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Time Management: Too Many Messages!

Project Management Essentials
Strategy

Time is a finite resource, and you can’t purchase more. Managing time properly, either for yourself or your project, can help you be more effective and help you accomplish your goals while working fewer hours. Many professionals make the mistake of working additional hours to accomplish more, but this approach often leads to diminishing returns and burnout. An occasional increase in hours often happens during critical phases of a project. But if you are living tied to your work laptop and/or phone, then you may have a time management issue. Throughout this blog series, each article will introduce one or more guiding principles related to time management. In addition, we will explore together some common systems and tools to help you effectively manage your work.

In the first post in this series, I introduced the first time management guiding principle, You Can’t Buy More Time. We also explored our first tool which focuses on getting your top three tasks done daily. Now, we’re going to turn our attention to getting your email under control. Why? Email can be a major distraction, and changing how email is managed can quickly improve productivity.

Like any tool, email is great for certain use cases. Email excels at distributing information, like a project status report, to a large audience. In addition, email is very useful when you are communicating with individuals, with whom you don’t already have an instant messaging solution, such as a vendor. Email should typically be treated as formal business communication, but this can vary based on the culture of a company. Remember that punctuation and tone matter. Finally, remember that having a voice or video call is often much more effective than continuing a long email thread. Chat is better than email but not as rich as voice or video.

Now, let’s take a look at how to best organize and manage your email. I’m a big fan of the book, Getting Things Done by David Allen. Most of what I’m going to share with you is derived from the GTD system. My recommendations assume you use Microsoft Outlook to manage your work email. However, many of the recommendations can also be implemented in web-based email, like Gmail.

Let’s talk about folders. You might be tempted to create folders to organize your email. You might even create a rule to automatically put email into that subfolder. Folders are usually bad and you generally spend more time searching for things than dealing with email. That said, everything should arrive in your inbox. The only exception is deleting unwanted messages before they enter your inbox. Only let items into your inbox that you really need to read. I’m looking at you IT notifications for projects/applications that I’m no longer involved with.

The content of an email can usually be grouped into four categories. Once you realize this, it is much easier to manage your email.

Category

Examples

Items that require action from you

Question about your status report

Request from project sponsor

Discussion about project issues you want to chime in about

New company policy you need to review

Items that contain useful information to reference in the future

Root cause of an issue

Design document

Long-term roadmap

Customer contract

Informational messages that are useful in the short term

Meeting is cancelled

Cupcakes in the break room

 

Requests you have sent to others and are awaiting action/response

Did the task complete on time?

How far along is the testing?

Are any of the cupcakes red velvet?

Ok, great. Four types of email content. Awesome. Now what?

Below is how I organize my folders. You can also use categories in common webmail platforms, like Gmail, to accomplish the same result.

  • Inbox
    • Needs Action
    • Reference
    • Waiting
  • Duplicates
    • Inbox Duplicates
    • Sent Duplicates

The first four should look familiar. What are duplicates? These folders contain a golden copy of everything you have sent and received. You shouldn’t delete anything in these folders. Here’s why it’s powerful: You can delete any email in your inbox without worrying about being able to retrieve that email at a later time.

To create your Duplicates archive, create two rules that copy all received messages into Inbox Duplicates and all sent messages to Sent Duplicates (see example screenshots below).You may need to purge old email from these folders to stay within your organization’s email quota and/or retention policy. Some organizations allow an Outlook PST file to be created on the local hard drive. If you can do this, then your storage is limited to your hard drive space.

Jonathan-Time-Management2.png

Jonathan-Time-Management2A.png

Caveat: These rules only run when your Outlook is open. If you delete an email from your mobile when Outlook is closed then you won’t have a copy.

Ok, we’ve got our folders created. Let’s talk about workflow. As I mentioned earlier, all new email (that isn’t deleted by a rule) should arrive in your inbox. Process your email oldest to newest from your inbox. The table below shows the actions to take from the inbox. The goal is to get the inbox to zero messages by the end of the workday. Work the items in your needs action daily and try not to cherry pick the easy items.

Trigger

Actions

New email item arrives

Read and delete it

Read, respond/take action, and delete it

Read and move it to “Needs Action” to be worked on later

Read and move it to “Reference” to be easily found later

 

Microsoft Outlook has a feature that allows emails to be categorized. I highly recommend using the category feature to organize items stored in Reference. I typically create categories for a project or parts of a project, e.g., development, testing. Once you have everything stored in Reference, you can sort the folder by sender, date, category, or even search by subject or within the body.

Below is an example of what my Reference folder typically looks like:

  • PROJECTA
  • PROJECTB
  • ORGCHANGE
  • PROCESS
  • SAFe

 Ok, you’re really excited to use this new system, but what about your old emails and folders? I recommend creating a new folder called “archive” and moving all your old emails and folders there. As you have time, you can clean out the archive folder. Or you can simply access the folder only as needed and the usefulness of the content will decline over time. Eventually you’ll be switched over to the new system.

 I’ve trained about 20 people on this system, and most implemented it with only minor modifications. Maybe you liked the idea of duplicates but not the folder structure. That’s OK. Pick what works for you. That said, hopefully you discovered at least one tip that will help you better manage your email and have more time to for important things – whether those cupcakes in the breakroom are red velvet.

Related Information

Read additional blog posts in this series:

About the Author

Jonathan Addair, PMP, is a volunteer with PMI Mile Hi Chapter and a practicing project manager.

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