A note from Charlie: This post was published before I developed the S.T.A.R method, which is a much more effective way to handle the volume of email we get nowadays. 2007 was a much simpler era of email management.
Email has become the primary method of communication for most people in nearly all organizations. Unfortunately, too many of us have yet to really understand how to work with email, and the management of email correspondence has become a major source of work in and of itself.
As with most of the meaningful components of our work, there is tension from both ends: if we don’t spend enough time filtering email, we miss deadlines and important information that is now being distributed solely through email. However, if we spend too much time messing with email, we end up with too little time to actually get any of the work we need to get done completed. As Aristotle keenly observed, the balance is in the middle.
Enter the R.A.F.T. method.
R.A.F.T. is a handy acronym for Read, Act, File, or Trash. Here’s how it works:
This one’s self-explanatory. Briefly skim through the email and determine whether it’s something that actually requires your attention. You’d be surprised how much doesn’t. If it doesn’t require your attention, Trash it immediately. If it does, move on.
Does the email require you to do something? If it’s a quick reply, do it, and file the message. If it is something that requires you to do something for the future, but not now, place it on your calendar, or whatever system you use to track suspenses, and file it.
If the message does not require action but needs to be referenced or filed, then File it. I still file messages in one of many different folders, but that’s partially because I manage not only academic stuff but other careers as well. Many productivity gurus are advocating dumping all messages in one big archive and relying on the mature search capabilities now available in most mail apps, but I have yet to make that transition. Do some experimentation to see which is right for you, but, above all, get the stuff out of your inbox.
Be merciless on unactionable, unimportant messages and get rid of them immediately.
The goal here is to get your Inbox either empty or so that it contains messages that require some response of you. I’ve experimented with having @Action, @Response, and @Waiting mail folders and noticed that either I spent too much time shifting through them or that I forgot to check them regularly enough. I transitioned to letting actionable items sit in my Inbox, but to get the psychological release, all the stuff in there had to be stuff that required some sort of prolonged action. Despite it being somewhat of a task parking lot, the goal is still to get it to zero.
Of course, the R.A.F.T. method isn’t anything special, and the elements of it are covered in GTD’s processing system. However, “R.A.F.T.” is a nice little mantra to help you through your Inbox.
Here are some other quick tips:
- Don’t check email first thing in the morning. Doing so starts your day off responding to external projects and actions rather than advancing internal projects. Do your work first and make other people wait their turn.
- Turn off the auto-checker in your mail application if you use a computer-based email application. The threat of a notification alone is enough of a psychological distraction and the reaction is much like waiting for a punch that you know is coming. Again, rather than letting other people’s issues distract you, check email only when you’re ready and prepared to karate-chop your way through it. This also allows you to reference your email without having to deal with the inclination to check and read new messages when you should be completing your more important projects.
- Check email twice a day (or as few times as possible). Tim’s insight on this is dead-on. I check it about 30 minutes before lunch and about 30 minutes before the end of whatever time I determine I’m done working. Generally, this gives me enough time to respond to short messages, schedule a time to do longer messages and actions, and file messages in their appropriate folder with time left-over.
- If you get one of those nervous-I-need-an-answer-right-now email messages that would give you peace of mind to answer, quickly respond with “Hey, I’ve got your message and am working on an answer. I will get back to you on X day with the information/answer you’ve requested.”This response is generally sufficient to buy you some time while you work on the other stuff. Complete the tasks and projects you’ve decided you’d work on while you’re at your peak. Figure out the answer to those types of email messages during an allocated time prior to the time you said you’d respond and respond then and only then.
We can either process email effectively so that we can do our work, or we can let email be the work we do.