Effectively handling e-mail overload

originally published in The Lawyers Weekly

“Neither our standard education, nor traditional time-management models, nor the plethora of organizing tools available, such as… Microsoft Outlook… has given us a viable means of meeting the new demands placed on us.”

David Allen was talking about the modern-day knowledge worker’s struggle to keep up in his 2001 book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. Many lawyers identify with his statement.

While “stress-free productivity” is too wide a topic for this column, I suggest you follow one of the best paths to this blissful state: an empty email inbox.

To do this, you’ll need to use your personal information management (PIM) software for more than email. Consider adopting the following habits, which apply to Microsoft Outlook, Lotus Notes, Microsoft Entourage and others.

File it

Put all related email (e.g. from a specific case) in its own folder where you don’t have to see it until you need it.

File it – without touching it

Getting lots of email from client X about case Y? Tired of manually moving it to the client X, case Y folder? Set up a rule to do two things: check for all incoming messages from your client; and put relevant messages into the right folder.

Rules are pretty flexible things. You can sort email using many criteria (like the “from” address or text in the subject line) and have the rule do other things besides sorting, like forwarding, redirecting and deleting.

Try this: once you create a rule, select all messages in your swamped inbox and execute your rule. Several rounds of rule running should sweep swaths of messages into the right folders. Check the contents of said folders for any “false positives” and fine-tune your rules.

Worried about missing client messages while inbox rules run rampant? The name of an Outlook or Entourage folder appears in bold type with a number beside it to show that it contains that number of unread messages.

Tip: Let the number of non-urgent messages (e.g. newsletters) build to a certain amount (e.g. 20), then read them all in one go.

Tasks

Does your inbox serve as a task list? It shouldn’t. PIMs offer one-step processes that let you turn messages into tasks and assign future dates so that tasks reappear on the day you need to do them.

Modern PIMs also make delegating tasks as simple as filling out the “To” line in an email.

You might want to perform the task right away if it’s urgent or takes very little time to do. Choose your “very little time” threshold – two minutes, five minutes, whatever you’re comfortable with – and if a given task fits under that threshold, do it right away. If not, create a task, set a date and, until then, set it aside.

Meeting requests

Ever receive one of those meeting request emails with “Accept” and “Decline” buttons at the top? Once you click Accept, the event conveniently slots itself into your calendar.

Bring that convenience to your inbox by saving email as an event. Many PIMs keep the message’s original text in the event for you. Remember, you can also invite people to the event.

Tasks and events: what’s the difference? Tasks often need to be done by a certain day (e.g. submit invoice) but events must occur at a given time (e.g. meet with client).

Note: Meeting requests might show up as gibberish for people who use less sophisticated email clients or check email using certain types of smartphones. You might need to follow up with a conventional email or phone call.

A cleaner view

Now that your calendar and task list are set up, make a combined calendar/task view the first thing you see when you start your PIM. To do so reflects your choice to focus first on the things you plan to accomplish each day.

Contacts

You can create contacts from email just as easily as you create tasks and events. Keep the text from the email so that you can find the contact using a text search in your PIM.

Don’t let email run your day

Andy Sherwood describes an office scenario: “You’re working quietly when a co-worker runs into the office, plunks an envelope on your desk and proclaims ‘You’ve got mail!’ You open the envelope, read the contents, deal with it, and go back to work. Five minutes later, your secretary barges in again, envelope in hand and again announces ‘You’ve got mail!”

Sherwood’s point: we would not tolerate such behaviour from our colleagues, but we expect it from our computers. That’s why the principal of corporate productivity training firm Priority Management in Toronto recommends turning off all audible and visual alarms – new email, meeting reminders and the like.

To keep up with the day’s messages, Sherwood recommends checking email three to five times per day.

Cut back on email

Emptying an inbox gets easier when less email comes in. For many people, unsubscribing from newsletters they don’t have time to read may be the easiest way to lighten the inbox load.

Transferring communications to other conduits also helps. If you find yourself typing the second reply to a second email from the same person on a given topic, consider taking the conversation off email and picking up the phone.

For projects, consider wikis. These editable websites, make popular by sites like Wikipedia, can serve as “single source” document creation tools that let many people work on one document and record who writes or changes what. Wikis tend to prevent the proliferation of email, multiple versions of documents and the dreaded version checks that ensue.

Also, try instant messaging. US lawyers Dennis Kennedy and Tom Mighell promote IM in their book The Lawyer’s Guide to Collaboration Tools and Technologies: Smart Ways to Work Together: “People can carry on an instant messaging conversation in real time, or they can send each other messages that can wait until the other is available to respond to them.”

As an added bonus, you can save the contents of your instant messaging session as a text file for later reference.

For a PDF copy of the article as published, click Email_best_practices.

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