We’ve all been there at some point in our career. Overflowing inbox filled with 100’s if not 1000’s of unread messages and not showing signs of slowing down. Running from one meeting to the next and not really participating as you multitask desperately trying to catch up. Working late into the night in an attempt to complete all the deliverables you’ve now missed. Unable to return phone calls or even listen to the barrage of voice mails from customers, partners, friends and family trying desperately to reach you. Your screen blinking more brightly than times square with all the IM’s wondering where you are, or maybe you’re not on IM at all? Creeping into the office in fear of what the day will bring. All the while asking your self how can I possible dig out? Or maybe your thinking of leaving your job to find a new one so you can reboot?
Start to Take back control.
I get it. I’ve been there. It’s a series of events that leads to disaster and will only get worse unless you take action and unfortunately there isn’t a magic button to make it all go away. A new job will only defer the pain until you shortly dig yourself back into that hole. This problem requires you to change how you manage your workday and you need to start now!
Establish a routine.
The change you need to make is establishing a routine that you commit to daily. Nothing fancy just a clear set schedule for processing emails, working your to-do list and scheduling time to focus on your work. This isn’t easy in the beginning and you will fall off the wagon due to some conflict or another during one of your scheduled times, but as soon as the conflict is done, get right back to it.
The following 4 steps will help you dig out and get back on course.
1. Control your Calendar by making time for your own work.
Start by booking time with your self. Yes – a meeting with only you. I know, I thought this was a crazy idea until I tried it myself and guess what? I suddenly found time to actually work on my work! Pick a time in the morning and afternoon when you have the most energy and schedule 30 minutes or so to focus only on your task list. Make sure that you commit to these times and don’t easily give them up to take another meeting. Sometimes this is unavoidable so be sure to reschedule your work time as this is your time to focus and get things done!
2. Clear your inbox to ZERO – every day, no exceptions!
Right now your probably laughing and saying that is impossible. The reality is that it’s really not. Not only is it not impossible, but the feeling that you will get once you see your inbox message that says “No new messages” is like a huge weight being lifted off your shoulders.
Here’s the trick to do this. Create a subfolder under your inbox called Processed. Now every time you read a message and have finished working with it move it into this new “processed” folder. This gets it out of the inbox and into a place where you can still reference it for later if needed using a search tool, filter, etc.
You may be asking why not just setup email filters and rules to shoot these emails automatically into other archive type folders? Well because that doesn’t really solve the problem. The goal is to read the email, do something with it and then store it for later reference if needed, but not in your inbox.
The inbox should be no different then your postal mailbox – you get your mail daily and read it or throw it out right? The concept is no different. Get the mail, read it, do something with it, and get it out of the mailbox so that you can process more.
Go and create your processed mail folder and then grab all the mail in your inbox and move it there right now. Your inbox at this point should be empty and all your email (read or unread) is in processed.
Now in the next step I’m going to show you your new workflow that will give you the ability to empty your inbox daily and give you a manageable to-do list to work off of. We’ll try it out on all those unread emails that you just moved into processed and any new ones that come into your inbox.
3. Convert emails to tasks and work off a single to-do list.
So now that you have all your email in processed, go grab one that is unread and open it up. You’ll want to figure out what action to take. I follow this methodology when processing my email: Do it, Delegate it, Delete it.
Let me break this down:
Do it – something that takes less than five minutes, so it’s not worth making a task. You can’t delete it and only you can do it so no delegating. Just get it done, right then and there and then toss it into processed.
Delegate it – exactly that. Delegate it to a task to either be done by you at a later time or given to someone to do on your behalf. Create a task for this purpose and put the email into the processed folder.
Delete it – Similar to junk mail if you don’t want it and don’t need to do anything with it then do not pass go, do not collect $200 – go directly to garbage.
How do I create a task out of an email?
Outlook makes this easy. You can right-click or drag your email to the task pane which will allow you to create a new task directly from the email or give you the option to attach your email into a task, a convenient option especially when delegating tasks to a teammate.
Go back to your processed folder and do this for all the remaining emails that you still need to work and any new ones that are coming into your inbox.
4. Process Email at scheduled times
Work your new system at regular set times. I build a routine into this as well. Just like with scheduling time to work on work you should schedule set times to work on email. My routine after I get up, eat breakfast and go to the gym is to spend 30 mins checking the morning mail and converting to tasks. I may do this again before or after lunch and a final check before I leave the office making sure to clear everything out by converting to tasks for the next day.
The other time, that you’ve now just made available by the way, should be used for doing things like working your to-do list, finally paying attention in all those meetings you’re attending, spending time with your clients, returning calls, spending time with family or doing something for yourself!
In my next post, I’m going to dive a little deeper into the Converting Emails to Tasks section. It is after all the main workflow of our system and I’ve really only just scratched the surface. I’ll also show you options for those of you that don’t use Outlook and how to take the to-do list mobile.
But for now, you should be well on your way to liberating yourself from the enslavement of your electronic captors. It’s a truly wonderful feeling to be on top of things and working in a proactive mode instead of in a constant reactive state. I hope this system helps you get there. If this works for you, please remember to share it with someone else struggling with these same concepts and always help your team out.