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Thu, May 1st 1:35pm 2008: Web Development

One of the most fundamental tools used in any form of e-business is email, but most of us don't really think about it - we just use it out of habit, not with any real plan. And as business becomes ever busier it's easy to become inundated with email and fall so far behind that it becomes useless and customers get frustrated with lack of responsiveness. In "How To Build A Website And Stay Sane" I talked about some of the macro aspects of email in e-business, such as establishing an acceptable response time, delegating responsibility for inquiry responses, and use of role addresses such as "" so responsibility can be re-delegated when staff are away. But I didn't talk about how to actually manage what ends up in your inbox - how to file it, archive it, and prioritise it. Over the years I've tried a few different approaches to managing email. I personally receive about 1000 emails per day so my message load is probably a little bit higher than most, and that means I have to work really hard to keep up with it or I risk getting to the point where I have to declare email bankruptcy and just delete my inbox and start again. This morning I had 473 messages waiting for me when I got to work - and that was just new messages since I checked it before I went to bed last night! So staying on top of email is one of the biggest burdens I have to face, and it's a problem faced by everyone heavily involved in e-business. For many years my preferred approach was to use a highly structured filing system that had many different folders each with multiple levels. For example, I had a "Clients" folder, then inside that I had one folder for each client. As time went on that became unwieldy and just opening the Clients folder presented me with a list of hundreds of clients, so I broke it down further into Current, Inactive, and Archive - but then I was frequently shuffling folders around, and I had to remember where things were stored. I also wrote a whole bunch of filing rules on the mail server so that whenever email came in it would be automatically directed into the correct folder without my email software having to do anything. But eventually it got to the point where it would take over half an hour each morning just to open my email software because it took so long working through the enormous list of folders, and I still ended up with over 50,000 unread emails in my inbox at one point. Not fun. My next tactic was to just give in to the inevitable and let the avalanche sweep over my inbox. I gave up on filing entirely, leaving everything in my inbox and relying on search to locate messages related to particular customers or friends. That's the basis on which Gmail works, and it's actually a pretty cool approach. It worked for me for a while but it also had problems. Search became really slow because I had something like 400,000 messages in my inbox and it was very hard to pick out messages that still needed action. So to improve search performance I created one archive folder for each year of email, and put all messages from 2006 into one folder, 2005 into another, etc. My inbox became all messages from my current year, with anything earlier being in a year-based archive. Basically it was the "full inbox" approach with trivial archiving. After a few months of that approach Arjen Lentz introduced me to the concept of "inbox zero", a technique developed by Merlin Mann from 37signals. Inbox zero is based on the "Getting Things Done" methodology made famous by David Allen and it's designed to leave you with an empty inbox at all times. The promise of email nirvana! I was sceptical at first but when you're drowning it doesn't matter what comes into reach - you'll grab at anything you can! So I thought I'd give it a try. What I've ended up with is a system that's a blend of my previous year-based archive with the "inbox zero" prioritisation technique applied as a triage mechanism on incoming messages. I still have archives per year, but rather than use the inbox for all messages from the current year I also created an archive for the current year, and the objective of the game is to get every single incoming message into the archive as fast as possible by applying some rules to them. And that's where the "getting things done" mindset comes into play. The first discipline is to never read an email twice while it's in your inbox. My natural tendency is to read an email, think "ok, I'll get back to that", and leave it there - but that's bad, because then you have to re-read it later to regain the context and actually do something about it. For every message that arrives in the inbox, you have to read it *once* and then classify it immediately. Do *not* think "I'll get back to that": classify it *now*, and don't take more than about 3 seconds thinking about each one. Which leads to the second discipline: classification. I use a slightly modified version of Mann's classifications. For every email that comes in I mentally throw it into one of 5 piles: Do, Delegate, Delete, Defer, Archive. It's become a bit of a mantra that runs through my head at all sorts of odd times! If it's something quick and all you need to do is dash off a reply, just Do it. Then file the email in the current archive. If it's something that can be passed on to a colleague, forward the email and then file it in a "Delegated" folder. If it's something that you really don't care about, like time-wasting "look at these funny pictures!" messages from that cousin you haven't seen in 6 years, delete it. If it's something that will take a bit more care and time to actually follow up on, file it in a "Defer" folder. If it's an email you want to keep for future reference but don't actually need to do anything about, file it in the "Archive" folder for the current year. After a few minutes working through your inbox you should have every single message either Done, Delegated, Deleted, Deferred, or Archived. And your inbox will be empty. A miracle has occurred! The third discipline is then to go through your Defer folder several times per day and action the items that will take some time and care. If you've been brutal enough with your classification process this will hopefully be a relatively short list. Once each item has been actioned, move it into the Archive folder. Once again your objective should be to achieve an empty Defer folder, but that's often not practical. I've heard of people using this technique who write a mail rule that takes anything which has been sitting in the Defer folder for more than 30 days and simply deletes it. After all, if you've deferred it for more than a month it's not likely you'll actually do anything about it, so why not just accept the inevitable? Personally I don't do that but I can understand why people do. The fourth discipline is to regularly go through your Delegated folder and check if there's anything you need to follow up. Often you'll delegate a task to a colleague and never hear the outcome, so the messages in the Delegated folder can act as a prompt that you need to check the status of that task and then move it into Archive once it's done. Once again your objective is to have an empty Delegated folder: a sign that all the tasks you are delegating to other people are being completed quickly. So there you have it: my technique for drinking from a fire-hose without being washed away. Everything comes into the Inbox, then is redirected into one of several folders, and eventually filters through to the archive for long term storage. Conceptually simple, but the trick is applying the discipline needed to make it work! There's a very cool video online of Merlin Mann doing a Google Tech Talk about inbox zero. It's well worth a look if you're anything like me and wish you didn't have to spend so much time dealing with email.

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