E-mail: the problem with processing and time management

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Most e-mail articles tell you to sit down and go through your e-mail several times a day. But, not every five minutes. That little pop-up message, though, telling you that another e-mail has come in (begging you to read it) is too often too tempting to ignore. Especially ignore for a while. Like anything more than five minutes.

Outside of getting rid of the notification (recommended), what is the big problem with all that advice to “just go through your e-mail at set times during the day”?

The problem is most of those articles don’t tell you that what you should do is “process your mail” and not “do what is in your e-mail.”

Processing e-mail is deciding what needs doing with the e-mail

If the only thing e-mail was good for was reading, handling e-mail would be easy. Read it, delete it, done.

But e-mail isn’t like that. At all.

For most of us, e-mails have all sorts of bombs hidden inside them. Work to do. Tasks to complete. Reference material for our projects. Or information to know. Or…something. Maybe.

E-mail, if you haven’t noticed, doesn’t arrive in nice, pre-designed buckets. No. E-mail comes at you from all different ways in many different styles and multiple writing levels.

E-mail, in other words, needs interpretation.

Your goal with each e-mail, then, is deciding what doable items need to get placed into your to-do list as a result of the e-mail to get the e-mail out of your inbox.

That’s what processing is: decide what actions need to be taken because of the e-mail and record them in your to-do list.

People don’t process their e-mails, though. They work them. Each e-mail they read, respond to, research on or write back with clarifying questions. Three hours later, people look up from their work, not realizing the time that went by, and then get ticked because the very most important thing for the day never got done.

Never happens to me, of course. I never fall into that trap. No, I fall into that other trap.

Scanning for emergency e-mails

You come into work, turn on your computer, then impatiently wait until your (Windows) machine takes fifteen minutes to boot up. All the while, waiting to click on that e-mail icon, and wondering what emergency du jour awaits you. What devilish event happened while you were sleeping that will totally change your day? What new crazy idea does your boss want to know about when writing at 10:00 PM the night before? Or during Sunday morning when your manager was diligently going through e-mail while you were diligently sleeping?

So we quickly scan all the e-mails. Open each one, take a quick look, decide if it is an emergency or not, then move on to the next one. Oh, here’s an easy one to answer — so you do. And here’s another one that only requires a minute to research…that really takes fifteen minutes down a rabbit hole. That quick scan? An hour. Yeah, that’s the trap I go after every single time.

Processing is processing. Label it that way.

David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology talks about processing versus doing. And e-mail is mostly processing: analyzing the e-mail, determining what needs doing from the e-mail, and recording what needs doing into your task management system. Then going to your to do lists and work from them, not from the e-mail.

One of the best pieces of advice one of his coaches gave to me (and the world) was to label what you are doing. You have to tell yourself you are “emergency scanning” and not processing or doing. Or you are “processing” your e-mail to get it into the right to-do buckets — but not doing the tasks inside the e-mails.

Sticking with these labels helps keep you from running down rabbit holes of wasted time and energy.

E-mail is an input, not a work flow

The reason e-mail is such a horrible method of communication is because we don’t process e-mails the right way: determining what needs doing from them and then fitting that into our work flow system. Instead, e-mail IS our work flow system. When e-mail is our work flow system, we then work according to the 150 different ways people use e-mail to communicate with us. Instead of using e-mail as an input into the best way we do our work.

There’s a world of productive difference between those two approaches.

  • Here’s my email methodology: I keep my email clients (Gmail & Thunderbird) closed by default. My Droid and Digsby (on my laptop) are set to check for new messages as often as possible and notify me immediately. Once a new email comes in, I:

    1) Look at the subject line in Digsby or on my Droid. If it has nothing to do with me or I’m not interested in it, I mark it as read *without* even opening the message per se
    2) If it interests me or is related to me somehow, I quickly scan it
    3) If it doesn’t require any action on my part, I exit the message
    4) If I immediately have the time for the action it requires, I carry out said action
    5) If I don’t have the time for the action it requires, I either star/flag it for later OR turn it into a task in Google Calendar. I allow a max limit of 10 starred messages in my inbox to prevent actionable emails from piling up and overwhelming me

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