The timeless solution for managing your inbox – Part 2 of 5

As David Allen, leading American productivity consultant and famous for his Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology says, the timeless solution for managing your ‘stuff’, regardless of whatever new technology is available, is having:

  • a process for capturing the things that need your attention

  • the mental rigour to clarify and decide what these things mean to you

  • a trusted system for organising the resulting to-do items

  • the personal discipline to take action

And this is so very relevant to way you handle email each day.

In Part 1 of this series, I wrote about a process for capturing the things that need our attention. I suggested that we should do this using electronic tools, rather than paper ones, and direct these things to a central location where we can process them (i.e. the inbox).

Now that we have captured and collected these things, along with many inputs that others have delivered to our inbox, we need a reliable and repeatable process to clarify the next action(s) needed for each item. And we need a consistent process that minimises the mental rigour required to do this each day.

This is an absolutely critical skill to master. With the volume of email and other inputs that each of us handle each day, we need a process that allows us to look at each new email or input only once, because

“your time is too valuable to ever look at an email more than once”.

You see, so many of us will read and re-read the same email 2 or 3 or 5 or 10 or more times before taking some sort of action on it. The problem with this, is that the first time we read an email, it opens a file in our mind and now we’re trying to keep track of it in the short-term memory part of the brain. This is where we hold all the unfinished, incomplete and undecided things that are happening in our life.

And the problem with this, is that this uses up a lot of RAM (random access memory) in our mind which then limits our capacity to focus and think clearly. As Allen says, “most people walk around with their RAM bursting at the seams – they’re constantly distracted and disturbed by their own internal mental overload”.

That’s why we need a reliable and repeatable process that will capture the results of our thinking in a system or tool that we can trust to bring it back to our attention at the appropriate time. Once we’ve done that, the mind can let it go, freeing up mental capacity and focus for higher-order thinking.

Now, here’s what I believe to be the best way to process new email and inputs in the inbox, using the proven 4D methodology that so many of the well-known time management and productivity experts have advocated in one form or another over the years. This allows us to get the inbox empty without necessarily having to do the required tasks right there and then. 

Given the volumes of email most of us get these days, I suggest a two-step approach. The first is to Triage or prioritise the inbox. This first step involves fast decision-making and relatively shallow thinking. The second step is to plan your workload for the 20% or so of emails that remain after your Triage. This second step is a separate, slower process that involves deeper thinking, decision-making and organising that will take longer to perform.

Step 1: Triage 

This involves a quick pass over each email, making one of 4 possible decisions;

  1. Delete

  2. Deal with it (if the next action will take 2 minute or less)

  3. Delegate to someone else

  4. Decide on the

  • Priority

  • Next action

  • Due date or when

The great news is that we can set up Outlook to capture the appropriate level of priority, the next action required for that email and the date when this next action needs to occur. We do this by setting up these 3 columns in the inbox and customising the view of the inbox to show email grouped in date order and sorted by priority.

Once the Triage step has been completed, you’ll see the remaining emails that need your further attention showing;

• in order of priority (so that you do ‘first things first’)

• the next action to be taken (so you don’t have to re-read and re-analyse the email) and 

• you’ll only see the emails that need your attention today (uncluttered by emails that don’t need your attention till tomorrow, next week, next month etc).

This process of identifying the priority, next action and due date for each email minimises the amount of mental energy needed to keep up with everything. It makes it so much easier to follow this new process with minimal double-handling and wasted effort. The end result of organising your inbox this way is saving enormous amounts of time, energy and effort, cutting through the overload and overwhelm like a hot knife through butter. It’s not actually the volume of emails you receive that causes overload – it’s reading the same email 3, 5, 8 or more times before taking action that is overwhelming.

The proof of this can be seen in the feedback I’ve received from recent participants, who have learnt this new process in some of my recent ‘Revolutionise Your Inbox’ workshops.

“I’m replying all so everyone can share in my excitement!!!! Didn’t check my emails anywhere near as often today and when I did, I added my next action, added my date and like magic the email disappeared until the date I’m ready to deal with – OMG I’m so excited!!!! I wasn’t distracted by notifications all day and I even moved things into my calendar. I’ve definitely still got a way to go but even after just one day I’m already feeling less overwhelmed – yay!!! Thank you soooooooo much.” 

Amanda Bultitude | Executive Assistant to the CEO | McDonalds Corporation

“I am now on day 3 and I have to say I can’t believe the incredible difference my learnings are making and the approach to my day. In particular the ‘triage’ system has allowed me to plan my day accordingly and I feel much!! more organised. Also, even a small thing of turning off the email alerts other than those I need to see immediately has made a huge difference. Steuart thank you so much!”

Deborah Wyborn | National McCopCo Coordinator

“I am loving this sooo much!!!! Have spent time sorting my emails, and putting actions for days later in the week and also have set aside time in my calendar to check emails each day, AND have been using the WORKING OFFLINE button!! Feeling very, very organised” ☺

Ashlan Smith | genU Karingal St Laurence

Now it’s important to note that this Triage process is not simply looking for the most urgent, most enjoyable or most interesting stuff to deal with first. David Allen calls this ‘emergency scanning’ and while that may be necessary at times (especially when you’re at a conference or ‘on the run’ between meetings), it is not the effective Triage processing method mentioned above. 

To Triage effectively, you must use some mental rigour or discipline to process each email one at a time, starting at the top and working your way through each message. As Allen says “as soon as you break that rule and start processing only what you feel like or in some random order, you’ll invariably start to leave things undone and your sub-conscious mind will start to get involved in trying to keep track of things”. 

Once you get into the pattern of using this 4D process, it will take less and less mental effort and emotional will-power and it will become more of a habit. This is a good thing. A habit, as defined by James Clear in his excellent book called ‘Atomic Habits’, is “a routine or behaviour that is performed regularly – and in many cases automatically” (i.e: with minimal mental rigour).

The next post in this series will explain the second step of this 4D process – planning and organising your workload for those emails and tasks you can’t complete straight away.

If you’re interested to learn more about how to get control of your email, revolutionise the inbox, reduce your stress and be more productive in the workplace, I’d welcome the opportunity to show you how to do this – for yourself, for your team or at your next conference. 

Get in touch via email, or better still give me a call. 

Click here to read The timeless solution for managing your inbox - Part I


Steuart Snooks