Like it or not, email captures our attention! Without a strategy for mastering and managing your email, its distracting and addictive nature will slice your hours into unusable time confetti. As knowledge workers, we now (on average) spend a massive 40% of our day inefficiently multitasking; we check email and IM every 6 minutes and spend just 2.8 hours a day on productive tasks (RescueTime, Work Life Balance Study).
When you spend large portions of your day in a state of fragmented attention – taking a quick glance at your inbox, another quick glance at messages on your phone etc., you end up reducing your capacity to concentrate. And so the cycle worsens; with poor attentional intelligence, you’ll spend more time jumping from task to task, resulting in things taking longer and feeling harder than they need to and increasing your stress and frustration.
Assuming you can process your emails in under 90 minutes a day, maintaining an organised and relatively empty inbox is highly effective. It assists people to feel more in command and less stressed, to think constructively, to focus, and to get things done.
Using the 4Ds to master your inbox
Perhaps counter-intuitively, the key to maintaining a zero inbox is to check your inbox far less often. The key is to only go into your inbox with the intention of processing emails; to read an email once and immediately decide what to do with it. The 4Ds Decision Making Model provides us with a useful framework for deciding what to do with our emails and how to organise them. The 4Ds are:
Once you’ve glanced at the email and determined that it does not have work embedded in it that you need to action, immediately hit the delete button. Provided you don’t delete your Deleted Items, you can still search and find any email that’s in there.
If moving the far majority of emails to the Deleted Items folder isn’t for you, create another folder and create a Quick Step enabling you to move emails to the folder with just one click.
Research shows that the easiest way to find old emails is to be able to use the search function well. Too many subfolders create ambiguity rather than order.
2. Do it now
If you can’t immediately delete the email, but you can do the work embedded in the email in less than 5 minutes, then do it straight away. There is no point deferring something to a to-do list, or leaving it in your inbox if you can immediately get the job done.
If you can’t delete the email, nor do the work in less than 5 minutes, can you delegate it? Most managers under delegate. Click here for more information about how to delegate.
If you can’t delete the email, can’t do the work now and can’t delegate it, then the fourth option is to clearly define the next step and defer it to another time.
Whilst this can seem common sense, many people don’t have a system for deferring the work embedded in emails. Rather, they leave the email in their inbox, hoping that the visual cue of seeing the email will remind them to action it at the appropriate time. This makes prioritisation challenging as the inbox doesn’t allow a complete view of all your to-do items. You are also more likely to be distracted if working via your inbox (think about how distracting incoming email is) rather than working from a separate to-do list.
If you use Outlook (on a PC style computer), then Outlook Tasks offers an excellent way of quickly deferring the work embedded in the email to an Outlook to-do list. If you do you use Tasks (and I strongly encourage this), then it’s useful to customise the way you view your Tasks (iMastery’s masterclasses and/or individual coaching can assist you with this).
That said, whether you use Tasks or not, what is key, is that you have a defined system for capturing and organising all your to-do items, that is outside of your inbox. A to-do list app or even a hand-written list can be effective. You will just need to create a folder within your email system that is specifically for assigning emails that have to-do items embedded. From that folder, you can then add the tasks to an external to-do list.
Game changer for managing emails
The game-changing component of processing emails using the 4Ds Decision Making Model is strengthening your mental rigour to clarify and decide what you need to do with each email and then recording the next step in a way that is easy to action.
For example, you receive an email from a colleague thanking you for you sending them a link to a book you were discussing. Your initial response is to keep this email in your inbox because seeing the book’s title reminds you that you’d like to review the book’s online resources section.
The problem with leaving it in your inbox is that you haven’t clearly described the next step, nor when you are going to take action. It seems obvious now whilst it’s top of mind, but in a week’s time when there are several hundred emails ahead of this one, you’ll either never get to it, or you will have to re-read it and remember why you’ve kept the email.
It’s much better to train yourself to decide then and there what the next step is, specifically record the next step on your to-do list, assign a time to get it done, and delete the email so that you can clear your inbox. Using a custom Quick Step in Outlook you can easily turn the email into an actionable Task, assign the day you want to complete the Task, and delete the email all in one simple click.
What now? How to clear a backlog of emails
Okay, so you want to clear out your inbox, but you have a massive backlog of emails. Taking from Inbox Infinity theory, there is no point processing more than the last weeks’ emails (and certainly no more than the last fortnights’). I advocate moving emails that are not from the last week into another folder. Move the backlog of old emails by either by running a rule, or simply selecting the old emails and dragging them to your folder or even Deleted Items. Some people feel nervous doing this, but provided you don’t delete you Deleted Items, you can still search and find any email that you put in there.
Now that you’ve reduced the number of emails in your inbox, it’s time to process those that remain while developing your system for processing emails moving forward!
Like it or not, email is here to stay for the foreseeable future. By having a strategy for mastering it, you can optimise your focus, master distraction and progress to the more interesting aspects of your day.
Strategies for Mastering Distractions & Getting Things Done is our most popular training session! Contact iMastery for information about keynote presentations, masterclasses workshops and coaching.