These days it isn’t uncommon for hundreds of email “snowflakes” to gracefully land in my inbox each day. Growing up, I used to love to watch snow fall. Especially when it might result in a school cancellation or a “snow day.” The problem was, while individual snowflakes can be quaint and even enjoyable, I knew shoveling was going to be a bigger and bigger job as they continued to fall.
As a worker in the information age, especially one that manages people and runs part of a company, I’m expected to be aware of the emails that blanket my inbox within a reasonable amount of time. This poses an interesting problem since I already have a calendar with meetings and a list of priorities I’d like to get done every day. While emails themselves are “work,” the importance and urgency of what just fell out of the sky completely depends on the intent of each email – and the only way to determine that is to sort through them.
But never fear! There are inbox shoveling strategies!
But first, a little reflection. How do you do emails today? What is the first thing you do when you look at a full inbox? Do you scan for the email that looks like the most fun? Look for topics you are familiar with? Delete the junk that sneaked by your spam blocker?
Let’s look at two shoveling strategies: processing and “cherry picking.” Processing emails refers to systematically working your way through all your emails by starting with the first email received and ending with the most recent. Not necessarily knocking each one out, but evaluating and dispositioning each. This isn’t dissimilar to grabbing your shovel, starting at the side door of your house and clearing off the whole driveway.
Cherry picking, on the other hand, is plucking out specific unread emails and reading and or responding to them. This is more like trudging through the snow to shovel the pile left by the snow plow at the end of the driveway so your people can get in and out of the driveway. A little out of order but hey, someone may need to get out to go to work!
So which one do you do?
Let’s talk cherry picking first. A couple times to best use it:
- If you are working on the next most important task on your priority list and need to scan your inbox to see if there is anything new that dropped in on the topic
- You have a few minutes between meetings and want to check if anything urgent requires immediate attention.
Let’s take a second to think about email as a medium. Generally when someone sends you an email there is a grace period to respond since it generally is NOT used as the medium for urgent, drop dead, “need it done yesterday” items. While it varies based on role and person, you may find that if something is truly urgent you get a phone call, text or an office “drive by.”
That stated, I understand if you see something that is burning hot from your boss or an urgent email coming in from a customer, it can demand your full attention. Most of the time you finish the priority item you are working on before you jump over to cherry pick that item out of your inbox and still be responsive.
Many people get derailed by cherry picking all day long instead of periodically processing their emails and focusing on their priority lists and calendars.
What’s so bad about cherry picking all the time?
The inherent risk is that you pick the wrong cherry and go off in a direction while you leave something more important in your inbox or, more likely, work on something less important than the top item in your priority list. If you do choose to cherry pick, I’d recommend taking whatever topic you are going to chase down and putting it on the top of your priority list. That forces you to compare it to what you previously said was important and, technically, you’ll still be working on your priority list.
So let’s talk proper processing!
Start with the earliest email and work your way up to the most recent. It is important to remember that processing emails doesn’t mean researching, responding or even reading the entire email thread. It means you go through the emails and disposition them. Even with a big inbox, focused processing can make quick work of it.
But what if it is an important conversation? What if it is a really funny YouTube video your co-worker sent out? This is where discipline comes into play folks. Remember that this is the time you set aside to process your emails. If you don’t have that conversation RIGHT NOW what will happen? Look at your trusty DNA list propped up beside you. What is next on that list? Is that conversation more important than processing your email and your top item? If it is then you need to add that item to the top of your priority, recognize it is a rare exception, and get it done.
Processing best practices:
The delete key is your friend. I know, I know. There is something that sounds so ominous with the word “delete.” When you hit that key it makes it seem like the content will be banished forever. Try to think of that key as more of a gentle let down. Something like the “I don’t need you right now but if I do, I’ll reach out” key. Depending on how you setup your email, deleted items are sent to a folder and held for a period of time. If you are too aggressive you can go virtual dumpster diving and find what you need! Personally I like to leave my deleted emails out there for a couple months.
If it needs done and you can do it quickly… do it!
If you can take care of it in 2 minutes or less then do it. Maybe it is a quick knowledge question from someone? Perhaps a quick question or request of another team member. Get it done!
Note: don’t sacrifice quality for speed. We probably all know email “gunslingers” that excessively “reply all” in a thread with one-line responses that don’t add value. If they were my kids I’d send them to “time out” for such an offence. Make sure you answer the question, delegate, clearly state the next step, or meaningfully thank someone before you hit send.
If it is an email you need to keep, consider filing it in a single bulk folder.
Traditional filing required us to be diligent with where we put things so we could find them again. With digital files much of that problem goes away. In many cases I’ve found that the more email folders I have, the HARDER it is to remember where something is.
There is great technology available to index and locate emails and documents that can make us much more efficient. While I’ve tried a few, I currently use X1 Search for indexing my emails and files which saves me more than 30 minutes each day. It also enhances my “digital memory” by allowing me to instantly pull up relevant files and emails from any time over the last twenty years.
It needs to be done but it will take more time.
So what about those things you need to do that will take longer than two minutes? I’d recommend you move those over to your priority list and rank them accordingly. Since my company uses Microsoft Outlook, creating a new task for my priority list is as easy as dragging an email over to the task icon and a task will automatically be created. Regardless of the system you use, make sure to prioritize it and write the next action you need to take next to it (more about priority lists here). Once you are done, get the email out of your inbox.
Automate with rules!
There are some great features out there that let you automate some of your email sorting. Here are a couple of my favorite rules. If I receive an email from a certain distribution list move it to a specific folder. For example, I may need to be aware of quotes taking place but there isn’t an action I need to take. I don’t want to move them each time I’m processing my email. Once they land in the folder my indexing software goes through them and adds them to my digital memory so the next time I search for a certain name or customer they will show up when and where I need them.
Next, I really like automatically making a copy of all the emails I send out. I’ve used variations over the years but, by moving all the emails I’ve sent into a folder I can always go back and see if and how I responded to a question or issue.
How often should an inbox be shoveled?
This is really personal preference. If you are doing this more than once an hour it makes it hard to make meaningful progress on any other important projects. You also risk being caught up in “reply all” volleys that pepper the top of inboxes. It is more efficient to periodically catch up on the conversations rather than trying to mentally get back in the topic each time a new email comes in.
If you process less than every day or so you may get a reputation as being non-responsive or perceived as too busy to be effective. My personal preference is to process new emails twice a day.
If you have a strategy to check email twice a day or less make sure to tell your team the best way to get in touch with you if something is urgent. Something like “I have quite a bit of project work so I’m checking my emails a couple times a day. If something is really urgent just give me a call” By calling this out you’ve made yourself accessible to your team and let them know the best way to communicate with you.
In short, relax Long Gamers while the email flurries fall around you. Focus on the top things in your priority list that get you closer to your long term goals and do so in peace. At intervals, jump in and process away. Set guidelines and time limits that make it work for you and your schedule and get it done!
Also published on Medium.
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