How to Keep Your Inbox from Dragging You Down.

You know the feeling.
You’ve been on vacation.
Maybe a four day weekend.
The reckoning is coming.
You open your inbox to some 200 plus emails.
Some unopened.
Time to sloth through for 2 plus hours to reorg the whole mess.
Nothing but a time drain.
Lucky for you, I just taught an awesome class developed by Franklin Covey called the 5 Choices of Extraordinary Productivity and I have the master moves to save your inbox.

Get Control of your Inbox

Here they are:

1. Have folders that make sense. It’s really simple to add folders but frequently they don’t make sense or your folders need to be updated. This happened to me recently. I had a folder in my personal inbox named “Duke” while my daughter was attending the university and I kept track of various school and financial aid information. She graduated two years ago. I am working for Duke as an instructor starting in September. Now the “Duke” folder is housing different information. As Andrew Mellen espouses in his book, Unstuff Your LIfe, you need to have categories that work for you. I used to have folders for each blog I subscribe to. Now I have a main folder called “Blogs” and subfolders with each author’s name. I also update my folders periodically so that now the “Duke” folder is not a subfolder under “Kids” but is now a subfolder under “Current Clients”. Make sure you organize it in a way that makes sense for you and update it as appropriate.

2. Set up rules so you don’t have to open unnecessary emails. Frankin Covey calls this “Win without Fighting”, so essentially you never even see an email and, therefore, never have to fight it. Low hanging fruit here is to have junk mail automatically go to the junk mail or delete folder. I’ve read in several places that it’s not wise to unsubscribe to emails because they frequently create more emails by confirming your email address (obviously these are disreputable spammers). So if you have them go automatically to the delete folder you don’t need to bother to unsubscribe. Shopping receipts can go to the “Purchases” folder automatically if you set up rules from your most frequented online shopping sites like Amazon, Staples, Southwest and the like. What I really like about doing this is that my cell phone inbox doesn’t blow up with emails I want a record of but don’t necessarily want to look at on my phone. It cuts back on the alerts.

3. Turn it into what it is. During the class, as we all sat at our laptops connected to our Outlook inbox, we could turn all those incoming emails into what they actually were. So when I get an invite for a meeting or conference, I can drag the email down to the “Calendar” and create an appointment to decide whether to attend on the last day of early registration. I can drag an email requesting data on turnover to the “Task” list and set up a due date on the first day of the next month. I can drag a new contact email to my “People” icon and set up the contact information. When you do this, you can practically empty your inbox to a handful of emails. Before I started using this method, I invariably had email that sat in my inbox until it was taken care of. So if I couldn’t decide on a conference some six months out, that email would sit there gathering dust and cluttering my head until I could actually sign up for it. Start dragging your incoming email and creating what it really is.

4. Link to Locate. This is the last “Master Move” in the 5 Choices class. Basically, in any calendar entry, you can “insert” an email, a contact, a task or a note. So if you have a meeting with a new client on Friday at 10 AM, you can have the client’s contact information, the proposal you sent them and the notes from the phone call you had with them. They are all sitting there in your calendar entry. In addition, if you copy your associate on the appointment request, they will have access to all the information as well. It’s a nice neat little package. No need to set up an email folder and hope you have all the information in there. Or printing off tons of paper for the meeting. It’s all there in Outlook waiting patiently for the appointed time.

I have to say that even the technology folks in the class didn’t realize all the capabilities of Outlook. Once you start fully utilizing it, it’s remarkable how efficient you can be. Out of 13 participants, every single person had their “mind blown” by how easy it was to organize their technology. My husband brought his laptop home and, after a brief lesson on the 4 items above, he went from over 10,000 emails (all of which were flagged) to ZERO in about two hours.  So there you have it. A nice neat efficient inbox. Whew.

Save time and do less. Systems based productivity.

I recently read an interesting article on by Alex Cavoulacus called One Founder’s best productivity trick: save time and do less. She makes some solid points on how to free up your time and I think there are areas for more exploration. I think that Alex has a more tactical view where my approach would be more systems based. I think when it comes to productivity, you need to set up a system to be more productive rather than reflect on each incident and whether or not it was a good use of your time. For example, I keep my phone in the kitchen charging overnight. This is a system. I don’t get up at 3 in the morning and check email. I get a better night’s sleep and I am, therefore, more productive the next day. images

There are other systems that can improve your productivity as well. Blocking off one hour every morning to write or work on projects. Close the door. Turn off the phone. Block out any interruptions. Hold that space as sacred and don’t let any interruptions in. That is a system. So you don’t need to start your day and say, wow, I wonder how I’ll get the project done today. Let me look at my schedule and see if I can squeeze it in and hope that nothing comes up to interrupt me.

Here are her seven questions and my take on them:

1. Do You Say No? Alex suggests reviewing your last ten tasks that were not assigned by your boss (good idea for career preservation) and see if you should have said “No” in retrospect. It’s a great idea to reflect back and see where some of your time leaked out so that you can prepare yourself going forward. I like the idea of the “proactive no” or, setting up some guidelines that help you stay on course to be your best self. Something like, Friday nights are family night or I never engage in more than two projects at once or I’ll only be on three committees. This makes it easier to say “no”. “You want me on the budget committee? I’m sorry. As a rule, I only sit on three committees at once so that I can devote the amount of attention needed to do a good job.” It also makes it easier to be clear about your priorities because you have your set of proactive no’s. The less thinking, hemming and hawing, the better.

2. Are you delegating enough? No one delegates enough. Alex refers to some folks as “delegataphobs”. Been there, done that and need the t-shirt. I’m the best one to do it. I can do it faster. I don’t have time to delegate. Amen. Everyone needs to get over the fact that they know best and to help others shine by delegating. Especially some of the shinier projects. Don’t leave your junior executive handling small, no impact administrative tasks and never getting them to stretch. Invest the time and delegate. You will look like the master Yoda when your junior executive gets the next promotion.

3. Is everything on your To Do list necessary? Of course not. I’ve seen all kinds of advice about To Do lists. Do them every morning, every night, only hand written, in some new fangled app. I think the main thing is to find the system that works and use it. If you start moving the same item over to the new To Do list, it’s probably not important or you’ve been fired because you never got around to it. For me, have an app just for things like grocery lists or items I need to remember for the trip out of town called “Do It Tomorrow” and I’ve used “Wunderlist” as well . I have a completely different system (Trello) for more long term projects. For a list of the latest and greatest here is an article by Forbes. It doesn’t matter where you have it or how you use it, what matters is that you set up a process and stick to it.

4 thru 6. The next three questions were on meetings. This seemed redundant and I felt like having a system would definitely handle most of the issues with unwanted, unnecessary or last minute meetings. A meeting is a claim on your time like anything else. If you set up your proactive no as I suggest in item #1 ,you will not be on as many committees and, therefore, sitting there tapping your pen, wondering why you are in the meeting to begin with. There are other systems that can be employed as well, like if you set up a meeting, have it scheduled for 23 minutes. Folks will walk in prepared, there will be less chit chat and business will be accomplished in lightning speed. Respect people’s time. I frequently set up trainings and meetings. I always aim to end them before they are scheduled. The sense of relief that I respected the groups’ time and we finished “early” is incredible. Perhaps even trend setting. Set the standard.

7. Are you a slave to your inbox? Most folks are. Your inbox should not be your To Do list. Your inbox needs folders so that you can organize your correspondence. Be judicious in who you carbon copy and make sure your direct reports do as well. The more you CC: people on emails, the more you yourself will be cc:’d. If you don’t. They won’t. The other advice here is to be brutal in unsubscribing to things you don’t want to receive or have outlived their usefulness. Or set up rules in your inbox to have things automatically moved to a folder.

I think that Alex brought some great points in her article. In addition, I think it’s important to be your own choice architect by setting up your environment and schedule for success. This involves rising early, setting up loss aversion, priming and setting processes in place to create habits so that productivity comes seamlessly…maybe even painlessly.