Time Management Crash Course - Lesson 2

A framework to stop multiple handling and using your Inbox as a task manage system.

Welcome to lesson 2 of the crash time management course. In this lesson there are two videos on how you use your email and developing a framework for incoming actions. 

The biggest problem with email is that most people use their Inbox as a task management system. This does two things 

  1. It increases stress
  2. It increases multiple handling.

These two factors impede our productivity and wellbeing.

Please note: while I talk videos below using Outlook as my example, this could easily be applied to Gmail, Lotus Notes, or for pen and paper.

How do you use email? Does the below video sound familiar?

A framework to deal with the incoming

Homework from this lesson

  1. Can you simplify your folder system so that you reduce filing time of each individual email? The big changes in many email systems (e.g. Outlook) have been better search functionality which negates the need for complex filing systems. I talk more about the 3 options of filing in the course "Reclaim your time, take back your life"
  2. How can you develop this framework to suit your own needs? The framework to deal with the incoming emails, requests and actions is robust. While you may (or may not) be conversant with tasks or the functionality of moving emails into tasks and calendar there are many options available across Outlook or Gmail. I talk more about this in the course "Reclaim your time, take back your life". If you are not using Outlook tasks and categories then you can:
  • For those emails that can be delegated. My work with people often delegation is not the problem tracking the delegation is the problem we have a great way to do this in tasks however you could also set up folders for the days of the week to stay organised for those things that you are tracking delegations.
  • Then there are those quick actions that are to be deferred. For example, an email comes in for you to call Mary from accounts but Mary is not in today. In most cases people leave this in their inbox and maybe to it tomorrow if they stay on top of their inbox but again tasks can be used in Outlook to do this efficiently. Alternatively you could set up folders by certain days remain organised around short actions.
  • Then there are those emails that require some actual doing. They will require you to take off the processing hat and put on the thinking hat and dedicate a chunk of time to actually doing the work. For these emails strongly suggest that you carve out time in your calendar to get those emails done.

The point of processing and triage is to turn email into what it is, rather than leaving it in the Inbox and risk multiple handling. 

Lesson 2a: Text Summary

How are you currently using your inbox? Are you living in your inbox? When I work as a time management coach into many companies, people often tell me that they use their email as a place to hold their actions. This can mean that you multiple handle your email you waste plenty of time.

You have a better system in Outlook which are your tasks and your calendar.

Some people tell me that they use their inbox as a filing system and when they need that email they scroll down inbox to see if they can find. Again you have a better system set up folders. How you set up your folders to reduce filing costs and search time is important.

Some people also tell me that they keep their email in their inbox because they might need to contact those people. So they scroll down and find the email and then they have a look at the signature where there is a phone number. However, that may take lots of time. Remember six weeks per year looking for stuff. That is what the average white-collar worker spends looking at stuff they already have. You have a better system in Outlook contacts.

Other people like to leave emails in their inbox because this is how they plan what they’re going to do - today or across the next week. So they are using their email as a planning system. This leads to lots of multiple handling and poor prioritisation. Again you have a better planning system which is the Workly ©

Turn messages into what they really are tasks information calendar entries or contacts.

Lesson 2b: Text summary

This biggest problem with email today happens as a result of the inbox being used as a task management system.


Well this is primarily for two reasons.

The first is that we don’t assign time to do things that are important, so we end up doing the easy stuff and procrastinating on the really big stuff. This often results in being deadline driven and lurching from one panic station to the next.

The second issue of keeping your actions in the inbox is that of multiple handling. When we keep our email in our inbox with the intention that we will get them done later we’ve already fallen into the trap of multiple handling which wastes your time and increases stress.

So how do we prevent multiple handling on email and the negative impact that this habit has on our time and our stress levels?

Rather than being a slave to machine how can we use it as a tall and put email back where it really belongs?

Well we need to have a framework to manage actions.

Now the framework I’m going to show you is adapted from David Allen’s book called ‘Getting Things Done’. It’s called processing and what I’m going to do is I’m going to apply this to email.

So processing is more than checking and it’s less than responding, it’s actually making decision.

Now we are talking about email but this could, and it should, be applied to any incoming information or action. Whether it’s an email, whether it’s a phone call, whether it’s a request from another person.

But let’s just apply to email in this example.

When an email comes in the first question to ask yourself is “do I need to do something?”.  It is a pretty simple question. Email contains either actions to be done or information. So either way it’s either a yay or nay. Now if it is a ‘nay’ the email simply contains information then read and/or delete or file it if you’ll need information again.

On the other hand, if you do need to do something - the email has an action that you need to do - then you need to ask yourself “what is the next logical step that moves that action forward”. For example, if I’ve got an issue with my car, my next logical step is not to drive my car to the service station and get it fixed by the mechanic. My next logical step is to actually make the phone call and book the car in.

So your next step is the next logical action that you need to take to move the project forward. And that’s a pretty easy decision for about 99% of emails and it should only take you a fraction of a second and mental effort to decide on the next logical step. After you’ve decided what the next logical action is you now need to decide “how long that next logical step is going to take”.

Now this is an important question to ask yourself and helps you to decide what you are going to do with the action.

Are you going to do it now or are you going to defer it?

So you may get an email that involves a project that goes over the 6 months. Still ask yourself what the next logical step is and how long this next logical step is going to take. This helps closes the open decision loop which can cause so much stress.

There are a few rules of thumb to take into account.

  1. If the next logical step is less than five minutes - David Allen says two minutes - then just do it. It’s not worth going into your system.
  2. If the next step is between five and 10 minutes, then add it to Outlook tasks and we will show you a very streamlined way to move it into tasks. The task works best for short, brief actions that have a little bit of flexibility about when you going to do the action. You can use the tasks to give you reminders and suggested dates and times that you want to do things. If you don’t want to perform the task on a specific day or time then you can just use the reminder and schedule the tasks for a later date.
  3. Next if the action takes 15 minutes or more, then it’s worthy of your focused attention and it should be put into the calendar. Similarly, if the action is a hard deadline it should also go into your calendar. By budgeting your time into your calendar you are making it more likely that you’ll get the action done. So your calendar becomes a firm commitment and official record of the way that you’re going to spend your time.

Once you put this action into your system - into your tasks or into your calendar - you then either file the email into your new folder structure that you set up previously or you delete the email. The key step here is that you’re separating information from action.

The action is going into a system, in this case, Outlook tasks and our calendar and the information is going into a folder structure that we can find quickly.

When you’re in your inbox I’d like to have at least four action verbs uppermost in your mind. These are

  1. do now,
  2. defer to tasks
  3. defer to calendar, and
  4. file or deletes that email.

Can you think of any other action verbs that you would consider in your world of work. I can think of a few more:

  1. Emails that you want to delegate to others and then you need to track this delegation.  
  2. When you have emails that you waiting for a decision on. So you are waiting for information to come your way before you make a decision, and
  3. There are probably emails that you want to talk about with others.

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