Another entry on office management.
I have frequently heard that, in order to increase your own productivity, you should handle every note, paper or message only once, treat it, close it, file it, (forget it?). Once again, I would like to suggest that this approach is not the most productive way of handling things in a world where the average office worker has to manage over 100 emails per day*!
The issue with emails is that they arrive at all times and interrupt whatever you are doing. Your job probably is not about answering emails, but about doing something else. You should be allowed to focus on your work, not feel you have to continuously interrupt what you are doing.
Here are a few suggestions regarding email management:
1. Don't read your emails when you receive them.
If someone has something urgent to tell you, there are many different ways of communicating that to you. They can phone you, or, in many cases, walk over to you and actually speak to you (a revolutionary concept in some cases!) [On a similar topic, the telephone is an intrusive tool which rings and demands attention immediately, think twice before using it whether it is really that important and whether you really feel you need to interrupt that person whatever s/he is busy doing at the moment]
You should read and answer your emails fairly rapidly, but that does not mean in real-time. You can read your emails two or three times a day (first thing in the morning, lunchtime, before closing down in the evening). The rest of the time, close your email tool so that you don't get interrupted continuously by messages that you have received new mail, and are not tempted to interrupt the useful, productive work you are doing to go read it immediately. Of course, the same is true for social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and others.
2. Don't Respond Immediately
When you go through your emails, there is a temptation to think you should react immediately. My recommendation is to process your emails in three passes:
a. Go through your messages quickly and delete all the rubbish
b. Go through a second time and sort what is left into what you should read and answer immediately and what should be postponed: if you have a communication for a meeting next Tuesday, it would be more useful for you to drop that email into your calendar to be read before the meeting rather than forget what it was about when the meeting happens.
c. Read what you should read and answer now and react/respond accordingly.
d. Leave the rest for later.
Most (all?) email management systems allow you to rapidly display the messages that have not been read or that have been flagged and/or dated for follow-up.
3. Start the Day with Today's Needs
When you start your day, you should start with the messages you have received and have been flagged for follow-up today. This may include messages you have received and relate to a meeting or messages which you have sent and want to check whether a task or response has come through in time.
Move your mail messages into subfolders, better: create rules, if your tool allows it, which will automatically place your received messages in appropriate folders and subfolders which correspond to projects, people, tasks, etc. In this way, you can quickly find the whole sequence of messages related to a same topic. Of course, you want to make sure that your subfolders are included in your list of unread and follow-up messages.
Check your spam box every 3 to 5 days. Some important messages will get dropped in there by accident. On the other hand, be ruthless with incoming mail. Unsubscribe from newsletters, mark advertising systematically as spam (I am hoping that if you read this far, you will not consider mine as belonging in this category!)
I have found this to be the most efficient approach to sort through the excessive amount of communication we are receiving continuously. Yes, of course, some things fall through the cracks, but that is probably true of all methods - particularly when the email system crashes or you get interrupted while going through the process.