A Creative Approach to Dealing with Email

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We are often flooded with an onslaught of irrelevant data filling our email box. In this day of information overload, we can find ourselves swimming in hundreds of emails that are unrelated to our task at hand. Wading through it not only absorbs our precious time, but it also keeps us from our profitable work that meets our goals and objectives.

A few years ago, I returned from a conference where we had no time allotted to check emails, so I found my mailbox filled with about 1,200 new emails. These were the ones that did not meet the automated filtering system that forwarded most of the mail to other employees while I was out of the office. The stack was deemed to be only answerable by me, but I didn’t have eight hours to properly go through the stack.

I quickly surveyed my associates and asked what they did when there were more emails than time to go through them. One man said to delete them all since the important ones will get a follow-up email. A woman suggested I create a folder, move the emails into it for future consideration, and label the folder with the conference dates. However, she shared how she was still working through the emails from her vacation last year.

The sheer number of unanswered emails was taking a toll on me. The volume of mail increased the number of overwhelming distractions I faced. I could sense that the overload of information was crushing my ability to be creative and come up with simple ideas and solutions. Determining a process for dealing with old emails was mandatory if I wanted my mind freed for important innovative work.

To build the process, I brainstormed the types of emails needing to be addressed:

  1. Irrelevant emails
  2. Project-related emails
  3. Urgent emails
  4. Important emails
  5. Advertisements and advertorials

The most efficient way of handling emails is to only open it once and act on it. The action might be to take steps required by the email, respond to it, review and file it, or delete it. Since taking action is a must when going through emails, I decided to separate the emails before opening.

Delete Ads and Irrelevant Emails

The emails that were clearly an ad or unrelated to my primary function were immediately deleted. I had my mail program reveal the first few lines of each email so I was able to delete items without opening the mail. This allowed me to delete about 300 emails.

File Project Emails

Since the people I work with use a protocol in the email subject line for ease of searching and sorting, I was able to move project files into their appropriate folders for review during my next scheduled project time. Unopened mail that is moved into a folder is still highlighted as not yet having been read, allowing me to know exactly which emails to read first. This action allowed me to schedule about 400 emails to a time slot booked for the project it pertained to.

Take Immediate Action on Urgent Emails

There were about 50 emails requesting my immediate attention, but only seven that actually needed my attentiveness. After taking care of the seven, I made quick decisions on what the remaining required for true next steps. This was important since some people’s urgent matters aren’t my problem. My decisions need to be based on what was urgent for me, not others.

Schedule Important Emails

There were about 100 emails that I’d consider important. I scheduled a handful of 30-minute response blocks of time throughout the week to work on the important items. Some of the emails only required me to assign projects to key players, while others required my time. The goal was to do a little bit every day until all the important items had been handled.

Outside of the above sorting categories, were about 350 emails that needed some action, but may or may not have had any level of importance. I quickly scanned the emails and made immediate decisions on the level of action required. All but about a dozen emails ended up in the trash.

I use the Gmail search engine for my emails because it gives me the most control available. Not only can I search by customer or project, but I can also search by what I don’t want included in the search.

For instance, let’s say I’m searching for legal files under project code TNT, but I don’t want any of Anthony’s emails in the output results. In the search bar, I type: TNT attorney -Anthony. This gives me all coded emails that include the attorney while leaving out all emails with Anthony’s name. The simple use of the minus sign reduced my output results from 1,633 documents down to 5, of which I opened the one I needed.

By maintaining a process for sorting through an overload of emails frees us up to innovate. Instead of eating up hours of our day trying to catch up, we can take relevant action immediately. And, we can open key project emails during project billable times instead of administrative times—making the reading of emails profitable.

© 2019 by CJ Powers