“Does this message require action by you?”
“Do you need to keep this message?”
“Have you responded to this message?”
These were just several questions I asked my client as we worked together to wade through her unread, email messages. 17,000 unread, email messages.
In almost every case, she stopped, reread each message, and sat to think for a minute about an answer to my respective question. All of these emails loitering in my client’s uncontrolled, overflowing inbox were clutter. And, when it really comes down to it, what is clutter? Clutter is nothing more than postponed decisions.
In writing my book, Work Simply, I realized that the key to eliminating inbox clutter and reducing the hours you spend processing your inbox lies in making faster decisions.
The best way to do this is by using my Email Agility Circle. The goal is to become more agile – able to move quickly and easily – in managing your inbox. The Email Agility Circle is a four-step process—read, decide, act, contain—that will help you get into and out of your inbox as quickly as possible and make faster decisions without undermining your accuracy.
Read Your Email Messages Once
The first step in the Email Agility Circle is to read. Obvious? Maybe. The fact is though that you are probably reading your emails – and then rereading them over and over. You’re doing that because we’ve gotten ourselves into the habit of opening our email when we cannot truly read them and absorb the information they contain. For example, do you read your email while engaging in conversation, during the last few moments before a meeting, when standing in line for coffee, or while you have one foot out the office door? The result: we only retain a fraction of the contents. Which means we must reread them. Which means we’re wasting precious time.
This problem sounds trivial, but let’s assume you receive 100 messages per day, and that it takes you approximately one minute to read each one. That means you invested one hour and 40 minutes reading your messages once. But, if you were unable to read and understand them fully the first time, and, therefore, you need to go back and reread them, the time you’ve now invested amounts to three hours 20 minutes.
Get into the habit of opening your email only when you have the time and energy to read and absorb the contents.
Decide – What is this email message? Does it require action?
The second step in the Email Agility Circle is decide. Remember: clutter is postponed decisions. This is the step in the process where you are actively preventing clutter from building by making a decision about the email message. Ask yourself, “What is this email message? Does it require action?” This is a quick and very simple step, but very powerful. Do not underestimate the power of making a decision. Remember, every decision you postpone, the more time you have to spend processing your email.
Act On Your Email Messages
The third step in the Email Agility Circle is act. Does the email message require some concrete action by you—for example, to answer a question, send a piece of information to someone else, add a date to your calendar, or recommend a solution to a simple problem? If so, you have three choices.
- Follow Nike, and “just do it.” Take this choice if you can complete the requested task or answer the question in three to five minutes or less.
- Delegate the email to someone else. This requires a decision as to whether or not you are the right person to address the issue raised in the message. If you’re not the right person, delegate it, and do so immediately. You can either forward the email to the right person (after adding a few words explaining what you’re doing) or write a brief response to the original correspondent recommending the appropriate contact and copying the contact on the message.
- Convert the email into a task. This simply means reading the message, deciding on your next action step, and converting it into a task. It’s as easy as changing the subject line of the email to your next action step, converting it into a task using the task function in your email program, or creating one or more appointments directly from the email – whatever works best for you and your productivity style.
Now, what if an email message doesn’t require action by you? In that case, you have two choices: File it or delete it.
How do you decide which to do? Before filing an email message, ask yourself: when would I need to retrieve this information? Do I need it for legal, compliance, or regulatory reasons? Are there specific details about an ongoing project that are available in this email and nowhere else? If not, delete it.
Contain your email messages.
Finally, the fourth step in the Email Agility Circle is to contain your email messages. This is not so much a separate step as a summary of the entire circle. The word contain should remind you that your inbox is not an optimal storage container for all of the thousands of messages you receive. Contain those messages by moving them to one of the following locations: your file folders, the trashcan, your calendar, or your task list.
Now, implement the Email Agility Circle, keep your inbox clutter free, and reclaim your time. You have great things to do with your life – none of which involve sitting in front of your email.
What can you do now?
- Decide not to “read” your email messages while waiting in line for coffee, at stop lights or while walking down the street today. Chose to read your email messages when you can focus enough to make a decision.
- Change the subject line of your email messages to reflect your next action step.
- Before filing one more email message, ask yourself, when would I need to retrieve this information? Do I need it for legal, compliance, or regulatory reasons? Are there specific details about an ongoing project that are available in this email and nowhere else?
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Carson serves as a consultant to executives at Fortune 500 companies. The author of Work Simply: Embracing the Power of Your Personal Productivity Style, her views have been included in Bloomberg Businessweek, Fast Company, Forbes, Harvard Business Review blog, and The New York Times.