Many years ago, when I started using e-mail for my first company it looked like a good tool, but today it is starting to feel more like a big pain. In this post I will try to present you with a method of handling e-mail which has proven to work quite well for me and my company. I thank Igor, my business partner, for introducing me to this method many years ago.
Most people still use e-mail in its purest form and find it hard to follow-up to the ever increasing quantity of messages we need to process every day. For many years I have been using an interesting approach with e-mail, one which in my opinion works quite well. It is called "zero mail" and it allows me to use e-mail as a task management tool. The goal is to reach a state of pure nirvana, by having an empty inbox. The fact is that when I have an empty inbox, I actually don't have any pending task and this means I am "free". Well at least for a few minutes, until I get a new mail message. I even passed the practice to my co-workers and we use a similar approach to handle support for hundreds of companies.
This is not a software tool, it is just a different way of understanding e-mail as a task management platform. So here is how it works:
STEP 1: FOLDERS
I organized my inbox in a way that one inbox is master and it contains all my mail archive, and the other inboxes are used just to contain current mails (tasks).
For example the mailbox ME @ BEEZWAY is used as the master folder and as a task inbox at the same time. I also have my GMAIL inbox and the INFO inbox. Using this approach I know which kind of tasks I have pending in each inbox. I also keep sent folders separated so I always know from which account a mail has been sent.
The master inbox has folders and subfolders organized by type of relationship. As the business evolves I create more and more folders, one for each entity which I collaborate with. For example I have one sub-folder for each coworker, one for each partner and one for each web portal I visit. Once I start getting customers, I also create one folder for each customer. When I see many partners of the same type building in the partners folder I create a new master folder, for example for MEDIA, INVESTORS etc...
Another important folder is the TO-DO folder. I use it for all the mails (tasks) which need to be done, but have a low priority and will be done when time allows it.
So a basic inbox structure would look something like this:
- Personal company inbox
- General company inbox
- Private inbox
- Coworkers - all my team by "name and surname"
- Customers - all our customers by "company name"
- Partners - all our business partners by "company name"
- Portals - all the web portals we use by "url address"
- To-do - all the things I will do some other time
The purpose of folder is mainly to create an archive where to store completed mails (tasks) and for fast mail retrieval if needed. Another important thing is to avoid having more than 2 levels of folders, if you get to 3 levels, you did something wrong.
top tip: Some people like to keep folders organized by every contact, but this way I cannot connect companies with contacts without a third level subfolder, which slows down mail archiving and search. For me it is enough to have one folder for each company and to keep all mails from different people there. I usually don't have more than a hundred mails in a single folder anyway.
STEP 2: THE INBOX
The inbox is the single most important element of my daily task management routine. Each work day I check for new mail, just like most of us. As the day proceeds I also get more and more mail, it varies from 30 to 50 new messages per workday. When I examine each message I determine if the mail is a:
- notification - no additional work required on my part - just archive it
- task - I need to do something and respond to the sender(s) - I always respond to tasks
- follow up - I archive the previews message and keep the last as a task (se above)
- spam - I need to unsubscribe or request removal immediately!
- Regular - black color
- Important - red color
- Personal - green color
I never let the inbox become to filled, when it reaches more than 30 messages in my inbox it becomes critical and it requires some dedicated work to bring it back down to something like 10 - 15 open messages (tasks). This means that I am able to respond in a day or so to any given message and it means I get my work done fluently.
STEP 3: THE PROCESS
So now that we have defined the rules it is time to start working on e-mails (tasks). Usually other people assign tasks to me by sending me a mail, even if they call me on the phone I tell them to send me a mail, and even if I have a conversation in the office I require a mail back. This way I never forget anything. If I need to do or remember something I also send an e-mail to myself, or even better, ask a co-worker to send me a mail, this way I take it more seriously :). By doing so my e-mail becomes my task management engine and every received mail becomes a task.
All new tasks are visible in a single screen in my inbox and I know that every completed task is archived in my folders somewhere. So now all I have to do is determine which mail to archive next, this means which task I need to do next. I regularly scan my inbox several times per day, So I can see which task needs to be done next. A lot of times I find out that some tasks have already been done by someone or just become unnecessary, so I just archive the message.
The important thing to remember is: NEVER DELETE A MAIL! Just archive it to the folder it belongs. This way you are able to retrieve every conversation, forever. There may come a day when you may need it - for legal or other purposes.
Our support inbox, for example, is being used daily by more than 10 people and we apply the same principles to our support routine. The fact that it works for 10 people it means it should work for you to.
STEP 4: OPTIMIZATION
There are many things we can do to optimize our daily mail routine. One of the most important things to remember with e-mail ( and all instant messaging tools for that matter ) is that it is a big distraction. I believe it is important to have some quite time and to switch off e-mail from time to time. It is hard to get things done if we get distracted every five minutes, but this is something I will discuss in another post.
Another thing we can do to optimize our inboxes is to create rules and filters for newsletters and notifications which are not critical to our daily work routine. This way we don't need to move several mails into their folders each day, but it is the software that does it for us. But we must be careful not to abuse filters, we still need to leave all important, work related messages in our main inbox.
If our mail provider offers IMAP mailboxes ( or if we have an internal Exchange server ) it is a good idea to start using them. It allows us to have the same inboxes and folder structure on several computers, tables and phones. This way we can manage our mails and tasks in the office, at home or on the road. IMAP is a mature technology and works well across different OS and clients. I have a Windows PC, a Mac notebook, an iPad and an Android phone and everything works like a charm together. A good idea is also to have a good on-line mail client, which allows to use e-mail even if we don't have any other device at hand ( does it ever happen? ).
I often hear of people who receive over a hundred mails per day, this my friends, is simply not doable. Some days all I do is just communicate and clean my inbox and I am unable to send more than 50 relevant mails in a single day, so I guess it is impossible to respond or even read 100 mails per day. It is so important to try and keep this number down, either by delegating more responsibilities to coworkers or to go to the source of the problem and work only on relevant stuff.
In an age of social networks it is even more important to be aware of the content we read and produce each day. In an age of abundance we must start to distinguish between good and bad content. Amusing videos may be fun and a good source of relaxation, but they don't belong to an efficient workday. This is why it is a good idea to have a personal mailbox where to redirect all those Facebook and Linked in notification, just to be consumed at home.
THE BAD SIDE OF E-MAIL
All this looks very nice and we can turn e-mail into a really powerful tool, but I still feel there is something fundamentally wrong with e-mail as a business tool. Sometimes I feel like we have become slaves to e-mail, and in the end all the thousands of mails finish down the drain in a big black hole. Where is the point of this, where is the satisfaction to get things done. I probably spent thousand of hours on my inbox, but all this work is nowhere to be found. Isn't it all wrong? Is e-mail really a means to an end or is it just a communication tool. I know it can be used efficiently to get things done and to keep track of tasks, but is there any better way? Many people tried to find or create replacements for e-mail, most were unsuccessful.
If you have any relevant experience I would like you to share it with me. I would like to get deeper and to examine the possibility to someday make a tool which may be better than e-mail for business purposes.
Oh, and don't forget to share ;)