Monday, April 20, 2009

How to ignore most emails (safely)

At work, I use Outlook. It has "organization" tools. One of the best is found here: View/ArrangeBy/Custom/AutomaticFormatting. It gives you a set of conditions and formatting for each line in the list view. I use the default of unread mail formatting with a bold font.

1) I use my favorite font color for emails that are sent only to me: select "where I am:" "the only person on the To line". Even if others are CC'd on this email, it was sent directly to you. You'd better read it. No one else will.

2) My second favorite font color for emails sent specifically to me (and others): select "where I am:" "on the To line with other people". Someone took the time to direct this email directly to you and some of your peers. You should probably read it. Maybe one of your peers will respond, but you never know.

3) My third favorite font color for emails that I was specifically CC'd on: select "where I am:" "on the CC line with other people." (also covers where you were the only person on the cc line). Someone took the time to include you on the thread, but you know it is FYI (for your information) only, so you can almost certainly ignore it without getting in trouble, or until you have some time. This allows you to decide based on the subject line, for example. Many #3's turn into someone else's thread, and I can get by with skimming only a couple of those.

4) My least favorite color is "all the rest", and will be the default formating. These will almost always be delivered to you because you are on an email group. These can almost always be ignored for several days. If you happen to be on one or two where that is not the case, make a custom rule to highlight these. If you are on a ton of groups that each need immediate attention, you are probably doing something else wrong that I can't give you emperical advice about. I know I wouldn't survive long under that kind of stress. Don't borrow that kind of trouble. Seriously consider whether your response in those forums is honestly needed so urgently. I'l bet if you ignore it and you are the only one that can respond, you are eventually going to get a #1 or #2 email on it.

I also use a custom font color for "followup" emails that I have specifically marked as needing my attention later. Not only do they show up as red, but they sort to the "bottom" of my list view (I read my list like a console window scrolls.

I don't empty my inbox. I think that is "busy work", and just puts important items out of view in other mail boxes where I wind up forgetting about them. I only open half or 2/3rds of my emails, and only when I decide I have time. I'll flip the window open (left on list view) and see if there are any #1's and then just close it. That means almost half my emails are left in the "bold" state, and I don't feel guilty about that. Those are emails that were broadcast, not sent "to" me expecting me to solve a problem. They were FYI to me. If it was an important broadcast, it probably had the "high priority" flag set.

I also use the preview window and set auto-read on (marks the item as read if you "preview" it for more than a few seconds). If I get the sense I need to read this more carefully or later, I'll manually flip it to unread so it stands out and I'll reevaluate it later.

These tricks work well in meetings when you think you need to glance at your queued emails, or any other time when you are very pressed for time. A simple glance at the font colors gets you focused on the one or two emails you should look inside. Often there is little or nothing to do with even those, so mark them unread for when you have a block of time to "clear" the backlog.

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