Imagine that I hired you to sort marbles out of a bucket. In your bucket are three types of marbles: 1) chipped marbles, 2) normal-sized marbles of various colors, and 3) jumbo-sized marbles of various colors. I want you to throw away the chipped ones, sort the normal-sized marbles by color and place them in color-coded buckets, and weigh the jumbos, then sort them by color in their own color-coded buckets.
Complicated, I know.
But on top of that, someone else will be dumping unsorted marbles in your bucket at random intervals while you are working. Lastly, your workday is determined either by 8 hours or by every 1000 marbles you sort – whichever is less (meaning, if you process 1000 marbles in 3 hours, you can go home and get paid the same; or you can work 8 hours and go home, even if you didn’t get to 1000 marbles.)
Got it? Take a moment to think about how you’d do this.
In broad strokes, the most efficient way to do this would be to dump out the bucket and work on the known number of marbles and batch-process them. The chipped ones require no action, so they’d be easy to get rid of. The normal-sized marbles require only one action at this point: the color sort. The jumbos require two actions, but it would be easier to weigh and process them en masse rather than one at a time. If you dumped them out of the original bucket, you wouldn’t have to worry about the new, unsorted marbles, and you could instead focus on the ones you have in front of you; an additional benefit would be that you’d have a pretty good idea of how many marbles you sorted or needed to sort to go home.
Emails Are Marbles
I started with the processing of physical items because it’s easier for us to understand how to process objects in the world – we’re hardwired that way. But notice the parallels between that example and what we actually do with email. When it comes down to it, there are three types of email messages:
Delete-Now Email (the Chipped Marbles)
Whether it’s junk mail, spam that gets through, or those other random emails you’re getting but really don’t need, these are the ones that require one, and only one, action: they need to be deleted immediately. (Or you could create a better system to do this for you…)
Reference Email (the Normal Marbles)
The content of these types of messages is such that they may have some possible use in the future, and thus be worth keeping, but they aren’t worth keeping in your inbox. Depending on the email client you use, archiving these messages could range from really easy (Gmail) to not so easy (Outlook) – the difficulty is not necessarily the number of buttons you need to press, but instead the amount of thinking you need to do to determine where it should go.
I’ll pause here and explain: the reason Gmail is theoretically easier is because you don’t have to decide which one folder something needs to go in – you could tag it with multiple labels that make sense; additionally, the power and speed of its search capabilities mean that its relatively painless to pick out any message in a general archive folder, so, in many ways, Gmail’s technology encourages fewer folders – which translates to less thinking. Rather than 17 buckets to put your email in, you could have 5 and get along pretty well.
Action Email (the Jumbos)
These messages actually require you to do something, whether that’s writing a response, checking information, making a call, or any number of things that actually create an additional task aside from processing this one message. Again, depending on your mail client, not only do they require some separate action, but it may behoove you to archive these, as well – especially when it comes to sent messages, as those messages become the only record many of us have of what we said or did.
We get thrown off in this category of email because we have different orientations to particular types of emails. Some email messages are their own creative products, some are ones to which we don’t know how to respond, and still others are those frogs that we just don’t want to do. So it’s bad counsel to suggest that it’s as easy as opening your inbox and immediately tackling every one of these emails as if they were all the same type of thing, when the reality is that each type requires a somewhat different emotional and cognitive process to handle it. What I can say, though, is that it’s best to figure out what sub-type of email it is so that when it’s time to swallow frogs or write some creative email, you immediately know which ones to jump on.
Why Objectifying Email Works
Where many of us get into trouble is that we don’t see email (messages) as discrete objects that require action – they become amorphous lumps of “stuff” that need to get done. It’s hard to put edges around amorphous lumps, and without those edges, it’s hard for us to put limits on the amount of time we spend fiddling with email and to acknowledge the amount of time/effort/energy we have spent on processing email. The amorphous lump stays the amorphous lump, and the only way we get some peace of mind (so we think) is to get our inbox to zero.
However, when we objectify email and recognize what we need to do to process it, then we move beyond thinking about the unsorted, theoretically unending bucket of marbles, and we can focus solely on handling the quantified bunch of marbles in front of us. Which is better: “I need to answer these 6 emails today,” or “I need to clear my inbox”? Which is more likely to get done, and which is more likely to give clarity and perspective to what you’re doing?
How to Objectify Email
As I mentioned above, the problem is that many of us don’t conceptualize email messages as discrete objects that require action while we’re processing email, despite the fact that we theoretically know that email messages are discrete objects. Rather than try to conceptualize them as objects, how about we just translate them as objects and include them with the rest of the things (“objects”) we need to get done?
Here are a few ideas for how to do this – I’m aware that these aren’t particularly novel:
- Write them down on paper. Rather than have “Email” or “Check Email” or “Clear Inbox” on your ToDo List, write “Reply to Charlie’s email” as its own discrete action. When you’re done, check it off the list and move on to the next item.
- Create a discrete task in the task management program you use. This is the same as above, except that you do it in iCal, Outlook, OmniFocus, Things, Backpack, or whatever you use as a task management program. Be mindful that the advantages of software or webware solutions come with disadvantages – the most salient being the ease with which fiddling can get in the way of doing.
- Create a note card for each email message. This is probably the ultimate in objectifying email, since each card becomes its own actionable thing. There’s not a list to be sorted or looked at – there’s just one thing that requires you to do something with it in a physical stack of other things that require action.
Keep in mind that I’m not recommending that you write down every email message you need to process – I’m recommending that you write down the email messages you need to act on. You’d be surprised how many messages actually don’t require action. I’m also not recommending that you write down every email if you’ve got a grip on and a plan for how to work through those emails that require action; if you’ve got a folder/label of 50 emails that you have batched and you can/will plow through them, knuckle down and get to work.
You’re right if you think that writing down the email messages you need to act on is inefficient, because, well, it is. But it can be incredibly effective and can give you the type of clarity and visibility that make the difference between your getting done what needs to get done – only part of which is email – and getting some peace, and your fretting about the overwhelming amount of email you get and coming up short on those things that did need to get done.
Don’t believe me? Write down (or create a task for) 3–5 email messages that are bugging you or that need action (after you’ve sorted them, of course), plan for when you’ll do them today, and do them. Do this for the rest of the week, and you’ll have responded to 15–25 emails and taken care of the rest. Once you get control of email, you may not need to “waste” the 2 minutes it takes to write them down. At that point, feel free to create a new process. (But if it ain’t broke, why fix it?)
It may turn out that thinking of email as marbles may keep you from losing yours.
Photo Credit: turtlephotography
As always, some creative ways of thinking about this stuff. One thing I like in Entourage (Mac version of Outlook Express, I think) is that it has a button that creates a task out of the e-mail “Flag for Follow-up”, I can set a due date, a reminder, and add notes, even change the subject to something more meanful that “follow up: e-mail title”.
Of course when you start ignoring and snoozing the Office Notifications reminders you aren’t any further ahead but…
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Catherine Cantieri, Sorted says
Very timely post; I’m working on a post of my own about organizing email, and I’ve been thinking along the same lines. Interestingly, the chipped/color/jumbo emails seem to match the toss/file/act options for paper management. That’s probably no coincidence. 🙂
Catherine Cantieri, Sorteds last blog post..Electric April: Organizing your bookmarks
Stephen - Rat Race Trap says
Charlie, great email advice. I like how you used the marble metaphor. The day I got control of my email was the day I got control of my life. For some of the amount of email we get is that important. For most of us it is pretty darned important. Follow this advice and you will thank yourself ever day forever.