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

  • 6/13/2007

Frequently Asked Questions

  • We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.
  • —Aristotle

Before you continue processing and organizing the rest of your Inbox, we’d like to address some of the most frequently asked questions we receive from clients. We believe that these answers can help you approach your e-mail more effectively and make it easier for you to empty your Inbox. We’re going for the empty Inbox here. We want you to imagine being at zero e-mail at least once daily. Visualize a completely white screen. Your Inbox is so empty that it echoes!

When’s the Best Time to Process E-Mail?

Before we answer this question, we want to clarify the difference between processing your e-mail and monitoring your e-mail. Processing requires uninterrupted time, allowing you to make effective decisions and create meaningful e-mail communications. Monitoring e-mail is reactive, allowing you to scan your mail for emergency situations and communications from senior staff. You might also monitor your e-mail because you need a distraction. There’s nothing wrong with that as long as you know what it is you’re doing, and don’t get addicted to it! When you’ve set aside time to process and organize your e-mail, you can still monitor it during the day. Just be clear that monitoring and processing are not the same activity.

We recommend that you create recurring appointments in the Calendar to process and organize your mail. Estimate how much time you’ll need based on the figures you calculated earlier. We schedule an hour a day for e-mail processing because we receive 50 to 60 messages each day. Then, evaluate the best time of day to schedule uninterrupted e-mail processing time. Consider when your prime meeting times are so that your e-mail appointment won’t compete with other activities. This takes some thought if you have a busy schedule.

Sally processes her e-mail from 8 to 9 a.m. because her meetings generally start at 9 or 9:30. “I have the energy at 9 a.m. to make 60 decisions, and I’m relaxed enough to pause and think about what I am doing.”

Look through your Calendar and find a good time to set up a reoccurring appointment for yourself. Make these appointments important so that you don’t give them away for other meetings. Be ruthless because that’s what you’ll need to do to make e-mail work and inspire those around you to do the same.

If you work with a team of people in close physical proximity, ask them to avoid interrupting you during your e-mail processing time. Let them know that if they interrupt you, they’ll get a gentle reminder to come back later. You have to be prepared to reinforce your request or people won’t take you seriously.

If you’re a customer service agent, dealing with electronic customer requests, an hour a day of e-mail time will not work for you. You’ll need to be working on your e-mail for most of the day, excluding breaks. Specific roles require more customized e-mail solutions.

What’s an Appropriate Amount of E-Mail to Receive?

The volume of e-mail you receive depends on your role and function, but, in general, from 50 to 120 messages a day is a good range. Anything more becomes unmanageable because it takes too long to process each day.

Some of our clients receive up to 300 messages a day, and although they want to receive less, they spend most of their time justifying why they need to get 300 messages. This is understandable, given how much time they’ve invested in dealing with this kind of volume. We have to gently remind them, “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.” Therefore, you have to do something different for change to take place, and to do something different, you have to let go of something you’re currently doing. Deep down, they know they’ll need to let go of this to be open to the possibility of receiving less.

As you know, success in a company isn’t based on the volume of e-mail you can handle each day. It’s based, instead, on your ability to achieve your objectives within budget, timelines, and resources. You have other activities you have to do besides e-mail, and so you need to monitor how much time you spend processing messages. If you receive 40 to 60 e-mail messages a day, it will take you an hour to process your messages, which is very doable. Receiving 60 to 120 messages is still doable, but more time consuming, taking you up to two hours a day to complete. We suggest you err on the side of less is more when it comes to e-mail. Anything you can do to reduce volume will be productive.

How Do I Reduce the Volume of E-Mail I Receive?

Daily mail volume is not difficult to reduce when you’re willing to make behavioral changes. Here are a few changes you might consider.

  • Send less e-mail.

  • Write clear e-mail messages so they don’t come back with questions.

  • Use the Cc line only when it impacts the recipients’ objectives.

  • Unsubscribe from newsletters and subscriptions.

  • Meet with your team to discuss when to Cc.

  • Clarify roles so that you’re not getting mail that someone else really needs to get.

  • Resist getting involved in e-mail threads that don’t impact your objectives.

  • Post information on an internal Web site so that employees pull the information from a site instead of the company pushing it through mail.

  • Establish an e-mail protocol so that team members know when to use e-mail rather than instant messaging, landline phone calls, or cell phone calls.

There are hundreds of ways to reduce mail. You must first have a very clear intention to reduce it, and then you’ll start to find solutions that’ll help you. Without an openness to change, it won’t happen. So, be open to the possibility. Reducing your e-mail volume can only increase your productivity.

Can I Customize My Own Subject Lines?

Of course you can, and you can request others customize their Subject lines, too. Imagine that you’re in the Finance Department of a company, for example, and you ordinarily receive three to five invoice requests each day. Because it’s easier to process these requests in a single batch rather than one by one, you can ask internal customers to start the Subject line of an invoice request with the words “Invoice Request.” With this system, you can quickly transfer these messages into an SNA Invoice Request category to be processed once a week at a specific time. The same applies to any repetitive task, such as “Résumés to be reviewed,” “Calendar appointments to be booked,” or “Expenses to be approved.”

Another form of customization is using different e-mail addresses to capture repetitive tasks. For example, if you spend eight hours every Thursday handling accounting tasks, you cab set up an alternative e-mail address named ".” Your internal clients would send all accounting requests to that address. On Thursday, you’d simply download the e-mail and handle the requests. In emergencies, clients could use your regular address, which you download daily. Any kind of customization that helps you use your time more effectively is useful.

Didn’t I Only Move E-Mail from the Inbox to the To-Do Bar?

Yup, it sure seems like you did nothing more than move e-mail messages from one location to another! But be careful not to underestimate the value of what you’ve done. You didn’t just move e-mail; you processed and organized it using the Four Ds for Decision Making. The end result of this process is an extremely well prioritized To-Do List. You determined if the e-mail related to one of your Meaningful Objectives. You created a Strategic Next Action without a dependency. You confirmed that you couldn’t do the task in less than two minutes and that you couldn’t delegate it, and so you decided you had to defer it. You transferred it into a specific SNA category with a clear Subject line and included a due date and supporting documentation (if it is needed). We wouldn’t say you only moved it from the Inbox to the To-Do Bar. Far from it!

Acknowledge what you did. You created a centralized, easily accessible To-Do List that is prioritized and directly maps to your objectives. You still have one step to go, of course, which is to schedule these Tasks onto the Calendar, as you’ll see in Chapter 12.

How Will I Remember to View the To-Do List?

Most of our clients have depended on their Inbox and their memories to track their action steps. Therefore, using the To-Do List to centralize their actions feels uncomfortable. Some clients have never used the To-Do List, and so they’re especially anxious about remembering to look at it. Their concern is valid, much like when you put your car keys in a new location at home. Will you remember where you put them? If you put your car keys in the same place each time, it won’t take long to remember where they are. In fact, in two or three days, you become dependent on the new location, and you’ll say, “Don’t move my keys!”

In the Prioritizing and Planning Phase, you’ll be setting up a recurring Improving Productivity appointment on your Calendar. You’ll use this appointment to prioritize and plan your tasks from the To-Do Bar onto your Calendar. You’ll have plenty of time each week to work with your To-Do List, and it won’t be long before it becomes a habit, and your To-Do list becomes your best friend.

When Do I Put E-Mail Messages onto the Calendar versus onto the To-Do List?

So far, we’ve asked you to transfer all of your deferred Strategic Next Actions onto the To-Do List because until you’ve captured all of your agreements from all of your Collection Points, you’re prioritizing in a vacuum! After your To-Do List is complete, you can decide whether to transfer a Task onto the Calendar or onto the To-Do List. The Calendar is the last place a Task goes. When it’s scheduled on a date in the Calendar, you’re making an agreement to do it on that day. Use the Calendar with great respect. It’s not a place to put a Task that you think you only might get done. It’s a place to schedule a Task because you’ve promised to do it on a particular day. More on this topic in Chapter 12.

If you receive an e-mail message that turns out to be a Strategic Next Action that can be deferred but that must be completed on a particular day, simply transfer it from the Inbox directly onto your Calendar for that day. To transfer an e-mail message onto the Calendar, follow the steps given in the section titled “Inserting an E-Mail Message into an Existing Calendar Appointment” earlier in this chapter.

The Tasks on your To-Do List do not have to be done immediately. You’re waiting to transfer them onto the Calendar as they come due. More on this concept in Chapter 12.

Can I Use the E-Mail Notification Options?

Clients ask us if it’s OK to use the Outlook feature that alerts them to the arrival of a new e-mail message. We highly recommend that you don’t use these features except in an exceptional circumstance, or if your role requires it. Being notified when an e-mail message comes in is an interruption and a distraction. You need to stop what you’re doing, scan the message, and decide if you’ll take action on it right away. Taking action distracts you from what you’re doing. If you don’t take action, you’re still reminded that the e-mail needs attention, and you’ll track it in your head as well as tracking it in your Inbox. All of our clients want to reduce this level of interruption and distraction, so why create more? We recommend you turn off all e-mail reminders.

If you process and organize your e-mail once a day and successfully reduce your messages to zero, there’s no purpose in reviewing each e-mail as it arrives other than to distract you. You’ve spent a full day in meetings without access to your computer, and so you can certainly go eight hours without looking at mail! If you have no valid reason for the chime, eliminate it and create more uninterrupted time for yourself. You’ll scan e-mail anyway, and so you don’t need each and every e-mail that arrives to remind you! This is your chance to drive technology instead of having it drive you.

When Can I Use Flagging Effectively?

By using flagging, you can quickly link an e-mail message to the To-Do Bar without creating a Task. If you have a Strategic Next Action where there is no Supporting Information, flagging is an excellent choice. If you have to respond to an e-mail communication that will take more than two minutes, you could defer it by flagging the message, categorizing it into your SNA E-Mail category and changing the subject line to capture the appropriate action. In this way, all of the flagged items become e-mail messages to respond to and won’t require supporting information.

If you are in a role where you work primarily from e-mail and do not need to enter any independent Tasks on to the To-Do Bar or do not need Supporting Information to complete your Strategic Next Actions, flagging is excellent. Also, if you do decide to work primarily with flagging, your Inbox can be sorted by Planning and Action Categories. This creates a Categories: (none) section that holds all of your unprocessed e-mail, making this your main e-mail Collection Point. Even though your entire Inbox will not be empty because it will have your Planning and Action Categories in it, your Categories: (none) can then become your Inbox and you can empty this, which means you can still work on the concept of an empty Inbox.

If you’re a power user of Outlook, we still suggest dragging as your primary method. However, you can include flagging as a supplemental feature supporting work style preferences and personal customization of your IMS.

Can I Organize My E-Mail in the Inbox and Not Use the To-Do Bar?

Certain roles and work situations may cause you to use only the Inbox as your “Total Life To-Do List” instead of the To-Do Bar. These roles are usually customer service related and require you to be in your Inbox all day. Your work is answering e-mail, and therefore you have little use for the To-Do List.

Instead of entering Meaningful Objectives and Supporting Projects as Tasks on the To-Do Bar, you would enter them as Subject lines in e-mail messages and categorize them in your Inbox under your Planning and Action Categories as you do in the To-Do Bar. The only difference is that all entries have to come by e-mail and you cannot create Tasks in which you can insert documents and other e-mail messages and write notes. If you do not need to do that, flagging and organizing in the Inbox will work well for you. The theory is exactly the same, it is just a lot more simplified, and in certain roles this can work exceedingly well.