Monday, 30 March 2015

Sort Out Your Email Mess

I spent some time with a senior executive of a law firm last week, working on management skills. This included some basic time management techniques. Like many of us, his email was totally out of control - he had almost a thousand emails in his inbox and load of different folders, apparently created at random. Now this is not unusual and certainly not extreme - the biggest inbox I'd had to try to help with had over 47,000 messages in it...

We spoke about what he wanted to achieve with his email - which was very simple. He wanted to feel in control and not to worry about what was in the email 'black hole'.

There are a number of tools and techniques for managing email - and I'll go through what I think is the simplest later in this article - but most of these tell you how to avoid the problem in the future rather than how to deal with the mess in the first place.

So - how do you sort out an email inbox with 1,000 messages in it. The first thing is to manage expectations. It's going to be a pain. No-one can do it for you - you have to simply dedicate some time out-of-hours or off-line to the task. My client and I left his office and went to the IoD to have some peace and quiet.

Having managed expectations, the next thing that is needed is a plan. If you have been keeping lots of emails, I doubt that you will be very keen on the delete key and so - at this stage - lets aim to file as much as we can. Our plan there was to:

  • Examine every email;
  • File everything that can be filed:
    • That includes almost everything that I would delete;
    • Messages that have been dealt with;
    • Message not dealt with, but now quite old;
    • Message that don't really concern you (reply-all strings for example);
  • Move urgent messages into a To-Do system.

The operation of this plan rather depends on your hardware/software/platforms. My client was quite typical of many Partners - he had a MacBook using MacMail connected into his corporate Exchange email server. That made it a little easier for me, since I use Mac email - and that means getting hold of a couple of plug-ins or extension (and I should stress that I don't work for any of the companies I recommend here, and I haven't received any money or gifts from them. I just think they are very good!). 

The first is MailHub. It's a simple way of filing emails into folders. Once loaded, it remembers where you file emails and makes suggestions. It will automatically file emails you send - taking both the sent item and the initiating email from their respective folders into the destination, so keeping the whole conversation together. At $19 for a single licence (and, of course, much less for site licences if you can persuade your whole firm that it's a good investment) it is a cheap and simple way of speeding up the process of taking things out of your inbox.

The second is EverMail. This is an incredibly simple way of getting emails into Evernote. Evernote is a thing of wonder and beauty that I have been using since version 1 point something. An annual Premium licence is $4 per month or $8 for the business version that allows sharing etc. It has a great filing system, but much more importantly it's search system is second to none. It automatically builds a fast index of your notes - whether emails, clips of web pages, pictures, text or audio. It automatically recognises text in pictures and handwritten notes. You can tag notes with a reminder and so can use it as a (admittedly slightly basic) reminders/To-Do system. 

By sending your email into Evernote you can find it again easily, can set reminders for action later, cat set multiple Tags against each message for even easier Search, and have easy access to everything on almost any platform since Evernote works on IOS, OSX, Windows, Android and on the Web.

The Rule of Ds
Once you have spent the time necessary to catch up, you need to make sure that your email doesn't again get into a mess. The best system I've come across is the rule of Ds.

  • Do
    • If you possibly can - deal with an incoming email as soon as possible. The rule of thumb is if you can deal with it in 2 minutes or less, then do it now and get rid of the email;
  • Delete
    • You may be surprised how few emails you actually need to deal with. Don't keep that Newsletter from a rival firm that you never read - delete it now. 
  • Delegate
    • If you can possibly give it to someone else, then do so. But if you do, don't keep the email in your inbox. Set a reminder if you need to and get rid of it. Trust your staff & colleagues!
  • Defer
    • If you really need to - but it's better to Do or Delete. If you really need to put off dealing with an email, then set a reminder and scoop the email into a folder called "To Do" or something similar

I've been accused (rightly) of being too Mac focussed. For those (many) of you condemned to the corporate Outlook?Exchange systems, then have a look at NeoPro.  I used this the last time I was chained to Exchange and it saved me a lot of time. Again it has a great search system and automatically files & tags emails when it can.

One point to note. You will need to speak with your Data Protection Officer to ensure that he or she is content with this system and that it complies with your firm's various policies and registrations.

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