Processing and Organizing Your E-Mail in Microsoft Office Outlook 2007

  • 6/13/2007

Using The Four Ds for Decision Making

The latter part of the Workflow Model is also called the Four Ds for Decision Making, and you can effectively process and organize your e-mail by simply following these four Ds. This part of the Workflow Model is easy to use and helps with large volumes of e-mail that require rapid decisions.

The four Ds are as follows:

  • Delete it.

  • Do it if it takes less than two minutes.

  • Delegate it and, if appropriate, track it in your 1:1 Meeting or SNA Waiting For category.

  • Defer it to one of your SNA categories on the To-Do Bar or transfer it to a specific time on your Calendar.

Delete It

Deleting e-mail is not easy for all of us, and it has a lot to do with past experience. Some people are extremely uncomfortable letting go of information, and for good reason. Remember your very first job. Perhaps you were incredibly nervous and wanted to do everything right. It was your fourth day and your boss asked you for a document you didn’t have. You’d deleted it two days earlier! He was unhappy you couldn’t produce the document and made a big, huge fuss about it. You felt disappointed and beat yourself up for getting rid of it. After this experience, you decided never to delete anything ever again to ensure you didn’t have to repeat the experience.

However, not all people are the same. If you delete a document, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to come back to bite you! What happened 10 years ago may not happen today. So, ask yourself, in all honesty, how many times have you referenced the e-mail messages you’ve saved? We’d guess maybe 10 percent of the time! The truth is that you really don’t get paid to file, you get paid to complete Meaningful Objectives successfully. So, be watchful of how much e-mail you file, how much you use it, and how long it takes you to find it.

Did you know that, on average, clients delete 50 percent of their e-mail? (Deep breaths now, in and out!) For those of you who are uncomfortable deleting e-mail, there are four questions that can help you determine what to keep and what to delete. (Keep breathing!)

  • Does this e-mail information relate to a Meaningful Objective I’m currently working on?

  • Can I find this information somewhere else? On a Web site, on an intranet, or from a colleague?

  • Will I refer back to this information in the next three months?

  • Am I required to keep it? Is it legal, HR, or financial?

There are exceptions to all of these questions and you have to be discerning about what those are. The point is to be conscious about why you are keeping messages that you don’t really need. We find these questions assist clients to let go of e-mails that don’t support their primary focus.

Have you ever lost your entire Inbox in the past as a result of an application crash or virus? Remember what happened? Most of my clients say, “Nothing! I was so surprised. I just got on with business as usual.” So, don’t be afraid to step outside of your comfort zone, let go of the “keeper” role, and see what happens. We think you will be pleasantly surprised.

Do It

A “Do It” action is a Strategic Next Action that you can personally complete in less than two minutes. On average, clients complete 30 percent of what’s in their Inbox in less than two minutes. It’s motivating to complete this many cycles of action, and it proves how much you can get done in less than two-minute cycles.

Here’s an example of a “do it in less than two minutes.” In an e-mail, my assistant asked me to send her an updated schedule for the book-editing project. I had the updated schedule in my Reference System in My Documents. There was no point in typing this action onto my To-Do Bar; it would have taken longer to do that than it would have taken to send the schedule to her.

If it takes less than two minutes, just get it done and get it out of your Inbox. If it takes three minutes, that’s fine, too. You don’t have to be too rigid about the time limit. The key is to complete an action if you can complete it faster than you can track it.

We used to work with stopwatches, timing clients while they processed their e-mail. It was inspiring how much they’d get done in two minutes or less. Often, clients would try to convince us that a reply or an action would take longer, and so we’d say, “Let’s time it and see.” Voila! It was almost always completed in less than two minutes.

You can also scan an e-mail message in less than two minutes to decide if you really need to read it. Clients say to us, “Oh, I need to defer this e-mail. It will take me 15 minutes to read!” We always suggest scanning it in two minutes or less to decide if you need to spend 15 minutes reading it. Often, the scanning is enough to decide that you do not need to read it. We all underestimate what we can do in less than two minutes.

If you can complete your SNA in less than two minutes, do it now. If not, move to the next question in the Four Ds for Decision Making.

Delegate It

A “Delegate It” action is a Strategic Next Action that you can delegate to someone else. Often, we forget to ask ourselves whether we can delegate an action. We’re moving so fast that it doesn’t occur to us. Just recently, we worked with a client and asked this question four times in 30 minutes. Each time, the client was able to delegate the item and was thrilled to have one less thing to do.

Let’s look at how to organize your delegated items in more detail. Carol received an e-mail message from one of her most important clients, ScottSeely, who works for Adventure Works. He requested that she create a sales proposal for a leadership meeting he was having, and he detailed exactly what he wanted in the body of his e-mail communication. Carol recognized that she could delegate this to Josh, her sales director. In less than two minutes, Carol wrote an e-mail message to Josh delegating the task. She decided to track the action to ensure Scott got the proposal, and so she included herself on the Cc line. When the e-mail message arrived in her Inbox, she transferred it into her 1:1 Josh category on the To-Do List and placed a due date on it to ensure Josh completed it on time. This is a very nifty technique that enables you to record items you’ve delegated so that you can easily follow up with them during your 1:1 meetings.

Now if Carol had moved an e-mail message into one of her 1:1 categories and that task needed to be followed up on before her next 1:1, she could put a due date on the Task with a reminder. The reminder then automatically pops up on the reminder date, and if she clicks the reminder, it takes her to the Task and to the e-mail message she embedded as shown in Figure 11-16. She can then forward this e-mail message asking if the task is going to get done on time.

Figure 11-16

Figure 11-16. Following up on tasks you assigned to your 1:1 category with reminders.

The Subject line Carol created for the e-mail message was “AR: Adventure Works: Write up a North American Leadership Proposal and send to Scott Freely. Due April 4.” This heading clearly states what Josh has to do. If your Subject line isn’t useful, you’ll want to modify it. A comprehensible Subject line is important because in your 1:1 meetings you’ll want to avoid having to open and read an e-mail message to clarify its discussion point. You want the Subject line to do that for you. This kind of preparation on the front end saves you time on the back end. Are you tired of hearing that message yet?

If your Strategic Next Action is a delegated item that you want to track in your 1:1 category or Waiting For category, go ahead and Cc yourself and send the e-mail. When the e-mail message arrives back in your Inbox, you can then transfer it into the appropriate 1:1 or Waiting For category using the dragging method. Ensure that your Subject line in the Task reflects the item you want to follow up on, a due date is set if appropriate, and you have all the supporting information you need attached. See Figure 11-11 and the appropriate instructions as a reference for dragging e-mail onto your To-Do Bar.

Clients often ask us, “Why do I need to Cc myself? Why not drag and drop the message from the Sent Items folder?” Imagine that you’ve sent your e-mail, and you’re about to go to the Sent Items folder to drag it into your SNA Waiting For category when the phone rings. You answer the call and get involved in a conversation and completely forget to transfer the e-mail from the Sent Items folder to the To-Do Bar. The only way to ensure you don’t forget these e-mail messages is to Cc yourself before you send e-mail. This way the messages come back into your Inbox to remind you to file them. Once again, a little bit of effort on the front end saves work on the back end.

If you cannot delegate this e-mail, move to the next question.

Defer It

A “Deferred Action” is a Strategic Next Action that you can’t complete in less than two minutes and that you can’t delegate. Therefore, the only option left is for you to complete it personally. This is where the buck stops and the real work begins, especially if you’re an individual contributor who has no staff to delegate to.

The number of deferred Strategic Next Actions you have may depend upon your role in the company. Our executive clients delegate most of their tasks, which means they end up with very few deferred items. However, individual contributors, with no one to delegate to, can end up with a considerable list of deferred Strategic Next Actions. The good news about deferred items, however, is that they’ve gone through a tough prioritizing process to get on to your list, and so they’re important tasks to record and complete. You filtered out all the activities that did not relate to your Meaningful Objectives, items that could be deleted, items that could be completed in less than two minutes, and items that could be delegated. The end result of this process is a list of deferred Strategic Next Actions that only you can complete and that will take more than two minutes.

Our statistics prove that, on average, 50 percent of most people’s e-mail can be deleted, 30 percent can be completed in less than two minutes or delegated, and 20 percent can be deferred. That means that out of 100 e-mail messages you receive, only 20 of them end up being deferred items in your SNA categories.

Here’s an example of a deferred Strategic Next Action: Carol received an e-mail message from John Emory, a Web site project manager, asking her to spend 20 minutes reviewing the new sales site for her edits and corrections, which were due by April 15th. Carol couldn’t delete the task, or do it in less than two minutes, or delegate it. She personally had to do it, and so she transferred the e-mail message into her SNA Online category, with a due date of April 15th. In this case, the e-mail Subject line that John wrote related to the action Carol had to take, and so she didn’t have to change the Subject line.

Carol’s next e-mail message was from her CFO and asked her to scrub her portion of the sales budget and return it by the end of the month. Carol could not do this in less than 2 minutes or delegate it, and so she was going to have to complete this herself. She needed an hour to do it, and she also needed the budget handy to review it. Carol right-clicked and dragged the message to her To-Do Bar, changed the subject line to “Spend one hour scrubbing sales budget,” included a due date of May 1st, and then inserted the Excel worksheet she needed to scrub and an e-mail message from one of her directs listing last year’s shortages. In Figure 11-10, you can see how to insert e-mail messages into your Tasks, and in Chapter 9, Figure 9-5 demonstrates how to insert files into your Tasks.

If your e-mail message is a deferred action, transfer it into the appropriate Strategic Next Action category on your To-Do Bar. When it’s transferred, check that your Subject line details the Strategic Next Action, starts with a verb, clearly communicates the action, and has no dependencies. Select a due date if appropriate, and insert any supporting information you require to complete the action. (If you need a reminder about inserting, see the section above, Inserting an E-Mail Message or Document into an Existing Task)

You’ve now successfully completed processing one of your e-mail messages. I hear you saying, “That took a while!” You’re right. However, when you get the hang of this model, you can move through it quickly and process at least 60 e-mail messages an hour. By pausing to use the Four Ds for Decision Making, you’re making effective decisions and moving e-mail out of your Inbox.