David Allen believes he mastered the art of Getting Things Done. In his book, he puts forward some valuable tips. One in particular is how to handle email. Before I outline his email process, however, I will explain his philosophy regarding stress free productivity. As I applied several of his techniques, my own stress decreased, and that is a great feeling.
Allen explains that when we juggle multiple projects, jobs, personal responsibilities, and household chores we can become overwhelmed by “loose ends.” He defines a loose end as the next actionable task for a given project/effort that is left undefined. He encourages his clients to think of every one of their responsibilities in terms of the next actionable task. These tasks then should be tracked and completed.
Instead of focusing on the next actionable task, many of us tend to think of a project overall. For example, let’s pretend I was in a car accident and my car needs repair. So what do I need to do? Answer: fix the car! This is the trap, we immediately think of the whole shebang. Let’s be realistic, I’m not fixing anything. So let’s ask this question again; what do a I need to do? Thinking in terms of actionable tasks, I now answer that I need to 1) call the insurance company, 2) request a repair quote from a mechanic, 3) schedule repairs, 4) process insurance forms, 5) deliver my car to the mechanic and, in the end, 6)collect my now running car.
Allen suggests that you keep a daily log of tasks you must follow up on. This log should consist only of your next actionable task for each project or effort. As an item is crossed off the list, you think of the next step, add it to your list, and complete it when time permits. So while I know that I have 6 steps to fix my car, I only ever keep the current one on my list. In this way, we are not overwhelmed by an extensive list that, depending on your goal, may seem insurmountable.
By always staying aware of the next actionable task, you tie up your loose ends. You stay aware of what you need to do at the present and you retain control over your workload.
Personally, my greatest source of loose ends is my email. I get anywhere from 100-300 emails per day. When I’m careless, it can quickly snowball to over 1000 emails sitting in my inbox. Allen explains that throughout his career, he’s found email to be a major source of stress for most of his clients. Because of this, he developed a process specifically for email.
I have lived this process, stopped using it and gone back to it at least three times. I experience a huge relief in stress when I keep with this approach and I am working toward consistency because it really helps me feel in charge.
2 Minute Rule for Email
Allen organized an email workflow that is hinged off of a two minute rule. Essentially every email you receive should be processed within two minutes. To process the email, you will do one of the four actions listed below.
Do it – Does it require a reply or action that can be completed in 2 minutes? If yes, do it! If not consider one of the 3 actions below.
Trash it – Does this email ask you to take action or offer you information that must be retained? If no, delete it. If yes, consider one for the 2 actions below.
Delegate it – Are you the best person to answer the questions or do the work in the email? If no, pass it on to the person most qualified to handle it and file the email into the Waiting for Somebody Else folder so you know to verify it’s completion at a later time.
Sort it – When you receive an email that shouldn’t get trashed and that requires action from you that cannot be completed within 2 minutes, it should get sorted into Action Required or Waiting for Somebody Else. If you consider it to be informative only, sort it as Reference material.
- Action Required – Create a folder called Action Required and this becomes your mailbox to do list. When you have time available you should work the items in this folder in a first in, first out method or sorting by importance or deadlines.
- Waiting for Somebody Else – Use this folder to hold items you’ve delegated or any items you need to work but cannot complete because it has a prerequisite that somebody else must work first.
- Reference – If the email contains information you wish to retain, place it in a folder that is designated for the topic being discussed in the email. This way you can more easily locate when the information is needed.
By sticking to these guidelines, you can keep your inbox low. It may be worthwhile to place reminders on your calendar to check your Action Required and Waiting for Somebody Else folders until it become a part of your daily habit.
For the really important items, that I cannot work immediately, I like to add to a hand written to-do list. This helps me remember that I need to follow up on the item since my calendar can get double or triple booked at times. Also, as I’ve mentioned before, I love crossing things off my lists!