I said I’d provide a wee bit more info on my approach to e-mail triage. It’s not rocket science, but then rocket science won’t help you to manage your e-mail.
Since I now operate with a (virtually) zero inbox approach, I only use this technique when I’ve been away for a few days. In days of yore (well, a few months ago) I would have tackled my entire backlog using the triage approach. Nowadays I find that it works best as step 5 of the backlog routine that I described yesterday.
In essence, I use Stephen Covey’s Urgent/Important matrix to prioritise the residue – after a deleting spree. I transfer the e-mails into one of four folders (this is the triage bit), which I then tackle in the following order:
Urgent and Important – these come first for obvious reasons. If a task will take a fair amount of time, I allocate a slot in my diary for it. Otherwise, I try to blitz through these on the first or second day after returning to work.
Urgent – these are usually less time consuming tasks, typically someone wanting a comment or some input on a task, but with a time constraint. On rare occasions, I may reply that I will not be dealing with it at all, if my input hasn’t been negotiated in advance and/or the request is unreasonable. I’ll work through the tasks in this folder over the first couple of days, treating them as fillers between other activities. This generates a degree of satisfaction as the backlog slowly dwindles.
Trivia – these are things that are neither urgent or important (examples include things to read, items for info only etc). These are the things that could become irritants, and if that’s the case just delete them. I will either nibble away at these after the Urgent folder has been emptied or I’ll blitz them on day 3 or 4 to get them out of the way.
Important – these are likely to be related to projects that I am actively engaged in. They come last in this case, because I now tend to plan my project work in advance – by allocating slots in my diary. When all (or, at least, most) of the other stuff has been dealt with, it becomes a lot easier to ‘see what’s really there’, then to set time aside to deal with each e-mail in a sensible order.
That’s how I approach e-mail backlogs. Do you have any alternative approaches that you’d care to share?