I remember my first email account. It was back when I was working for the Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) in the early '90s.
DEC's All-In-1 office automation product powered the system and everything was text-based and ran on VT terminals.
Email accounts were the preserve of senior management and engineers. Well, of course, the engineers got an account. We did manage the system and created the accounts.
It was used by us engineers to communicate a host of technical information, from new releases to part number changes and of course the odd Friday afternoon pub lunch. If I got ten emails a week, it was a busy one. I was a new engineer, still green around the gills, so I didn't have anything to email anyone. Apart, of course, from accepting the pub lunch invitations.
Now some 20+ years later who doesn't have an email account, or five? I kind of long for the days when people would pick up the phone and talk. That said, it does have many benefits. It's cheap, fast, easy to do and permanent. You can keep a record of messages and replies, including details of when a message was received and when the email was read.
It's not all positive. There are the spam and virus issues to start, Not to mention the whole reply-to-all fiasco. However, it goes a lot deeper than that. Many business users have become a slave to their inbox. That twitch you see when the computer pings and announces yet another email's arrival is a classic telltale sign.
Sadly, It's not unusual to connect to a business users computer and see hundreds, if not thousands, of unread emails in their inbox.
It was this exact problem that led me, several years ago now, to take a look at my use of email and to take action.
Here I'd like to share with you the action I took and continue to make, ensuring that email remains a tool and not my master!
Cut down the number of email accounts you have. I used to have email accounts all over the place. I simplified this by cutting this down to two. One personal, and one business.
I didn't just delete the email accounts. Most email accounts allow you to set up email forwarding. Email forwarding will automatically forward email from one account to another. Google "Setup email forwarding <name of supplier>" and you'll usually find a simple guide on setting it up for that provider.
Simplify your email accounts. Many people still use a hierarchical folder structure to store email.
Create a single folder called "Archive". The archive folder is where you will store the email you want to keep. Move all your historical email to this folder. If it helps, mark all the email as read.
Step 2 is probably the most straightforward step of all, but the one people have the hardest time doing.
People using the hierarchical folder structure often say it helps them identify where an email will be. In our experience, these are usually so full people still end up searching for the email. In many scenarios, people end up searching the entire mailbox because they can't remember where they filed it.
At this point, you should have fewer email accounts, and a single "Archive" folder in each for your historical email. It's now time to tidy up that Inbox.
I sat down and poured over my inbox. I looked at where the email came from and who. What the email contained, and what I needed to do with it? After much agonising, it was relatively simple, and I found my email fell into two categories.
- Email Requiring Action.
- Email Containing Information.
You may think you have many more categories, but if you look hard, you'll find they all fit into these two. Yes, even spam can be classed as "Information" if you think about it.
Now you have your categories; you need to decide on how you are going to handle email that falls into each of them. Remember the aim here is to reduce your inbox.
Email Requiring Action
Email requiring action is pretty straight forward. You need to ask yourself, can I do this immediately? If you can do it, do it now! Confirm that it has been done and delete the email.
If you can't do it immediately, record the task in a to-do list. It can be a manual to-do list or an electronic to-do list, such as Outlook Tasks. It doesn't matter. Once again acknowledge receipt of the action/task, and delete the email.
Having actions/tasks in an application designed for the purpose offers many benefits, from easier prioritisation to sophisticated reporting.
Storing tasks in your inbox makes no sense at all.
Email Containing Information
An email containing information requires a little more ruthlessness. You have to ask yourself "Do I need this information?", It's worth considering if the information is anywhere else. It's even worth considering would the data be better anywhere else. Maybe an intranet site or shared storage area, for example.
Ask yourself, how long is this information relevant? If it's tomorrows lunch menu, do you need to file it forever? If the answer is no, delete it!
If the information within attachments is important save those attachments outside of the email system, once you've done that, delete the email.
Now there will be information you want to keep. All I would say is to make sure you are keeping it for the right reasons.
Some organisational change may be needed. All too often we hear, I need to keep this to prove what I said.
The reality is, that even if you establish a mail was sent/received, all that is achieved is blame. We understand, of course, specific legal or regulatory obligations may require information be retained. Once again, all we say is to make sure you are keeping it for the right reasons.
Finally, if you are keeping the information, check the subject of the email. Does it reflect the content? If not change it. A clear subject line will make it easier to find in future.
Now you've got the basics it's time to get a handle on what's coming in daily.
Alerts & Notifications
Many systems send alarms and notifications to let you know if something has or hasn't happened. Do you need to know this? Are you the right person to be receiving these notifications. If yes, then fine. However, treat them as information and delete them after reading. If not find out who should get them and get yourself removed from the list.
Some of these are useful; most are not. If you're not reading them unsubscribe from them and delete them. If they are helpful and you do want them, treat them as "Information". Once again consider how long the information is valid. Once you've read it, do you need to keep it? If not delete it.
Never useful. Unsubscribe if you can. If there is no unsubscribe option or it doesn't have any effect, block the sender using your email clients junk mail setting.
A certain amount of organisational change may be needed once again with the email you send internally. It's incredible however what a difference it can make, and how quickly.
Internally we have a rule that says email should only be sent "To:" a person if there is an action contained within for that person to perform.
The email should only be "CC'd:" to a person if that person needs to know the information contained within.
For example, five people in a meeting, two pick up actions. The email should only be sent "To:" those two people, and maybe the email should be "CC'd" to the project manager. If others want to know what is going on, they should be in contact with the project manager, who should be updating stakeholders using the agreed project management framework.
It's also worth considering, in a larger organisation, a limit on the number of people an email is sent "To:" and the number of people "CC'd:"
If 60 people need to take action, and 40 people need to know about it. Is an email the right communication method? Just think how many replies, and forwards that is going to generate.
While harder to enforce, you should still try to consider who the email is sent "To:" and who is "CC'd:" Adopt the same rules as internal email and adapt as necessary.
If email is coming in from outside, be sure to remove people from the distribution list who don't have actions or need the information.
It's also worth checking the subject line of the email is updated each time to reflect the purpose of the email. We all hate those emails that start RE: RE: RE: RE:
The final step in this short introduction. Automation!
You can set up rules using Microsoft Outlook to carry out many actions for you automatically. Gmail and other providers also have similar support.
If you are CC'd on an email, for example, do you need to read it? We've already established you don't need to take any action. So why not set up a rule to automatically move any email you're copied on straight to your archive folder and mark it as read.
Rules are powerful, and we advise care when using them. Test each of them out first to make sure they behave as intended.