations to instant messaging platforms. There’s no need for someone on my team to send me an email with a quick question. We use Slack for that type of communication because it’s faster and leads to less email clutter.

Classify messages based on level of effort

Your inbox is an uncontrolled flow of tasks, questions, announcements, and notifications.

Quick classification of these messages will make or break your inbox.

When you check your email, you’ll undoubtedly see a list of messages (if not, good for you!). I classify messages based on three categories:

  • Future: Is this something I don’t need to worry about for a couple of weeks or more? If so, move the message to the “FUTURE” folder.
  • Immediate/Soon: Is this something I need to focus on within the next couple of days or week? If so, move the message to the “ACTION” folder.
  • 2-Minute Rule: Is the message something I can do within 2-minutes? Leave the message in the inbox and do the task at the end of your inbox tidying session. This is inspired by David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” where he suggests just doing the quick tasks as they materialize.

File or archive non-action messages

I get tons of information in my inbox that doesn’t necessitate action on my part. For example, a notification of an upcoming event or a change in health benefits could contain information that I just want to keep as reference.

In these cases, I store that information either on a calendar (perfect for events, obviously), within carefully curated email folders, or within a note taking app, like Evernote.

Quick flag: I loathe email folders.

I’m careful with the email folders, because I’m not a fan of anal retentive email organization. I’ve spent too much time in the past trying to move messages to project folders, people folders, and loads of other folders that led to more mess and fuss. It’s frustrating trying to whittle down your inbox into folders, so I do it sparingly.

One folder that is important to me is a “Processes” folder where I store email information containing instructions on how to access systems or specific procedures. It’s easy to know when a message fits that classification and I refer back to the folder many times.

It’s important to note that once I’m done with a message, it usually ends up in my archive. I find searching the archive to be effective and all it takes it a simple button click to send the message to my archives.

Process your 2-minute effort emails

The final step I take when updating my inbox is to process the remaining messages that I know will involve 2-minutes or less of effort. Do them and be done. It makes you look responsive and it’s just an all around good practice not to let simple tasks linger around.

What about the “FUTURE” and “ACTION” folders I mentioned earlier?

When I have slowdowns during my day, I periodically check those folders (the “ACTION” folder more often) to see what I can process. It’s as simple as that.

Visualize the flow

If you follow my email system, your inbox should be empty or near empty most of the time. The inbox is just a receiving tray for work. Use it properly.

The below funnel graphic shows my system in action. Keep in mind that this system is custom to me. You may find that tweaks here and there are more effective for you. Do what works for your flow.

And as a final reminder: The goal is to process messages and get them in the right place. If you’re spending insane amounts of time classifying, organizing, or searching, then there’s something wrong with your approach. Refine and try again.

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