Taming the Email Tiger

In the old days and by old I mean pre-email (yes kids there was a time when we only received physical mail) we had time to luxuriate in the simple actions of reading and responding to correspondence. We could file and take action on items as we saw fit. Since the advent and subsequent explosion of email, however, we somehow lost the skills to organize inbound information. We have let our email inbox (es) take control of our lives. Here are some tips to tame the email tiger which are largely reminiscent of how we ‘used’ to control the Paper Tiger.

You don’t have to be a Ringmaster to control your personal email circus. You do have to have some discipline in cracking the whip and understanding the type of information that you are receiving via your electronic inbox. To put it simply, the emails you receive fall into two categories of information: learning and action. Learning information emails are those that are telling you something, perhaps a newsletter or an email on a topic that is of interest, but one that doesn’t require an action. Action emails require an action on your part; something needs to be done with action information emails.

Learning emails are easy; create an effective filing structure so that you can refer to them again when you need to. Statistics indicate as much as 33% of an average user’s inbox contains reference information emails. Treat these as you used to handle physical clippings, for example. Perhaps a simple “Read” folder; depending on the volume you receive, you may want to expand the filing nomenclature for more granularity. An example of this would be “Read _ Business Tips”, “Read_Exercise”, “Read_Budget Personal Finance”. Get really ahead of the game by setting up filters to automatically process these.

Now that you have stripped out a third of your inbox, you can concentrate on the mamma jamma Action emails that typically consume even more time. Not only do these represent the lion’s share (mixed metaphor intended) of the emails that you receive, they also represent the bulk of time spent in processing emails.

In order to get ahead of this sometimes monumental task, schedule time on your calendar to process emails. Select a time in your day when you can be uninterrupted with other activities. For some, this is early morning when you are first easing into your day with your first jolt of caffeine; for others, after normal business hours is when they concentrate best. It could even be both if you have a hankering to do it to begin and end your day with emails. The point is to process your emails very deliberately during these set aside times; resist the lure of the email siren outside of these times.

With your Action emails, you need to …say it with me…Take Action! The Action that you take is one of 4:
 Delete
 Do Something
 Delegate
 Defer

For those email hoarders among us – and I daresay you know who you are – the thought of hitting that delete button can be paralyzing. Taking the delete action takes courage, yes. But realistically look at the messages. Over 50% of your messages can be deleted with no negative consequences. Along with those that you have filed, you have knocked out a substantial amount of your inbox.

Do Something
If the Action necessary to handle the email takes 2-3 minutes, then borrow Nike’s tag line and “just do it”. Try to get into the habit of only handling an email once. This was a good time management strategy for paper mail; apply it as well to the electronic kind.

If you can’t complete the necessary action in less than 3 minutes, can you delegate it for someone else to handle? Write a short transmittal email and flag it for follow up. Done!

Although not ideal, there may be a need to defer action on an email, those that cannot be filed or deleted, completed or delegated. Schedule action for these deferred action emails just as you would other tasks. Block out time and complete them. Utilize the tools of your email system to set up flags or follow ups to ensure you take the necessary action.

Filing information emails and using the 4 D’s on those requiring action can set you well on your way to taming your email tiger.