Take Control of Your Email... and Your Job

Tuesday Mar 28th 2006 by Sharon Gaudin
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Forgetting to respond to emails? Letting important tasks slide? Overwhelmed by your inbox? The author of a new book says it's time to take control of your work day by managing your email.

Have you ever been frustrated because you've emailed a colleague several times and never gotten a response?

Have you ever looked at the bottom of your inbox screen and noticed that you have 500, 2,000 or maybe even 10,000 emails sitting in there... many of them still unread?

Have you ever forgotten to do something important because the email you received about it scrolled down off the bottom of your screen as other email flooded into your inbox?

Getting control of your email inbox will help you gain control over your time, your work and possibly even your career, says Michael Linenberger, author of Total Workday Control Using Microsoft Outlook: The Eight Best Practices of Task and Email Management.

''Business Week had an article in October and they estimated that 35 to 40 percent of executives say their inboxes are out of control,'' says Linenberger. ''If I would do a poll around my office, I bet it would be 90 percent and I bet the other 10 percent are just kidding themselves.''

It's not uncommon to feel like you're drowning in email. Some days it feels like it's a relentless flow of information, questions and tasks to get done. The 'ding' announcing the arrival of a new email interrupts your every task, luring you to change screens to check out the new email. Is it spam? Is it urgent? Regardless of what it is, you react as quickly as Pavlov's dog and stop what you're doing to check it out.

Email has become such a relied-upon business tool that your average worker would probably wrestle anyone trying to take it from them. According to industry analyst firm the Meta Group, email overtook the telephone more than two years ago as the preferred communication tool in the office. A Meta survey showed that 74 percent of businesspeople said being without email would present more of a hardship than being without phone service.

For IT professionals, especially, email is a critical tool. Industry analysts are telling IT workers to become part of the business team, to learn to communicate with co-workers outside of the IT box. Email is a primary tool for making that happen. That means good email skills could kick-start your business ties, but it also means that a few bad emails could tarnish your track record and impede your climb up the corporate ladder.

''The biggest danger is dropping tasks,'' says Linenberger, who has been a management consultant and technology professional for more than 20 years. ''Somebody sends you and important request and you lose track of it. You see it come in and you promise yourself you'll come back to it. Then you do another thing and another thing, and suddenly that other task is forgotten. If it's important to your boss, it's career limiting. If it's business, then that's going to be bad for your company.''

And Linenberger adds that losing control of your email will lead to losing control of your workday, forcing you to put in extra hours and deal with a lot of extra stress.

''The problem is that a 9-to-5 job isn't really a 9-to-5 job anymore,'' he says. ''That's true because people say they've got so much email and so much to do. They've got so many email interactions and a percentage of them lead to follow up activities, and they get out of control. I say get at the root of this.''

Taking Back Control

Linenberger says the key is to be proactive about your email. Don't just let it flood in and overwhelm you. Take the bull by the horns and organize it. Ditch what you don't need, create an action list and organize, organize, organize.

  • Create Tasks -- Linenberger says you need to deal with emails as they come in. Letting them pile up in your inbox lets you lose control of them. Once they scroll off the bottom of your screen, you're much more apt to lose sight of them... for good.
    ''The simple solution is as soon as you see an email that causes you to stop and say, 'Hmmm, I'm not sure what to do about this' or 'I've got to call Tom and do something about this'', instead of stopping and doing something, drag it over to a tasks folder and rename the email to a task, give it a priority, give it a date, and let it go,'' he recommends. ''If you get an email, and it [calls for] a quick reply, just do that. But if it's going to take you more than three minutes, convert it to a task.
    ''You've got far more things to do than you can get done all day,'' he adds. ''The best way to handle this is to let the low-priority stuff fall off the bottom. Convert your emails to tasks and then go through that list and prioritize. Figure out your three most important things to get done that day, mark them high-priority and then start at the top of your list and do what you have to do. If you don't do that, you'll consume half your day with things that aren't a priority at the expense of things that are a priority.''

  • Adapt Task Folder -- Linenberger calls Outlook's Task Folder ''useless'' out of the box. ''It doesn't show you the right things or hide the right things,'' he says. ''It'll take you about 20 minutes to reconfigure it. Once you do that, it's a usable tool.''
    He recommends dividing tasks into two categories -- long-term tasks and daily tasks. Once you have the folder ready, make sure you place incoming emails into the correct folder and you'll be better able to prioritize your workday, tackling the most important tasks first and not getting waylaid with low-priority drivel.
    ''People get bogged down in their email,'' he says. ''They start reading it and they get bogged down and in an hour they've gotten through three of them. They think if they don't do it now, it'll scroll off the bottom of their screen and then they'll never see it or think of it again. That's a crazy way to work. It might be the fifteenth most important thing to do that day but you're spending time on it because you don't want to forget it.''
    Look at it, prioritize it and move on. If you don't you'll either waste time on it or you'll forget it all together. And neither is a good thing.
    ''Unfortunately, [losing email and dropping tasks] has kind of become expected,'' says Linenberger. '''Oh, you lost my email. That's ok. I'll send it again.' But if that becomes acceptable... then the only way to get things done is to hold a meeting... That's just not efficient. You don't want to turn into a slow, sluggish organization with slow lines of communication... If you reach out to somebody and ask for help, you should expect to be helped... Not communicating well by email is not an option.''

    Read on to see more ways to better manage your inbox...

  • If You Receive an Email, Respond -- This isn't a tough concept, but it's overlooked all the time. How many times have you emailed someone with an important question but never received a response... of any kind?
    ''I have a rule that if you get an email, at least respond within so many hours,'' says Linenberger. ''In some places, it's 12 hours, maybe 24 hours. At least whip off a note saying, 'I'm busy but will get back to you in this timeframe'.''

  • Turn Off the 'Ding' -- Don't let yourself be constantly interrupted by incoming email. Linenberger says he turns off the 'ding' sound that alerts him of incoming mail. That way he can get through what he's doing without the constant interruption.
    ''Research has shown that if you allow yourself to be constantly interrupted, your productivity goes way down,'' he notes. ''I check email periodically because I need to focus my attention on work so I can get read stuff done.''

  • If You're Saving it, File it -- You shouldn't have much email at all sitting in your inbox, says Linenberger. If you need it for something, file it away. If you don't need it, delete it.

  • Use One Folder -- Linenberger says he used to use multiple folders for his email but it became too time-consuming and difficult to search for emails. Now he uses one folder, making searches quicker and easier, and simply categorizes the email in it.
    ''I say make your filing system out of category names and not folders,'' he adds. ''Drag everything into this one folder. It's 100 times better than different folders. Say you're looking for an invoice that came in. Now did I file that or did I leave that in my inbox? Which file folder did I leave that in? Is it in the accounting folder or the employee folder or that other folder? It's hard to find stuff if you use that system. It's very slow.
    ''I rely a lot on the chronological order of my inbox,'' he says. ''I got an email from Ted about that White Sox game we're going to, but when did he send it? It was right around the time when I was working on that quarterly report and that was three days ago. Then you can scroll down and find it. If you break stuff up into individual folders, you can't do that.
    ''And I often like to see all the email from an individual person,'' he also says. ''I want to see everything from Jimmy. If it's all in one folder, you can see it all. If you dragged all those messages into individual folders, you can't do that anymore. Categories are so much easier and you can assign more than one category to one email. So one email can have 10 different categories. Instead of trying to figure out which folder to put it into, you can give it multiple categories.''

  • Archive it All -- Linenberger confesses that he never throws email away, unless he didn't need it in the first place. He uses Outlook Auto Archive, dates it all and tucks it away. He says storage is relatively cheap so he would rather store it and be able to call it up if he happens to need it years from now.

    By better managing email, different aspects of the work day just become that much easier, he says.

    ''I [used to] approach my inbox and see this long list of things and my stomach would tighten up,'' he says. ''I knew there were things in there that had scrolled off the bottom that I needed to attend to. These could have been really important things and there's an uncertainty about what you've let go. It's destructive to your work and to your enjoyment of your work. I barely have time to look at the new stuff, forget going back to look at the old stuff. When you get control of it, there's this phenomenal sense of relief and control. You can actually control your work day.''

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