Dec 21, 2011
As you know, in my Outlook Book, I give very specific advice on how to process and empty your Outlook Inbox. That advice includes converting all action e-mails to tasks, filing mail in one folder, and using the Outlook flag tool only for deferred replies that you intend to get to by day’s end. The goal of all this is to empty the Outlook Inbox quickly and to manage any tasks in there responsibly. I have a nice step-by-step process for this that I show in the book (it’s summarized in Appendix C), and for simplicity I keep those steps short.
But it occurs to me that as I follow my own recommendations I hit a lot of gray areas, and so the process I use in my real life goes beyond the simple instructions in the book. To be fair then, I thought I should write down my real-life Outlook Inbox process that extends the steps in the book—doing that may help someone with their own special cases.
So that’s what I have done below—I’ve provided a write up of how I process my mail. Of course, doing this means I have to get into some detail to describe the many subtleties I encounter, and doing that will make this write up a bit long. Also, some of this may seem overly obvious. But so be it! That is the price of being helpful. So I hope this rambling helps you with your Inbox processing.
My Outlook Inbox Process
I have a lot of decisions to make as I scan through my Inbox.
First, if an e-mail is obviously spam or unneeded mail, I delete it immediately. I usually make a quick 2- minute pass through my entire new days’ worth of mail deleting mail based on titles alone. That way I can quickly get my Inbox trimmed down and into a less overwhelming state.
Next, I start at the top of the Inbox again and march down looking at each e-mail one at a time by quickly reading the mail or scanning the titles. After quickly reading an e-mail, if it’s obvious I don’t need to refer to it again later, then I delete it right after reading it. Conversely, if there is some chance I may need to refer to it again later, I don’t delete it—rather I drag it into the Processed Mail folder immediately. I don’t agonize over whether to save an item or not; if there is any doubt then I save it quickly and move on; I save a lot of mail by the way.
In the old days when I applied categories to mail a lot, I would leave such mail in the Inbox and then categorize it in groups at the end of the day, and only then drag it all to the Processed Mail folder. These days, however, I use Instant Search much more, and only categorize a few items. Therefore group categorization is not so useful and I instead apply categories as I see the mail, and immediately drag them to the Processed Mail folder. In general, nothing sits in my Inbox after I’ve made a decision on it. That’s the purpose of an Inbox—to receive new mail and make decisions about it; not to store things. Store all mail in the Processed Mail folder.
The next types of mail are those e-mails that have some action for me to take; there are a lot of subtleties here.
If I can take the action quickly—say in a minute or less—then I do the action immediately. Normally that means a quick reply; but it might be a very quick phone call or a quick trip to a website. Once the action is done I toss or file the mail immediately.
If the action cannot be done quickly then I decide whether the action is a longer reply or if it’s something more. If it’s just a long reply, then I flag the e-mail with the Outlook flag tool and I leave it in the Inbox. I commit to making a reply quickly—within a day or so. Later, after making that reply, I remove the flag and move the item to the Processed Mail folder (or I delete it).
If the action clearly is more than just a long reply at end of day—say it may require a bit of effort or research or some time on my part to consider or complete—then I convert the e-mail to a true task; in the title of that task I enter a good clear action phrase and I set an appropriate priority and start date; and then I immediately file the e-mail into the Processed Mail folder.
Now, here is a gray area. Let’s say I get an e-mail and I’m not sure whether it needs a longer reply or rather may need more thought and potentially more action (or maybe I can even just dismiss it). In cases like that where I am not sure, I usually want to let it sit a bit; it’s amazing how a couple hours of time will often work the question out in my background mind, or through the course of events. In those cases I do this: I flag the e-mail as if it were a deferred reply. Then, when I come back to the e-mail at the end of the day or early next, as I reread it to decide on the reply, if it truly requires action more extensive than just a reply, and I cannot do it now, I convert it to a true task then. Then I remove the flag and file the e-mail away.
Another gray area is this. What do I do about e-mails that are rather long and I don’t have time to fully read them now (and so I don’t know yet if they need action)? The answer is “it depends.” If I think there will be some action required, (I just am not sure yet), then I mark it with a flag. I just make sure I re-read the mail item later that day or early next and fully convert it then when I know (and then I remove the flag and file it). Again, all flagged items must be visited within a day or so (and the flags removed at that time). But if I know the e-mail is just informational (definitely no action other than reading it), then it gets tougher. I definitely don’t flag it… that’s just for potential reply or short-term action mail. What to do really depends on how interested I am in the topic of the e-mail. If it’s something I really intend to read today, then I leave it in an unread status and leave it in the Inbox till the end of the day and read it just before I empty the Inbox. But if it’s not worth reading today, then I might mark it with an appropriate category (Articles is the category I often use, but maybe you could create a category called “For later review”) and in all cases I file it in the Processed Mail folder for later reading when appropriate. Perhaps on a slow day you will group on that category and go through that mail. But more likely you will only revisit this mail during a specific search for it, which is fine. Or I just admit my lack of future time and delete it immediately; some things we know we will never get to, so we might as well cut and run now.
More about Flags
BTW, I know above I have broken my rule about using flags only for deferred replies—I show using them for marking some short-term actions as well. My rule of thumb is this: only flag items that you can commit to attending to within a day or two at most. If you suspect you’re going to wait longer than a day or two, then convert the e-mail to a true task; don’t try to use a flag. Why this distinction? You do not want to let flagged mail (or any mail) sit long in your inbox because after a few days you will forget what the email title means and then you’ll have to reread those items to determine why you kept them in the Inbox, and re-reading mail is a big waste of time. And your Inbox gets cluttered with too much old mail. So just get them out of there. Leave the Inbox clear for processing new mail—that’s the role of the Inbox.
More on this. Longer term tasks need management tools, and the flag tool does not provide them. You need an easily set priority, a start date, and especially a rewritten subject line that you can scan quickly. With those set you can then manage tasks in bulk in the task system, using the MYN principles. You cannot set those easily in flagged mail. (There actually are ways, but they’re harder and so you won’t use them; and flagged tasks have other disadvantages. So always favor true tasks).
At the end of the day I try to file away all the rest of my mail and I only leave behind flagged mail I cannot yet process. But if a flagged mail item gets more than 2 or 3 days old, then I bite the bullet and convert it to a true task no matter what. To make that possible, I sometimes use creative task names like “Make decision on this email about…” or “consider more fully this email about…” or some such thing. Just find a way to get it converted to a task (with a clear next action in the title) and get it out of the Inbox.
By the way, never leave a flag on an item that you move to the Processed Mail folder; they serve no purpose there and then they clog up your To-Do Bar task list. Remove all flags before you move the mail.
So that’s it! That’s my real life story of how I process mail in my Outlook Inbox. I hope the extra details I show here, and my coverage of special cases, helps you in your e-mail processing. Let me know if you have any cases that don’t seem to meet the above, and I’ll tell you what I would do.