Thursday, 17 April 2014

Executive function and managing email

Holy crap but my inboxes are out of control right now.

I love email.  It saves me a lot of talking on the phone I'd rather avoid, plus having things in writing lets me process it as and when I can rather than having to keep up with a real time conversation.  (I can't always do that, mostly thanks to sensory processing delays.)  But keeping on top of my email is an ongoing challenge.  Every so often I'll get my inboxes empty and be terribly pleased with myself for a while.  Then I get complacent, and within a few days they're overflowing again with stuff I don't know what to do with or don't want to deal with, and things I could have sorted out in a few minutes but didn't and now feel guilty about.

It's time to break this habit and get these suckers under control once and for all, so I've been reading up on email management.  There are eleventy billion blog posts about this, mostly aimed at people who wear suits and work in offices, but most boil down to the same general ideas.  Now it's a matter of making those ideas work with my ropey executive function.  For instance, having a separate folder for emails to deal with later won't work for me.  I'm probably going to forget to check that folder - if I can't see it, it doesn't exist - so nothing in there is ever going to be dealt with.  Folders are great for storing things I need to keep but am unlikely to have to deal with again, like receipts for stuff bought online, but not a good idea for work in progress.

So, here's the plan.  These are email management tips distilled from about a dozen sources (I'll put a full list of references at the end) tweaked and refined to hopefully make them work better in the face of shaky executive function.

Limit the amount of stuff coming in:  Minimising the amount of crap you have to deal with is better than having an efficient method of dealing with it.  Report spam, so anything else from the same spammy sender goes straight to your spam trap.  If you're getting updates about stuff you're not interested in - like daily emails from that obscure news site you registered with so you could leave one comment and then never went back - unsubscribe from them, or if you can't unsubscribe mark them as spam.  (If they don't give you an easy means of subscribing, they are spam, even if the sender is legit.)  If your inbox is filling up with mailing lists or blogs you follow by email, consider following them by RSS instead.

Create rules to direct your traffic: If RSS isn't your thing, you could also create a rule (also called filters by some systems) that sorts your email newsletters and blog updates into their own folders.  (Assuming folders would work for you.)  You can use a rule to identify any email from a particular sender or domain or containing certain keywords, and send it straight to a folder other than your inbox. 

Have a second email for online forms and signups: If you need to register with a website or app you're probably only going to use once, or you have some other online thing demanding a means of contacting you, it can be handy to have a second email to use.  This is one you don't necessarily check regularly or use with your real name, but does exist and you can check if you have to.  It means the random Grubby McGrubbersons of the internet might have your email, but not the one you use for communicating with real people.

Turn off notifications: If your phone or computer makes a noise, pops up a box or does a little dance every time you get a new email, switch that feature off.  (If you can't figure out how, and some of them are quite well hidden, googling for "turn off new email notification <program you use>" will probably help you find out.)  Those constant popups and pings can be really distracting.  They also encourage you to read and deal with every email as it comes in, which in most situations is a pretty inefficient way to work.  That brings us to...

Have set times to check and deal with email: Try scheduling a set time to check and handle mail, which could be anything from once every three days to four times daily depending on what you do and how you use it.  Sometimes this won't work - in some jobs, responding to back-and-forth emails is pretty much what you do all day.  But if you can set aside an hour or two specifically to getting it sorted out and dealing with the stuff that's been building up, it might give you the motivation to get on top of it.

Deal with it straight away if you can: I could win Olympic gold for Australia in procrastination, so I tend to read emails, and then promptly do nothing about them.  Sometimes it's because I don't know how to respond, sometimes it's because I don't want to deal with whatever the issue is, sometimes I genuinely don't have time.  But if you can deal with it the first time you read it, it saves you having to come back and read it again later.  If you can't deal with it - say it's someone asking for help you just can't provide - reply and say so.  You might be able to suggest someone else who could help, in which case you could suggest them or even cc them in on your reply. 

Figure out a folder strategy that works for you:  There are loads of ways you could use folders - by topic, by person, by date, by what you have to do with that information - and what works for someone else won't necessarily work for you.  For instance, having a 'to be actioned' folder isn't going to work for me, because it's going to sit unobtrusively to one side of my inbox where I probably won't see it, and will forget it and everything in it exists.  But I find folders very useful for archiving things I might so I can find them quickly if and when I do.  For instance, I have one for business expenses where I keep receipts for things like stationery and website costs so I can find them easily at tax time.

Keep a dirt file: If you get unwanted attention from creepers or bullies, file them away somewhere so you have proof they happened should you ever need to file a complaint or escalate things further.  But put them in a folder where you don't have to see them everyday while you're getting on with your life.  If you think you might be snooped on, perhaps give it an innocuous name like "memos" or "meeting notes" just to be on the safe side. 

Keep stock replies: If you get the same question repeatedly, save your response somewhere handy and paste it in or attach it to every new enquiry to save time.  We did this at a radio station where I used to work, where we had a regular stream of "how do I send you a community notice?" emails.  Your email system might have a "canned response" feature that lets you do this easily.

There are also some things we can do to help other people manage their emails, because they're probably struggling just as much as we are.

Use sensible subject fields: Let the person on the other end know what your email's about.  If you're just forwarding funny videos amongst your friends, 'lol' or 'I'll just leave this here' might be fine, but if it's something more serious then "Neurodiversity journal article for May edition" is probably more helpful than "article".

Use a separate email for each issue: If you have to email the same person about a heap of different things, it might be helpful to send separate emails.  For instance, in the job I have now I might have to send the boss some art proofs, an update on an ongoing project, and then ask about some policy point.  It's worth sending three emails, each with their own subject line and dealing with one specific thing.  Otherwise, you might get a reply that covers the first point but not the others, so you have to waste time (yours and theirs) chasing up the other answers.  Also, it lets the other person file their emails by their system - maybe they've got separate folders for art proofs, that project, and policy stuff. 

Be specific: This is a really hard one for me, because I worry about coming across as bossy.  But if you specify exactly what information or action you need from the person you're emailing, and by when, you're saving them time and effort working out what to do next.

Wish me luck.

Resources used to compile this list:
Mind Tools: Managing email effectively
The Art of Manliness: Slay the email monster!
Runbox: How to manage your inbox
Asian Efficiency: The simple guide to managing your email more efficiently
LinkedIn: Seven ways to manage your email so it doesn't manage you
The Next Web: Five ways to reach an empty email inbox in 2014
Forbes: How to conquer your email inbox
Everything Email: six tips for managing your emails
About: Email management tips for improved productivity