Email presents a special challenge for your task system. In most jobs, “checking email” should not be a top priority in itself. However, you will continually receive tasks, including urgent ones, via email. Unread emails can haunt you, but over-investing in your email will derail your entire system.
Find the middle ground by seeing your email for what it is: a communications medium. Email is not a task management system and should not be used as one. Email is the virtual analog of your physical inbox. Your physical inbox should not have 12,000 items waiting for action and neither should your email inbox.
For your task system to work properly, you must “mine the gold” from your email, converting relevant action items into tasks and filing or discarding the rest. Starting today, process each new email instead of just reading it.
• If an email requires no further action, get it out of your sight. Delete it, archive it, or move it into a subfolder. If you’re not sure whether an email requires action, immediately reply and politely ask. Make sure you know what requires action and by what deadline.
• Immediately respond if and only if you can do so in two minutes or less. Two minutes is deceptively short, so set a timer and time yourself for a couple weeks to practice.
• Process all other emails into your task management system using the steps above.
• Once you have prioritized your emails against your other tasks, send a brief reply to each sender acknowledging receipt and stating the date by which you will respond more fully.
Your computer and phone probably alert you to every new email using pop-up messages, buzzes, and sounds. Turn these features off. Consider turning your email off altogether while completing a task. Definitely process your email several times a day so you can deal with truly urgent items, but do not let the number of emails you receive dictate the flow of your day.
Invest the time to get and keep your systems in order. Spend a few hours one weekend to get yourself organized if necessary. Build a few hours of cushion onto the end of business trips and vacations to process your email backlog and prioritize your tasks. Your investment in effective task management will pay dividends.
Want to learn more? I recommend you check out the resources at Inbox Zero.