Stating The Should-Be-Obvious: E-mail Is Just Correspondence

In my travels across this fair land working with people on their time and workflow management issues, I routinely hear, “But I just don’t know what to do with it all!”  This, of course, is in response to the vast volume of e-mail, texts and tweets they receive.  Just last week, I was dining with a social networking maven who confessed to having 10 .pst files to keep her Outlook from crashing!

Clearly, e-mail and its progeny have gotten out of control and this problem will only get worse as social media continues to develop.  What are we mere mortals to do?  Wishing it away won’t work.  Ignoring it won’t work.  Hoping for a technology-based solution only appears to exacerbate the problem.  So, it’s back to the drawing board and a trip to the past to craft an effective solution.

The Solution:  E-mail, etc., is just correspondence; treat it as such.

It’s quite simple really, though implementing it is more about changing your perspective and behavior than it is about changing how e-mail works.  A few simple points demonstrate what I mean:

Your Inbox is only a collection point, not a depository.

I routinely work with individuals with Inboxes containing 15,000-25,000 e-mails!  This clearly demonstrates my point.  Back in the Dark Ages (i.e., pre-e-mail), it was literally impossible to even have a 100 things in your physical inbox.   My experience has demonstrated there are several pivot points that created this result.  First, people are afraid to delete things “in case they need them.”  This is a downward spiral once it starts because it gets easier and easier to just save everything instead of make decisions about the disposition of these items.  Consequently, the Inbox becomes a depository for all things that “might” be needed.  It’s the hall closet into which all things go.  The problem, of course, is that it was never designed for this use and there are only marginally efficient methods for making it work this way (sorting, searching, etc.)

Second, the technology itself is generally setup to promote this type of behavior.  Many people use Reading Pane to review e-mail without ever actually opening it and dealing with it.  Once read, it begins its life as compost at the bottom of the virtual stack of e-mails!   Moreover, most programs are set to return you to the Inbox after dispensing with an e-mail, so what’s the point of opening it in the first place?

Finally, most people haven’t developed a virtual filing architecture for easy location and retrieval.  This further promotes the Inbox as a place to store things.  Even those intrepid few who develop a folder system in the Inbox still suffer from a related problem of overloading their application’s ability to effectively and efficiently manage the application itself which ultimately causes the program (like Outlook) to slow down or corrupt and crash. 

Reboot:  E-mail as correspondence

Sit back for a moment and consider e-mail and all the other forms of communication that have developed over the last 25 years – voice mail, texting, tweeting, etc.  They are all forms of correspondence; each with their own advantages and disadvantages.  That simple shift in perspective gives the answer to what to do with it – process it.  In other words, get it the heck out of the Inbox!

As a side note, categorizing these items as correspondence also begins you down the path to salvation from overload because you will begin to ask yourself whether any particular e-mail, text or tweet is valuable as such – both on the send and receive side.  I believe that as people begin to re-orient their perspective about these forms of communication, the quantity will go down and the quality will go up.

But let’s get back to the point of this post – treating e-mail as simple correspondence.  To effectively process e-mail, you will need three things:

  1. Proper setup of your Inbox.
  2. A way to categorize each e-mail.
  3. An action to associate with each categorized e-mail.

Inbox Setup

This is so easy it amazes me that people haven’t made this priority #1 for themselves.  In Outlook, turn off the Reading Pane (View, Reading Pane, Off). Then turn off Show-In-Groups (View, Arrange by, uncheck Show In Groups).  Finally, set your system to batch process e-mail by advancing to the next e-mail after acting on the open one in front of you (Tools, Options, E-mail Options, select Open Next Item in top drop down for “After moving or deleting an open item.”)  Now, your e-mail will appear in the Inbox as a list of things to process.  Open the first one and begin processing based on the categories in the next paragraph.

Categories of Correspondence

If e-mail is just correspondence, then it can be processed just like correspondence.  In my five years of working with this issue (both in terms of physical and electronic items), I have only discovered five categories for all “stuff” as David Allen puts it:

  1. Trash – Items that need to be thrown away/deleted.
  2. Archive – Items that need to be stored for possible future retrieval
  3. Reference – Items we routinely refer to while accomplishing our tasks
  4. Reading – Professional reading materials to stay abreast in our field.
  5. Work – Things that need to get done.

Another thing to notice is that the first three are Closed – nothing further needs to be with them.  The latter two are Open – something needs to be done with them before they become Closed and, correspondingly, one of the first three categories!

That’s it.  Really.  The only thing you need to be willing to do is pause briefly on each item and decide what it is.  Once you’ve categorized it, then you will know what to do with it.  If not, keep reading!

Actions Associated with Categories

The final step in processing your e-mail (and other electronic and physical correspondence) is doing something with it so it leaves you Inbox.  Each category has an associated action, as follows:

  1. Trash – Throw it away or delete it.
  2. Archive – File it away in a long-term storage area.
  3. Reference – Put it away in an easily-accessed storage area.
  4. Reading – Pile it away so you can grab one or two at time to read.
  5. Work – Develop or adopt a method of managing the work contained in your e-mail.

As you can see, processing your e-mail is fairly straight forward once you come at it from the perspective that it is correspondence.  Categorizing each item and applying the associated action effectively processes 80% of your e-mail, leaving you only the Open/Work correspondence with which to contend.  Those items can be processed just like you have always processed correspondence containing Work or you can adopt a more technologically-integrated method.  The cliff hanger here is which method do you choose?  QuietSpacing(tm) is one method, though there are quite a few others out there.  I’ll leave that decision up to you.

Also, as an additional note on processing Archive and Reference items, you can either build out a folder/sub-folder system in Outlook or save e-mails (and its attachments) as a file on your local or network storage area for other documents.  (File, Save as, select Save as type: Outlook message format (*.msg))

Once Processing, Always Processing

This post turned out be much longer than originally anticipated, but the underlying explanation seemed necessary once the basic precept was established.  If e-mail is to be treated as correspondence, then how do we do that mechanically?  The fact remains that until we re-align our thinking to view e-mail as correspondence, it will be difficult to effectively and efficiently manage it.  However, once we do adopt that  perspective, the processing of e-mail as such becomes much easier.

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