The timeless solution for managing your inbox

Are you one of more than 60 percent of EAs that feel they are overwhelmed by their inbox or are only just surviving?

The feedback from this year’s Executive PA Summits highlights the stress and frustration that is involved in keeping up with all the email and workload EAs handle daily. Much of this stress comes from trying to keep track of all the ‘unfinished business’ and ‘open loops’ sitting in the inbox, and re-reading them day after day.

As David Allen, leading American productivity consultant and famous for his Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology says, we will “invariably experience greater relaxation, better focus and increased productive energy when we learn to effectively control these ‘open loops’ of our lives.”

Whenever you read an email, however briefly, it opens up a mental file and is being tracked by the less-than-conscious part of your mind. And with dozens or even hundreds of these sub-conscious ‘open loops’, it uses up a lot of RAM (random access memory), making it harder to focus, think clearly and feel organised.

As Allen says, the reason your mind won’t let these things go is because

  • you haven’t clarified the intended outcome
  • you haven’t identified the specific ‘next action’
  • you haven’t captured the outcome or next action in a system you trust

As a specialist in the email field, I would add to these that you haven’t identified when you will come back to the email.

Even if you’ve clarified the next action, your mind won’t let go until you capture it in a place it knows you will, without fail, check at the appropriate time. Your mind will keep nagging and pressuring you about that piece of unfinished business (usually when you can’t do anything about it), which just adds to your stress.

Gretchen Rubin has wonderfully articulated this in her book The Happiness Project, “When unfinished tasks are put off for a long time, they end up haunting us, making us feel unsatisfied and robbing us of our energy.”

Thinking in a concentrated way to define next actions and desired outcomes is something few EAs have time for, especially when monitoring a busy inbox. That’s why we spend so much time in my workshops, coaching and conference presentations talking about the importance of when you should look at the inbox.

Your mind simply will not do the thinking that’s needed to process an email unless you set aside a specific block of time to fully focus on this task. Allowing email as an interruption or checking it at random times or on an ‘ad hoc’ basis is so terribly ineffective. You read and re-read the same email multiple times. But I believe that your time is too valuable to ever read the same email more than once.

As David Allen has written, 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 the things mean to you
  • a trusted system for organising the resulting to-do items
  • the personal discipline to take action

And this is very relevant to the way you handle email each day. The two step 4D Triage and Plan process shows you how to handle each email only once. It is based on the ‘lean’ approach used by Michael Hoffman at LeanMail, that minimises double-handling and wasted effort. Here’s how it applies to the points David Allen makes.

It’s a process for capturing the things that need your attention

The first step is to Triage the inbox by choosing an appropriate level of priority (low, normal, high) and identifying the next action required for that email. This next action can be typed directly into a Next Action column in your inbox so you don’t have to re-read and re-analyse the email to find out what needs to be done. This saves enormous amounts of time and mental energy—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 the reading the same email three, five, eight or more times before taking action that overwhelms you.

The mental rigour to clarify and decide what the things mean to you

This can be made much easier by scheduling specific times into your calendar to address email, allowing your mind time and space for the deeper level thinking required. Email is a legitimate and important aspect of your work that you must keep up with, yet almost nobody blocks out time in their calendar or schedule to attend to it.

You schedule time for meetings, phone appointments, tele-conferences, webinars and so on. Each of these can be defined as ‘a conversation with one or more other people’. They are important. You block time in your calendar for them. As a result, you tend to keep up with them.

So, why not email? Isn’t it also ‘a conversation’? Meetings are a verbal conversation (with or without a visual component as well), whereas email is a digital or written conversation. More and more of our conversations have shifted from verbal channels to written ones such as email, text, Linkedin, Facebook and other social media. However, it takes more mental effort and focus to be effective with written conversations than with verbal ones. Yet we don’t give dedicated time and attention to email and then wonder why we struggle to keep up on our inbox.

By blocking specific times in the calendar, you can transform email from a reactive, unplanned and distracted conversation into one you give your full attention, at a dedicated time, allowing you to handle email both quicker and more effectively.

A trusted system for organising the resulting to-do items 

By adding a ‘Due Date’ or ‘When’ column to the inbox, and setting up a default view that groups email by these dates, it brings the appropriate email back to your attention at the appropriate time—only when you need to action it, and not before. This way your view of the inbox is not cluttered by seeing all of your email—you only see what you need, where you need to see it, when you need to see it and in order of priority.

The personal discipline to take action

This process of identifying the priority, next action and due date for each email minimises the amount of effort, willpower and self-discipline needed to keep up with everything. It is so much easier to follow this new process with minimal double-handling and wasted effort.

The proof of this can be seen in some feedback from EAs who have learned this new process.

“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 it—I’m so excited!”

Amanda Bultitude,
EA to the CEO, McDonalds Corporation

“I am now on day three 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.”

Deborah Wyborn,
EA and National McCopCo Coordinator

“I feel like a ton of bricks has just been lifted from my shoulders.” 

Kathryn Baldock,
EA, Development & Community Services, Indigo Shire

What each of these diligent, hard-working people have learnt is a new cutting edge process for managing their inbox that works in today’s fast-paced and hectic business environment. Most of us are using pretty much the same skillset today as when we first started using email up to 20 years ago. But in that time, the volumes, demands, workload and urgency of email has increased exponentially.

Understanding what email represents, when to use it and how to put the tools available to use will revolutionise the way you look at email. Following these steps and learning best practice can be a professional life saver. Getting control of your email can save enormous amounts of time, reduce your stress, allow you to be more productive in the workplace and enhance your ability to support your executive.