Productivity Three Part 1: Email

Email, instant messaging, RSS. Who has time for it all? You do. The better question is: who has time to keep up with email, instant messaging and RSS while maintaining a productive work life? In this three part series, I’ll be sharing the basic techniques I use to improve my efficiency and productivity with these three mediums. While the techniques I discuss work well for me, I can’t guarantee that they’ll work just as well for you. But I hope that some readers find them useful and integrate them into their own workflow. As with all of my articles, I welcome your feedback and look forward to reading about the techniques you use to manage your email, instant messaging and RSS.

Part 1: Email

I received some positive feedback from readers who started using email organization with one folder. (For those new to this system, it allows you to organize and process your email with only one additional folder.) However, one issue that has come up more than once is how to quickly find archived messages when they’re all mixed together in the same folder. Unfortunately, there’s no silver bullet that will instantly make all your archived messages findable, but you can make newly archived messages easier to find using tags.

Other common email issues I’ve observed regardless of the workflow and organization system used are the frequency that one checks their email and the notorious email notification.

Several people have complained to me about how email is too much of a distraction. The first question I always ask is how often does their software check for new messages? This answer is typically 15 minutes or less, and sometimes every five minutes. The second question I ask is how do they know when they have new messages? The answer to this question is usually “I get a desktop alert” or “It makes a sound”. In each of these questions, the answer doesn’t have anything to do with email itself, but how much attention you choose to give it or how much attention you allow it to steal. In each case, you can choose to control your attention or you can give it up to email.

Taking my original system into consideration, along with the new goals of improved findability and reduced distractions, here is my current three point system for improving email productivity.

  1. Organize. Follow the system outlined in email organization with one folder to process and organize incoming messages.
  2. Tag. Tag new and archived messages for easier findability.
  3. Stay in flow. Don’t check for new messages more than once an hour and turn off all notifications which actively distract you from your flow.

Step 2 can be done several ways depending on your email client. For Apple Mail, I recommend the excellent Mail Tags. It’s still in beta, but it’s very stable and regularly updated. Microsoft Outlook users don’t have any options that work quite as well as Mail Tags, but there are a few. The first is the somewhat clunky Taglocity. The second is the better designed, but currently in closed beta SideFinder. Finally, if you prefer the low tech solution, you can always ‘tag’ messages by changing the subject line.

This series continues with Productivity Three Part 2: Instant Messaging.

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