Tame the e-mail and information overload beast

Randy Dean

You’ve probably heard the phrase: E-mail Bankruptcy. Professionals are considering the idea of declaring e-mail bankruptcy. Basically, this is when a person loses control of his or her e-mail account, sees no option other than shutting down his or her existing account and starts over again.

Hundreds and even thousands of old e-mails (both read and unread) start clogging their inbox and destroying productivity. With tens or hundreds of e-mails coming in every day, how can you possibly keep up, not to mention getting caught up?

It does not have to be impossible. Following some fundamental time management strategies, you can keep up with the new e-mails coming in, as well as start knocking down existing e-mails in your inbox. 

I recommend following a simple, but thorough, “decision tree” with each e-mail received. By following this decision tree, you can quickly determine exactly what to do with each e-mail received, then take the designated action, and then move or delete the e-mail out of your inbox. Let’s look at the details of this process:

1. Follow a “One Look” rule with every e-mail. I learned the “One Look” rule nearly 20 years ago from David Allen, Mr. Getting Things Done. Using the One Look rule, you promise to only look at each e-mail once and before you close that e-mail, you determine what the embedded task(s) are for you to accomplish in that e-mail. Never open an e-mail without determining the task (including deadline), as well as how long it will take for you to complete the task.

2. Use the Three-Minute Rule. If, when you look at the e-mail, you determine that the embedded task is something “quick and little,” meaning something you can get done in three minutes or less (another David Allen gem), don’t save it for later – DO IT NOW! You don’t want to “stack up” quick, little e-mails, because, by the time you look at them the third time, you’ve basically doubled the time it would take to have gotten the task done in the first place. BE RUTHLESS with quick little tasks.

3. If longer than three minutes, PRIORITIZE. If you look at the embedded task and determine it will take longer than 3 minutes, then add the task to your task list (on paper, or in Outlook or some other task-planning software). Give it an appropriate due date, and fit it in with the other key projects and tasks you have to get done. You could also simply print the e-mail, and stack it with other open tasks and deliverables in a “Priority File”, with the most important and/or urgent tasks on top, and the least important tasks on the bottom. Spend the majority of your time working on the highest priority stuff and you will probably do just fine in your work and life!

4. Once you either DO IT or TASK IT then file or delete it! Why are you keeping e-mails in your inbox that you’ve either gotten done (3-minute rule) or that you have ve added to your task list? All this does is increase the likelihood that you will come back to that e-mail later and read it again. Re-reading a “done” e-mail is a waste ! That e-mail, once tasked or completed, should either be filed or deleted. I recommend having a series of subfolders in your e-mail software tool where you move or file messages that have archival value, but don’t keep those same “completed” e-mails in your inbox.

5. If you don’t have a file for the message you want to keep, CREATE IT! One of the biggest reasons I hear that people don’t move their messages out of their e-mail inbox is they don’t have a smart file folder structure to which they can move their messages. MS Outlook and other e-mail system allows users to create a new file folders with a simple two-to-three step process. File the message, and create the file if you don’t have it!

This simple five-step process gives you a decision tree on how to handle  every single new e-mail received. Once you feel you can keep up with your new e-mails following this decision tree process, start using the same system on your older e-mails sitting in your inbox. Pretty soon, you’ll have the account back under control.

Randy Dean will share how to Tame the Email and Information Overload Beast at the IBA Annual Convention, September 18-20 in Des Moines. Randy, noted author and speaker, has more than 19 years of experience using and teaching an advanced time management/personal organization system, including systems for effective e-mail management, office clutter reduction, optimizing your Outlook usage and smart phones.

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