Rising Above the Email Swarm

email overload 03In today's age of receiving dozens to 100s of e-mails a day, quickly processing these is critical.  Microsofties are known for the volumes of e-mail we deal with, particularly as a Program Manager.  As ScottHa mentions, "these guys used Outlook like it's an IM client" (so true that I don't use IM).  It's not unusual to go on vacation for a few days and come back to 100s of e-mail (not spam!).  Saying MSFTEs are know for this is odd to me, because it's nothing unique, most people online these days are flooded with mail.  This post is my 'lessons learned' and a simple 3-step discovery to e-mail nirvana...

In the first two years at MS, I created an elaborate folder structure (~40 folders) and ended up writing my own filtering rules engine since I quickly hit our Exchange server's rule limit.  Now I take a completely different approach...

Drowning in Email The key of good e-mail management is being able to respond and take action to mail quickly and not let mail fall through the cracks.  To archive this, I abandon complexity, embrace simplicity, and use rapid aggressive triaging.  With this simple system, I'm now able to hit 0 unread mail throughout the day.  As well as respond to all mail (that needs a reply) in a timely manor.

The key is in applying this Rapid Pickup Process (inspired by Getting Things Done) to triaging email:
For each unread item in the Inbox either: 1. Ignore it (mark it as read), 2. Reply to it quickly (if <1min), or 3. Mark it 'For Follow Up'.  Then later go through the flagged 'For Follow Up' items that need more reading or action.

The 3 Step Process

  1. Don't use an elaborate folder structure.   Just the "Inbox", "Sent Items", "Drafts", and just one custom "Other " folder are all that are needed, then two special Search Folders...
    Create two Search Folders (see video Film Strip Icon Tiny), "Unread Mail" and "For Follow Up".  At the bottom of the mail folder tree view, right-click "Search Folders", choose "New Search Folder...", then "Unread mail", OK.  Repeat for "Mail flagged for follow up".  Then right-click on the each of the new search folders and choose "Customize this Search Folder...", "Browse...", remove the checkbox from the root node and check the "Inbox" node. (see how to)
  2. Triage mail using Unread Mail (created in step #1)which just shows mail that hasn't been triaged (marked as read) yet.  Use this as the starting point every time you want to 'check e-mail'.  Quickly go through each item, if it is going to take more than a minute to reply or read, hit the [INSERT] key to mark the item with a red flag "For Follow Up" (or click the ghost flag).  This folder will clear out after each mail item is touched, creating a 'clear' Inbox.
    Note: This is very much like the Google Reader style of reviewing new items.
  3. Review mail For Follow Up.   After triaging your Inbox's unread mail, or when you have time, review flagged mail in the "For Follow Up" search folder.  These are the mails that take some time to read, require action, or a more elaborate response.  Hit [INSERT] on an item (or click the flag) when you're done with it to check it off and remove it from the list.

Outlook Mail - Annotated 
Note:   I renamed my "Unread Mail" folder to "Unread in Inbox" since I exclude the "Other" folder from this search folder.

Additional Tips

  • The "Favorite Folders" tab reduces cutter, and helps stay focused by adding just the folders you use most frequently (via drag & drop) and collapsing the " Mail Folders" tab.
  • Have just one "Inbox" folder; this way it is real easy to find old mail via search, sorting, grouping, etc.  There are no sub-folders under here either.  I only use the "Inbox"folder to find old mail, not read new mail.
  • Use a top-notch junk filter.  MS has a good one w/ Exchange, most major web mail providers (like gmail.com) have decent filtering, or use an aggressive 100% filter like ChoiceMail.  When you do get junk mail, get used to hitting the key combination [Context Menu] key, J, B to block the mail's sender.
  • Have one "Other" folder that must be checked very rarely (practically never in my case).  Set up three Outlook Rules (how to): "Other by Subject", "Other by Sender", and "Other by From".   Each contains a list of words or people that get sent straight to the Other folder.  Like mail FROM me goes here, aliases that I don't have control over, or stuff I want only to search through later.
  • Use the Reading Pane which makes reading mail quick (how to).  It took me awhile to get used to it, and I still know people that turn it off, but try it, it's addicting.
  • Outlook Mail - Reading Pane OptionsTriage Fast!   To making triaging the Inbox's unread mail even faster, I set the reading pane (click the pic -->) to mark items as 'read' as soon as they're touched.  "Tools" menu, "Options...", "Other" tab, "Reading Pane..." button, first check box, "Wait 0 seconds"
  • Use Public Folders in Exchange/Outlook, instead of subscribing to aliases (discussion groups) or use RSS feeds if available.  That's what aliases / mail groups really are, information feeds to graze over.  I wish more mailing lists worked this way.
  • Find Related Messages to always reply to the latest thread.  Right-click an e-mail, "Find All", "Related Messages...".  It is a pain when threads split because someone replied to an earlier thread.
  • Turn off new mail notification (how to).  With e-mail consistently coming in, this just gets annoying and easily interrupts what your focusing on.  Plus it can be embarrassing when presenting.
  • Do spurts on e-mail, check it frequently, but only between projects.  Closing the e-mail client helps prevent distractions.  But quick easy access is needed, so I use WinKey to set a hotkey (Ctrl-Win-Z) to pop up Outlook real fast.

Ideally, the measure of the mail one has to deal with isn't measured in the number of incoming messages, but in the amount of mail you send.  Anyone can get bombarded with mail, the skill comes in improving the signal to noise ratio and balancing a narrow pipeline with mail management techniques to keep up with it all.  It's like anything else, if clutter is reducing productivity, eliminate it.

We all know plenty of people that just never seam to reply to our mail, or at least in a timely manor, what a pain!!  How do they survive?  Ever get that overwhelming feeling 'I've got SO MUCH MAIL to go through?!?' I HATE that feeling, used to get it all the time, so that's what this is all about.  Make it quick and easy to keep up with it all.


Update (1/3/08), New Tip: Collapsed Navigation Pane

Since originally posting these tips, I've discovered you can hide/collapse the Navigation Pane in Outlook 2008 (not previous versions) which saves screen real estate and makes for a more simple, clean view.  This is the only way I run Outlook now.  Lean & Mean

Outlook Mail - Collapsed Side Bar - Annotated


Update (5/20/08), Google Reader Pattern
Ever use Google Reader to read RSS feeds?  It hit me last week that I love the pattern there, you're presented with a long list of unread items, as you read them they're marked as read, and you can flag items to follow up with.  That's the same pattern this post is all about, but using it for e-mail.  So if you like Google Reader, you'll probably like this way of reading e-mail too.