Traditional To-Do lists trap us in the “Urgent Zone”

Most of us deal with different type of tasks that land on our table every day. Our basic instinct is writing the tasks down in a traditional ToDo list and set them by priority. This is where most of us stop – trying to handle this ToDo list one by one. As the list never gets shorter, we usually find ourselves handling mainly the urgent tasks, leaving the important tasks aside. Let’s face it, the urgent tasks always take place at the top of the ToDo list, not letting us get to the non-urgent tasks. This is perfectly natural – after all, if we will miss an urgent task, someone would probably hold us accountable for that in the very near future.

So how can we get out of this trap? I want to share with you a practical method that I use for quite a few years and which is pretty simple: instead of holding one list, we should hold 2 lists – urgent list and non-urgent list – each one is handled a bit differently. Let’s drill down on how we should use each of those lists.

Urgent task list

The urgent task list is something we need to look at and handle daily. Example of such list can be:

  • Check whether we have received a problem report from our Beta customer for the product that we need to release next week. (if we will miss that, our product might not be released next week)
  • Get approval for a budget for a New-Year celebration. (assuming we are a few days away from the new-year, missing the date would make this task irrelevant).
  • Set a meeting with one of our peers for getting his approval for our product certification before he leaves to his 4 weeks vacation (his vacation is 2 days from now).
  • Check-in the code today before the official version is being built tonight.

Those kind of tasks should be monitored daily to make sure we get them done and/or monitor their progress closely. Missing daily attention on those would probably cause us miss the goal.

I use to keep those in Microsoft OneNote. I have a folder named “Daily” which I open every morning and look at. Once an urgent task lands on my table, I immediately add it to the Daily urgent task list.

Non-urgent task list  (AKA the important task list)

We all have the list of tasks that are important, but not urgent. This is the abandon list, the never-done list, the wish-list, the list we wish we could do, but we just don’t have enough time to do. It’s not our fault – we work really hard, but we just can’t find the time for it. If only our boss would offload some work from us and allocate us some spare time, then there would be a good chance we could reach those important tasks.

Let’s be honest with ourselves – those are just a bunch of poor excuses. If we want to do something, it is up to us. We might not always realize it, but we do have control over our time (at least much more then we think).

The first step is to acknowledge that we need 2 lists – urgent and non-urgent. Personally, I hold the non-urgent list in an Outlook search folder called DoIt. As most of my tasks are coming through email, all I need to do to add a task to the non-urgent list is by categorizing it as DoIt. A site note: when I say non-urgent task list, I actually means to a list that contain important tasks (as opposed to non-urgent-non-important tasks).

Once a week, I have reoccurring meeting in my calendar that I named “Weekly Review”. In that meeting I’m going over all my DoIt tasks (my important to-do tasks) and integrate a few of them into my next week schedule. Meaning, I’m setting a meeting for a task to be done. The meeting can be with other participants, but mostly those meetings are just self-meetings – I’m scheduling a meeting with myself for accomplishing a specific task.

At first glance, a self-meeting sounds a bit weird – why should I schedule a meeting with myself? I can do it any time without pre-scheduling it. Well, the problem is that although we can, we usually never do. Once we have a self-meeting scheduled in our calendar, we have higher commitment to make that task done.

Let’s fast forward to a self-meeting time-slot: we are sitting with our computer, working on our important task. Suddenly, someone steps into our office/cubicle with a request that would consume our time. At this point, we know that if we will give that person our time, it would be on expense of achieving our current important task. Most chances we would direct that person to someone else that can help him or request him to meet us at a later time. BTW, in most cases, that person would be perfectly fine with such an answer and would appreciate us for protecting our time.

Let’s take the same scenario with one difference – we don’t have our self-meeting in the calendar: we are sitting with our computer, having a free slot to work on whatever we want. Suddenly, someone steps into our office/cubicle with a request that would consume our time. At this point, we know that if we will give that person our time, it would be on expense of our time, but nothing specific that we have pre-scheduled. Most chances we would help that person on the spot, losing the control over our time.

Think about it :)

IM your Email and Meeting

Did you run into the need to start a group chat conversation based on an email or  a meeting? It happens to me all the time and I just discovered how to do it using the great integration between Microsoft Lync and Outlook. It was always there (I think…) and I guess I just didn’t take the time to look for it.

IM

The scenario

Let’s start with describing why we need this. I’ll give 3 main scenarios that I run into (almost) every week.

  1. I want to start an Instant Messaging (IM/chat) with a person on a specific topic that was just discussed over an email thread. I want the title of the IM to be meaningful and describing the email discussion.
  2. There is an ongoing email thread on a topic and I want to move the discussion from the email to an online IM. Why? Because I have decided I want to give the topic an extra attention and that a group IM with the entire distribution list (or part of it) would be the appropriate way accomplishing that.
  3. I have arrived to a meeting on time and I see that many people are missing. I decide I want to reach out to them using IM, for requesting them to join the meeting (…and then tell them that the last to arrive the meeting would bring a cake for the next meeting).

IM an Email

Let’s start with the first scenario, where we want to IM a person regarding a specific email (where that person was on the distribution list).

  • Go to the email
  • Go to the person name on the distribution list
  • Right click it and select IM
  • IM session on Lync would be opened with the email title

The second scenario is starting an IM with the entire distribution list of the email.

  • Go to the email
  • Go to the Respond tab
  • Select “Reply All with IM”
  • Group IM session on Lync would be opened with the email title

IM_Email

IM a Meeting

The third scenario is starting a group IM containing the meeting distribution list (or part of it).

  • Go to the meeting on your calendar
  • Open the meeting
  • Are you the meeting organizer?
    • Yes: click the “Contact Attendees” button
    • No: click the Respond button
  • Select “Reply All with IM”
  • Group IM session on Lync would be opened with the meeting title
  • If you need to remove people from the IM, this is the time to do it (before you type the first letter in the IM session)

IM_MyMeeting

IM_OtherMeeting

That’s it – simple and useful. Such a cool feature.

 

Getting our Email action requests being followed up on

Scene: we are writing an important email with a request for action, and then just before we hit the Send button we stop for a second to think whether we have put it all together the right way for making sure our action request will be done.

Let’s go over a few highlights for covering the important items.

uncle-sam

Distribution list

I believe I have mentioned that topic a few times in my previous posts. The guideline we should use is – use the minimal distribution list that is sufficient to fulfill the email purpose.

Why minimal? because we don’t want to disturb to more people than we have to. We should not disturb more people then we have to, and they in return won’t disturb us when they don’t have to (see also “The More You Send, The More You Get“). Although we should keep the distribution list minimal, the list should contain all the relevant stockholders. Otherwise, we will have to explain ourselves again for those we have missed in the distribution list.

To vs. CC

Keep the To list minimal. When I say minimal, I mean only a single person. Really, a single person. Putting a single person on the To list is the most effective way to get your action item being followed up on (see also “Adjusting Our Outlook Messages Pane: Coloring” for why the email receiver would probably give it high priority).

Sometimes we have an email containing action items for more than a single person. In such emails, we must put all the action owners on the To list. If we won’t put an action owner on the To list, we dramatically reduce our chances that this action owner would follow up on our email.

OK, so we are putting all the action owners on the To list. However, once we have done that, the chances the action items would be followed up drops dramatically (as opposed to a single To person).

Why? because of the “bystander affect“. I know it is not the same, but it is similar. I have re-wrote the bystander affect phenomenon to match an emails sending case: “it is a phenomenon that refers to cases in which individuals on the To list do not offer any means of follow up on an email action item when other people are present on the To list along with them. The probability of follow up on action items is inversely related to the number of people on the To list (bystanders). In other words, the greater the number of people on the To list, the less likely it is that any one of them will follow up on your action item.”

Frustrating… but let’s not give up just yet. We have a way to increase our chances again.

Getting the action owner attention

OK, so we understand why our chances for action-follow-up have dramatically dropped once we have more then a single person on the To list. Now we to increase our chances again.

We can do that by putting an owner name near every action items. We should put the owner name in bold and highlight. Why? because we want to catch the owner’s attention when she/he scans through the email. If the email is a long one and the owner names are not standing out, there are good chances the owners will miss it.

Some people use different highlight color for different people. I use only one color for highlight – yellow. You chose what you prefer.

Let’s put it all together

  • Minimal To list (preferably one person)
  • If more then one person, put owner near each action and bold-highlight the owner name.

Archive the restored archived emails

This article is dedicated to all my friends at work that got panic as result of organizational policy to delete items older than couple of years.

1280px-Panic_button

I would like to talk in this article on how to archive our 2-years-old emails when we have Enterprise Vault Outlook Add-in that already archived our 90-days-old emails.

What is Enterprise Vault Outlook Add-in?

I won’t give here the entire story, but just state that it is a tool that allows you to reduce your mailbox size by automatically archiving your emails without moving them to an Outlook archive folder, and while allowing you to fully view the archived emails by just clicking on them.

Below is an example of 2 emails from my mailbox, one was archived by Enterprise Vault (EV) and the other wasn’t. They are both residing at the same mail folder. The archived email age was exceeding the EV policy limit and therefore was archived. The other email is new enough and therefore wasn’t archived by EV.

Email_ArchiveVsRegular

Below you can see an example of email that was archived by EV. All attachments are removed, the email appears like in plain text format (as opposed to HTML), and the emails text is cut after a few tens of lines.

Email_ArchivedByEV

However, when you open the email (double click it), it automatically restores its original content and format. Since it is so easy to open such emails, the organization policy can be to archive (using EV) emails that are even 3 month old, since those are still easily accessible for the users.

So what’s the problem?

The problem begins when there is another policy in your organization that mandates the deletion of emails older the X years. If you don’t care about such old emails, you can stop reading this post. If you care, then it means you need to move old emails (before they reach the “delete age”) to a personal folder (PST).

Moving EV-archived emails to a PST folder means you have ended up archiving emails that are in a bad format (plain text), partial information (cut in the middle), and without attachments. Plus, those emails can’t be restored (once an email is deleted by organizational policy, it can’t be restored via EV).

I want my emails back. Now. Please.

Quick Solution

OK, the solution is pretty easy:

  1. Select the emails you want to save aside
  2. Restore them using EV
  3. Archive them using PST
  4. You are done

If you need to restore dozens of emails, you cannot do that email-by-email (it will take you forever). The trick is restoring a group of emails:

  1. Select a group of emails.
  2. Go to the “Enterprise Vault” tab
  3. Select Restore
  4. The email icon will be changed to indicate it is in the process of being restored
  5. Wait (in my case it took ~30 minutes)
  6. The emails are restored (the email icon is now as any regular email)
  7. Archive your restored emails using Outlook personal folder

Email_EV_Restore

 

In case you need a direction on how to create personal folder for archiving your items:

  1. On the Home tab, in the New group, click “New Items”, point to “More Items”, and then click “Outlook Data File”.
  2. Select “Outlook data file (.pst)”
  3. In the “Create or Open Outlook Data File” dialog box, in the File name box, type the name as you want it to appear in the Outlook Navigation Pane, and then click OK.

Will the search engine look into my personal folders?

Yes, no worries.

How can I find all the emails that are older than X years?

You can search them. For example, “received:<2014-06-23”.

A few words of caution

When you are restoring emails, your restored emails would occupy more mailbox space, which means that your free mailbox space would reduce. You need to be careful not to hit your mailbox max size (I’m not sure what would happen at that point – didn’t try it). So if you don’t have much of a free space in your mailbox, I recommend to restore-from-EV and archive-to-PST in cycles of small groups.

Shortcuts for Flag, Category and Processed

If you are a dedicated reader of this blog, this post is for you. This post is targeted to the ones that are using a single physical folder (read “how many folders? only one“) and using search folders (read “search folders – a kind of magic“). In this post we would learn how to use the keyboard shortcuts instead of long and slowly mouse movements and clicks (why using the mouse? read “top 5 keyboard shortcuts for emails“).

shortcutroad

Flag It

Shortcut for flagging an email can be done using the Quick Steps outlook option.

QuickSteps

Create a new quick step as below. You can see there is a shortcut key. The available values are CTRL+SHIFT-X, where X goes from 1 to 9.

FlagIt

Processed It

Once you have “processed” an email and would like to move it to your single physical folder (which probably named “Processed”), you can use the quick step option as described below.

ProcessedIt

Categorize It

Applying category manually means you need to go to the email, go to the category column, right click it, and select a category. All this can be done using a single shortcut.

By now you would probably say “let’s do it using quick steps”. Well, although you can do it that way, there is a better way to apply shortcut for categories.

  • Open your categories

AllCategories

  • Select a shortcut key for a specific category

CategoryShortcut

The shortcuts are going from CTRL-F2 to CTRL-F12. There are 2 main advantages for using this method over the quick steps:

  1. It is easier to apply with your fingers (CTRL vs. CTRL-SHIFT)
  2. Any second apply of the category-shortcut, clears the category.
    For example, let’s assume CTRL-F2 is a shortcut for “follow up with boss”. The first time I press CTRL-F2, the email is categorized as “follow up with boss”. The second time I press CTRL-F2, it clears the “follow up with boss” category from this email.  It doesn’t work that way with quick steps.

That’s it. Be a power user and use shortcuts! 

 

Emails on a Smartphone: Do and Don’t

I have started to regularly read emails on my smartphone 2 years ago. The default email settings are not always the most efficient ones for our work. Moreover, we can and should use the smartphone only up to a certain extent – definitely not handling emails through a smartphone the same way we handle them from our desktop Outlook.

When I say “read emails on a smartphone” I mean using a smartphone application (as opposed to using browser running Outlook Web Access). I’m using the email application on a smartphone running Android, while connecting through Exchange to the organizational email. I had to enter my organizational username/password credentials and that’s about it. It also required me to apply PIN password for my smartphone enter screen, but this really depends on your organization policy regarding email access through smartphones.

smartphone

Do and Don’t

I would start by saying that emails on a smartphone should be done smartly and carefully, meaning using it mainly for 2 purposes:

  1. Reading emails
  2. Replying on urgent emails

Don’t try to do beyond that, as it would probably result inefficient usage of your time. Examples of what I do not recommend to do:

  1. Categorizing emails and/or moving them to folders. Android don’t have the option of putting categories on emails (and I believe other smartphone OSs don’t have such option either). Even if my smartphone email application would have, it would be probably much much slower than using the desktop Outlook.
  2. Replying on meeting invitations. Don’t. First of all, you can’t see your calendar easily like in Outlook, so what most people end up doing is accepting the meeting blindly, which is really not the recommended way. Read “how should we handle a calendar invitation?” for more details. Secondly, I heard about many cases where the sync of the Outlook on such smartphone-accept/reject action doesn’t end up well (meaning things are not being updated correctly on the smartphone->outlook direction).
  3. Reply on your emails. Be very selective here. Typing answers using smartphone is slower and problematic – it is harder to do highlighting, bolding, bullets, text correctness checking, etc. I recommend to reply on emails only when:
    1. You have a short reply (1-2 sentences) that can move things forward.
    2. Urgent email to handle. Here is the trap – people tend to give urgency to items that are not urgent, so stay on guard here.

To sum up, it is better to leave the above items to the time when you are near your desktop Outlook – it will be much faster, much accurate and much easier than your smartphone.

Enhancing the email experience

Now let’s see how we can make our emails reading experience better when we use our smartphone. In order to have a similar experience to the desktop Outlook, we should configure the below 2 items. Now don’t set your expectations too high – Outlook is far richer, more enhanced, and easier to use then any smartphone would ever be. Still, we can apply a few simple configurations that will enhance our email reading experience.

Auto-BCC

If you are using the automatic-BCC option on your Outlook (see “The secret of BCC”), you should have the same experience on your smartphone. Go to your advanced setting on your email application and check the copy-me-as-BCC option.

Emails by Conversation

One of the recommendations we had in this blog was looking at email threads as conversations (see “adjusting our outlook messages pane: sorting”). We want to have the same experience on our smartphone. Go to your email application settings and request to see emails gathered as a conversation.

That’s about it. Use your smartphone smartly, don’t abuse the experience.

Search Folders – A Kind of Magic

If your first reaction is “what a search folder is” then you are going to witness a magic. OK, not a magic, but a really cool and useful feature of Outlook.

I assume you came around the following dilemma – I have email I would like to follow up with my manager in my next weekly with her. I don’t want to put those emails in a dedicated physical folder named “Boss” since such folder will only grow in time. Plus, there are certain emails that I would like to follow up on both with my boss and with my leading engineer. Mmm… what should I do?

Shelves-of-file-folders

Well, Outlook offers us exactly the solution we need – search folders. A search folder is a virtual folder (as opposed to a physical folder) that shows emails based on a search criteria. Sounds complicated? Not at all.

Search Folder in Details

The emails that a search folder shows are physically located somewhere else, but still they appear in the search folder. Think on a search folder as if it is a filter on your entire emails, and you can define what this filter would look like.

Let’s go back to our example – we want to have an easy way to see all the emails that we need to talk with our manager. Moreover, after we would talk with our manager about a specific email, we want an easy way to remove it from the search folder.

The basic tools for reaching that goal are flag and category. When I want to see an email in a search folder, I first make sure I have the right category set up. For example, I would create category called “follow up with manager”. When I have email that I want to follow up on with my manager, I would categorize it as “follow up with manager”. On top of that, I would add a flag to this email.

There are 2 reasons I’m adding a flag on top of the category:

  1. Once I need to remove an email from a search folder, unflagging will do the job in the easiest way. The reason for that is that we will define the search criteria as category+flag. We will see that in a minute.
  2. Outlook sometimes categorizes other emails that appear on the same email thread as the email we have categorized. It is like Outlook is duplicating our category to the email thread. Having combination of category and flag would make sure the search folder would show the email we intended it to show.

So we have an email categorized as “follow up with manager” and with a flag. Now we can create a search folder that would catch it.

Creating a Search Folder

  • Right click on “Search Folders”
  • Select “New Search Folder”

NewSearchFolder

  • Select “Create a custom Search Folder”

SearchFolder_Custom

  • Select “Choose”
  • Enter the search folder name

SearchFolder_Name

  • Select “Criteria…”
  • Go to the “More Choices” tab
  • Check the “only items which:” checkbox and select the value “are flagged by me”
  • Click the “Categories…” button and select the relevant category from the list

SearchFolder_Criteria

  • Click OK x 3

Now you have search folder named “Follow up with manager”. This folder would show the emails that you have categorized as “follow up with manager” and that have flag set. BTW – the name of the search folder can be different then the name of the category.

It might take Outlook a few minutes to find the emails for this search folder. It happens only on the first creation of the folder. After that, each email that you categorize (+flag) would be shown immediately.

Number of Emails in a Search Folder

One last trick before we are done. The search folder show by default the number of emails that are un-read. We don’t really care about the count of un-read emails in the search folder. What we really care is how many emails in general this search folder holds. In order to see that:

  • Right click on the search folder
  • Select Properties
  • Change the radio button from “Show number of unread items” to “Show total number of items”

SearchFolder_TotalNumber

Remove an Email from a Search Folder

When you want to remove an email from a search folder, you just un-flag it. So, suppose I had a weekly with my manager and I have talked with her about a specific email I have in my “follow up with manager” search folder. I just click the flag (for removing it) and the email would disappear from my search folder. Remember, the search folder we have created shows emails that have both “follow up with manager” category and have a flag set.

 

Beyond a Single Folder – Automatic Rules

After I have published the “How Many Folders? Only One” post, a friend of mine has raised the question whether and how I use automatic rules. At the end of that post I have mentioned that I use more than a single physical folder, but only for specific cases. In this post I’ll describe those cases.

RuleCategorize

The rule of thumb is that emails being generated by automatic tools deserve a separated physical folder. Examples of such automatic tools are: defect-tracking system that generate report on every update of a defect, organizational Wiki that sends notifications on page updates, etc.

There are 2 main reasons why we should move such automatic generated emails to a separated physical folder. Let’s review them.

Time Fragmentation

Automatic tools usually generate high volume of emails (as compared to a real person). Exploding the Inbox with such emails shifts our focus to those emails, which is usually not a best practice approach. It is better to look on those emails a few times a day/week, where we can review bunch of emails, of the same type, at the same time. By that, we avoid time fragmentation, which is the #1 killer of our work efficiency.

Coloring Abuse

In one of the mentoring sessions I did with my group, people have raised a concern about emails that are coming from automatic tools and which are directed to us explicitly. As we are alone on the To list, those emails are colored as our first priority emails (see “Coloring“).

Having those emails in our Inbox, damages the coloring system badly. Moving those emails automatically to a side folder protects our coloring system.

Automatic Rule

I’ll go through chapter by example. In my organization, I am registered for notifications on defect-tracking system, called JIRA. Every time a defect in my project is being created or updated, I am receiving an email with the details about the defect.

The auto generated emails have title in the format of “[JIRA] yada yada yada”. I have created a physical folder (under Inbox) called “JIRA” for containing those emails.

Create a Rule

  1. Go to Home
  2. In the Move section, select Rules
  3. Select Manage Rules & Alerts
    ManageRule
  4. Select New Rule
  5. Define as below
    Rule_JIRA_Basic

At this point, all the defect-tracking emails are being directed to the JIRA physical folder. However, there were still cases where I wanted to see specific emails in my Inbox – emails of the “first priority” type:

  1. Someone (a person) mentioned my name in the defect record, and is pending on my response.
  2. Someone (a person) replied on an automatic email. In this case I no longer consider this email under the automatic category and want to treat it as a regular email.

What we actually want is having an exception for those emails. Luckily us, Outlook rule system has exactly what we need – exception category within a specific rule.
We would take the rule that we have made above, edit it, and add to it the below exceptions.

Rule_JIRA_Adv

Now we are all set and ready. The automatic emails won’t disturb our main work – we now have control over our time. We decide when to look at those emails.

 

The More You Send, The More You Get

We are living in a digital environment and sometimes we get confused on when an email should be used and when other communication channels should be used. I would let you know how I do it and you would decide whether to use the same guidelines or not.

I have decided to write this post after I have spotted an email storm in my organization, which I had to stop by working together with my team leaders on creating a different email handling environment. We are not quite there, but we are certainly getting progress to the target. It will be clearer by the end of this post.

Storm

The rule of thumb we should all remember is that the more emails we send the more emails we get. Therefore, we should hold for a second before we start replying on an email and consider the trade-offs.

You Don’t Have to Reply It Right Now

Email is an offline communication tool which should not cause fragmentation to the work of the participants on the distribution list (if incoming email causes your work to be fragmented, read “desktop alerts are evil”). Therefore, email is effective in many cases, especially when people from different time zones are involved.

However, please consider using a more direct communication medium (e.g. phone, face-to-face) in the following cases:

  • Back and forth discussion is being performed over the email thread. My rule of thumb: email thread that has more than 10 emails within 2 days should be stopped and move to another communication medium.
  • You feel that the other side (distribution list) is being defensive or getting offended. We all have emotional inelegance (to some extent) to detect such cases. Trust your instincts on this. If there is a doubt, go for non-email medium.
  • The topic is too complicated to explain by text. You know that when you are re-writing the same sentence 5 times in order to explain something.
  • Our answer on the email is not urgent and we can discuss it online in our next weekly meeting with the person/forum. If we have a weekly meeting, let’s collect topics to discuss there and save the email traffic. It might be that after the weekly meeting, we would continue the email thread, but we have certainly saved some email traffic, as the email thread continues from a much more advanced point.

Control the Distribution List

Make sure the distribution list of the email is appropriate. Usually, it is too big. In such case, reduce it (read “the secret of BCC”).

Use Other Offline Tools

In some cases consider neglecting the email thread all together and communicate the information through other organizational tools. For example, my company is using JIRA for product problem tracking. Instead of discussing product problems over emails, we communicate through the JIRA system. This ensures that the distribution lists are small and focused, and only the relevant people are involved at every given time in the problem analysis process.

Avoid the Email Storm

Remember, this is a social methodology – the more people will use it in your network, the better the results are for everyone .

I have detected interesting phenomena in networks where people don’t use those guidelines. When the network is big (many email users) and the need for communication increases (e.g. at the “money time” of a project), an email storm begins.

It starts by a few managers that start sending urgency emails. The receivers don’t hold it and reply immediately, which cause more receivers to receive and reply, back and forth. The email traffic increases exponentially till it gets to some level that people can’t handle it anymore. At this point, people continue sending and replying on some emails, but they can’t really track all the emails – this is where things start falling apart.

Now the managers get angry and start another round of emails – this time, the emails are aggressive and offensive and the people are frustrated. The organization is being dragged into a circular loop that no one knows how to stop.

A simple way to detect an email storm is by analyzing your email traffic. It takes only 2 minutes. Type “received:yyyy-mm-dd” in your email search field and count the emails. Do that for the last 10-20 working days and put it on an excel graph.

See below how I have detected the email storm in my organization – straight forward and clear to detect, right?

StormGraph

Once I have detected it, I have gathered all my leaders and we have talked about it for 20 minutes. After a few days, I have already detected an improvement – the storm was getting calmer…

How Many Folders? Only One

On this post I’m going to touch a controversial topic – the need to use the Outlook folders system. Let me start with the conclusion – we do NOT need any folders except for one. It might sound outrages and impossible but it is really the logical conclusion when analyzing it. I’ll explain in a minute.

I have decided to write this post this week after I have mentored one of the leaders in my group. Seeing her excitement when she has deleted her entire folder list was the greatest gift for me. She was brave and she has remained with a single folder. Good for her. Now let’s see if you can do the same.

OnlyOne

Our intuition in emails classification is creating folders by category and classifying the emails according to topics. It seems like the reasonable approach to use, right? Wrong. Let’s talk about a few aspects here.

The first aspect is the scalability of the method over time. This method is not scalable. We all know it, but we don’t want to admit it. We always start with ~5 folders system (e.g. project X, project Y, administration, purchase, courses). It is clean and nice and we think we have nailed it down. Then comes another project, project Z, so we add it as a folder. Project X and Y are already over, but we don’t delete those folders, as we might want to use those emails in the future. So, after 6 month we triple the number of the folders we have.

OK, so we have more folders then we planned to. After 2 years we have ~50 folders. No big deal, right? Wrong. This is a huge deal, because now our classification process takes much longer. Let’s assume we have received an email from our boss about the need to improve the quality of our product. Mmm… this can go to the current “project” folder, it can go to our “procedures” folder and it can go to our “boss-related” folder. Confusing. So, we stop for a minute and start thinking where the best place is to classify it.

Let’s try to analyze what we actually do in this confusing phase – we are trying to figure out in which folder we would search it in the future, in case we would need to review this email again. And of course when this time in the future comes, we don’t really remember where we have classified it and are starting to think where we have put that email – was is it in the project folder, the boss-related folder, the procedure folder, or maybe in the miscellaneous folder that we have recently created?

To sum it up, over time our folder list increases, which increases the time it takes us to classify our emails and search for them later on. As time goes by, our efficiency decreases. What a bummer.

Bummer

At this point in the post, we should all feel less comfortable with our folders system. Let’s challenge this system and see what we can do better for being more efficient here.

Pareto could help us here (the 80-20 rule). I say that 80% of the emails that we classify into folders are never being searched by us in the future. The rest of the emails (20%) that we do search, we can’t really find easily due to our endless folder list.

Vilfredo_pareto

Therefore, the logic conclusion would be that by not classifying the emails into folders, we could save the entire classification time. This can save us 1-2 hours a week (I’ll leave you do the math). There is even a bigger prize here – we remove the minded burden that is tight up with our email review procedure. When we stop classifying emails, it starts to be easier to review emails and move them out of the Inbox (we would talk about the zero Inbox approach in the future).

What a relief… no more emails to classify. But now comes the day where we really need to find an email (remember, there is the 20% part that we do want to search). How do we do it? Easily – using the Outlook search system. Want to know how? Read the post I wrote about “search it, search it, till you make it”.

Now you need to brave enough to take this step. Being honest here, it took me 2 month to do that leap many years ago. So I understand it is hard, but you need to do that. I would suggest to do that in 2 phases:

  1. Phase 1: Continue using your current email classification system. BUT, when you reach the point that you need to search an email, DO NOT go to your folders. Search it through the Outlook search engine.
  2. Phase 2: after a couple of weeks, where you managed to find all your emails using the Outlook search engine (not using your folder list), you are ready to stop using your folder list. At this point you can create a folder named “Processed” and move all emails from your folders into the “Processed” folder. After that, delete your folders and you are done.

Good luck!

BTW – I wasn’t completely honest with you – I do hold a couple of more folders, but for a different purpose. I would tell you all about it in my next post, so stay tuned…