My personal email and task management strategy

Or, more simply, how I manage my day.

There’s a lot of information out there about email and task management strategies, but many (if not most) of this info is pretty general and focused on high-level strategies and techniques.  I’m going to get much more specific and simply describe how on a daily basis I manage all of my incoming email and associated tasks that get generated.  On a typical day I receive between 100-200 emails.   I usually have 30-50 emails in my inbox when I start the day.  Probably 50 or so of my emails throughout the day are important and require some sort of response/action.  I use a set of techniques that draw from GTD, Total Workday Control, functionality provided by ClearContext IMS, techniques from tons of blogger posts, and tips I’ve come up with over the years to keep my day under control.  With that said, on to the routine:

1. Check the calendar.  This sort of structures the day in my head.  I use a calendar view from Michael Linenberger’s TWC that also displays my current and overdue tasks.  So, at a glance, I have a quick idea of what my day is going to be like.  Sounds silly and simple, but I find this to be a helpful thing to do first thing.

2. I have a handful of newsletters that I review every day (VentureWire, Ferris Research news, a few other daily/weekly ones).  ClearContext AutoAssign rules tags them with a topic name.  I take a quick glance at them and then hit either File (and ClearContext automatically files them to the appropriate folder) or Delete.  I generally spend less than 5 minutes total on this step.

3. I then have a variety of sales reports, sales activity, and support threads that I’m copied on.  All of these are automatically tagged with topics as well.   These are generally just for review and don’t require any action by me.  I take a quick scan of these and see if there’s anything I want to actually jump into, then hit File Topic to file all of them into the appropriate folders.  This takes about 5-15 minutes depending on the nature of the emails that day.

4. Next I review all the stuff at the bottom of new email that ClearContext has colored black or grey.  Most spam is already filtered out, this stuff generally consists of a couple of spam messages that snuck in plus random crap from companies like Dell, United, AA, etc.  It takes all of about 1 minute to take a quick scan of all this stuff and hit delete.

5. I next look at the remaining emails and spend 10-15 minutes responding to everything I know I will be able to provide a quick response to.  90+% of the time I know from the sender/subject which emails will be like this and which ones will require more time.

6. Now I move into what I really like about the GTD system.  I hit the ClearContext Task button and create tasks for all emails that require some real action besides a simple response.  Also I can hit the ClearContext Schedule button to create appointments.  The benefit of ClearContext IMS here is that these tasks/appointments are automatically linked to the email threads, so when I get around to doing these things, I can look at the ClearContext RelatedView to see all related messages and tasks/appointments.  The GTD technique of creating tasks and moving these emails out of the inbox definitely helps me stay more organized and have an accurate idea of what my workload is really like.

7. I typically next have one or two lengthy responses that I need to get to.  By going through the prior steps, I manage to very quickly get through a lot of small tasks rather than get caught up in any longer tasks at the start of my day, which can lead to a lot of things getting backed up.

8. After going through these steps, I’m generally left with only a couple of new unhandled emails in my inbox that I’ll need to do something with later in the day.

9. Throughout the day, on about an hourly basis (ok, every 20-30 minutes), I check my email.  I have Outlook set up so I need to hit send/receive to get new email.  By doing that, when I’m involved in a very focused task, I get to concentrate on that without my email indicator popping up and tempting me to get distracted.  When I do check email, I only pay attention to the email that ClearContext has prioritized as "Normal" or higher and ignore all lower priority email until later.  This week’s TicketWeb and Independent concert lists can probably wait until later.

10. Every few hours I’ll take a quick scan of all my email including the lower priority stuff and file/delete/process as appropriate.

11. At the end of the day, I review all pending tasks and either complete them or reprioritize them. I try to stay pretty on top of this and try to be realistic about when I’m really going to have time to address something.

12. The next end of day task I do is look at how many messages are in my inbox.  If my inbox has grown from the day before, I make myself handle a few more emails before calling it a day.  RIght now this means that my Inbox stays between 20-25 emails.  Hopefully I’ll get that to zero soon.

13. Finally, once (ok, three times) in the evening/night I check my email and respond to some late emails, sort of a head start on the next day’s processing.

I’ve been using this specific process for a number of months now, and for one of the first times in a long time I feel like I’m really on top of what I need to get done, am very responsive to others, and don’t feel constantly behind or overwhelmed.  Hopefully some of these techniques will be helpful for your specific day-to-day email and task management needs, and perhaps some of you will share some of your own personal strategies.

4 Responses to “My personal email and task management strategy”

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  4. Thanks for the tips. I’ve been experimenting with using search folders in Outlook to keep up with my Inbox.
    I really like the idea of looking at my calendar before I even start tackling my email. It sounds so simple, yet I’m not doing it–at least not religiously.
    Thanks again.