Ready, set, email

Starting your day on the right foot is key to success. But how you handle your email could be slowing you down from the get-go, says Steuart Snooks.

Most of the time your day as an EA gets off track by the way it begins.

As Colin Boyd, an authority on influence, persuasion and productivity says, imagine your day like a 100-metre sprint. If you don’t get out of the starting block well or trip at the first hurdle, it’s very difficult to achieve your best time or win the race. It’s the same with the way you start your workday. If you don’t start well or get distracted by the wrong thing, you’re very unlikely to end up having a good day.

That’s why the first 10 to 20 minutes of your day is critical. This is when you set your day’s direction and likely outcome. And that’s why checking email ‘first thing’ is less than ideal. Sure, it is important but not the most important thing. While doing this isn’t bad in itself, it subtly sets you up for an ineffective day.

Getting out the starting blocks well

It’s very tempting to check email first thing in the morning.  You’ve probably been doing that for some time now. How’s that going for you, in terms of helping set you up for a productive and successful day?

Not so great, from what other EAs have been telling me. That’s why I recommend you set up your email software to open in the calendar view rather than the inbox. It allows you to be aware of the big picture perspective of the tasks, activities, meetings and objectives you already have a commitment to before you check what’s new in the inbox.

When you see the calendar first thing in the morning, you’re viewing your own (and possibly your bosses) agenda and priorities for the day. Many of the commitments in the calendar are the result of email received yesterday or two days or two weeks ago. These are the important, higher priority tasks, activities and commitments that you already have and, seeing them first up, programs your thinking at a subliminal level. You are much more likely to head in the right direction if you’ve viewed the roadmap first.

By comparison, when you view the inbox first thing in the morning, you’re looking at everybody else’s agenda and priorities. As I heard someone say recently, ‘the inbox is your to-do list, but everyone else writes on it’. You will, of course, feel obliged to attend to these new items promptly as they have now become part of your agenda and priorities. I suggest that you will do better thinking and make better decisions about these new inputs after you’ve viewed the bigger picture context of the workload you already have.

Unfortunately, what so many well-intentioned EAs do is go straight to the bright, shiny, new, exciting things in the inbox, at the expense of first viewing the things they are already committed to and then wonder why they are struggling to keep up. If you don’t already have your calendar set as the default when opening Outlook or Gmail, why not try it for the next week (or three) and see what difference it makes to the results you achieve each day?

Overcoming the first hurdle

So now you’ve started the day well and you’re off and racing. The next thing is to make sure you don’t trip up at the first hurdle i.e. your first check of the inbox. It may be that you’ll need to change the way you approach this hurdle.

Recent research by the Kingston Business School backs up what I have been advocating for years—that we should not ‘check’ email; we should ‘process’ it. The terminology, while subtly different underlies a very different attitude and approach to the task.

Just as an athlete has to prepare their stride and make sure they are well balanced as they approach the first hurdle, we need to set ourselves up as well as possible to get over this first visit to the inbox.

By this stage, the calendar is open and most people then left-click the email icon (in Outlook). What this does is then replace the calendar with the mailbox view. The problem with this is that it then takes a lot of willpower and emotional energy to get out of the inbox and back to the calendar (often quite a long time later). It’s all too easy to just leave the inbox view sitting on your screen all day long.

For Outlook users, I recommend you right-click the email icon instead and click on the option to ‘Open email in a separate window’. Most EAs work with two screens, so you can drag the inbox view to the second screen so that you’ve got calendar on one and email on the other. This is very helpful because many times when you need to make a decision about an email, you’ll need to check the calendar.

The next (and key) skill in managing email is to look at each email only once and make some sort of a decision about it before moving on to the next one. Your time is simply too valuable to ever look at a single email more than once. The aim of this first time processing the inbox is to quickly ‘triage’ all the email that has come in overnight or early morning.

This is where the powerful and proven 4D process is so effective. Each time you look at an email you simply make one of four possible decisions—Delete, Delegate, Deal with it immediately or Decide. The delete and delegate options are fairly obvious. The key with the ‘Deal’ option is that if the next action can be taken in two minutes or less, it’s quicker to do it immediately the first time you look at the email than the time it takes to store it, keep track of it, retrieve it, read it again, think about it, make a decision and then take action. This does not necessarily mean that the email is finished, but at least you’ve taken the next step and haven’t wasted your first read of it. In many cases, by taking this first action you can actually complete multiple actions all within two minutes and move the email a lot further along than you might have initially thought.

Handle each email only once using the Triage process

But the most important aspect of this triage pass of the inbox is to decide on the priority, next action and due date for those emails you can’t process immediately. Rather than skip past these emails leaving them in the inbox (often going back to mark them as unread), and hoping to get back to them at some unknown time later,  I recommend storing the results of their thinking and decision-making so that what they need to know is stored where they need it until when they need it.

This makes a profound difference to the way email workload is managed and takes an enormous strain off having to try and use your memory to keep track of everything that needs to be done.

Once the 4D process has been applied to each new email, there will be approximately 20 percent that has not already been deleted, dealt with or delegated. Those remaining emails are now retained in the inbox in order of priority, with the next action clearly identified and in order of the date you expect to work on them. This system supersedes the use for flags or reminders (or memory) to help you keep track of your email workload.

The same 4D triage process should be used each time you visit the inbox during the day. Just like a good hurdling technique, this process allows you to get over the hurdle quickly without losing the mental energy or focus used when trying to keep track of (and worrying about) what needs to be done in the inbox later. You can focus on your higher priorities knowing that your system is keeping track of what you need, where you need it, and for when you need it.

How will you start your day tomorrow?

The best time to have made this change in the way you start your day was 20 years ago. The next best is tomorrow. So, why not take that first step and make these changes to experience the difference for yourself?

  • Change your default opening view to Calendar
  • Have your Calendar and Inbox open on separate screens
  • Use the 4D and Triage process to handle each email only once

See Steuart at an Executive PA Masterclass

Steuart will be facilitating a day-long training course dedicated to helping EAs master their email. His session, ‘revolutionise your inbox’, will help you double your efficiency with email and significantly reduce the amount of time wasted in your inbox. The Masterclass programme is running in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane next month. To learn more, click here.

Steuart Snooks is an email and workplace productivity expert who works with busy professionals to help them get control of all their emails. He has developed a series of workshops, presentations, webinars, coaching and resources that outline the best practice skills for mastering your email.