Owen Barder on taking control of email

obI’ve just come across this post from Owen Barder, from back in 2012, providing his tips on managing email a bit more effectively.

Owen has a triage system for email which is based on four D’s:

  • Deal with it –
    If I can deal with an email in less than four or five minutes, I do so right away. For example, some emails only need a quick, one-line reply. It is better to do this right away than to have to deal with email again later.
  • Defer it –
    There are some tasks which will take longer than five minutes, or which cannot be dealt with immediately because they require additional information or some action by someone else. These I tag with the date on which I want to deal with them – either today or on some future date. That gets the email out of my inbox and ensures that I’ll be reminded of it again when I need to come back to it.
  • Delegate it –
    If I am going to delegate a task, I try to do so immediately when I am triaging emails. That way I can give as much time as possible to whoever I am asking to do the job. I usually then defer the original incoming email to the time that a response is due. When that email reappears in my inbox, it reminds me to check that it has been dealt with.
  • Delete or file –
    If an email does not require any action, but I want to keep it to refer to later, I either delete it or (more usually) file it.

Owen runs through this process only three or four times a day, and has switched off any realtime notifications of new email, so it doesn’t cause an interruption.

Another key part of Owen’s workflow is the use of a folder called ‘Today’ where all the email that needs to be actioned on the current day is kept.

Owen lists the reasons why this system works for him:

  • A trusted ‘to do’ list –
    There are few things more uncomfortable than the feeling that you may have forgotten to do something. It is very stressful trying to keep everything in your head at once, and it makes it difficult to concentrate on the thing you are working on at the moment. We need to park those tasks somewhere and be confident that they will come back to us in good time to handle them. By putting a particular date on each email, I can get the email out of my ‘inbox’ and off my desk, secure in the knowledge that it will reappear on my screen on the day I need to do something about it.
  • Zero inbox –
    For many of us, it is important to keep an eye on our inbox, and to deal with urgent emails as they arrive. But if our inbox is also our to-do list (and, in some cases, a filing cabinet), this means that every time we turn to our inbox, we are also confronted with an unsorted list of all the things we need to do. With the triage system, the inbox contains only recently arrived, unread emails. There is something very satisfying about having a generally empty inbox.
  • Avoid reading emails again and again –
    Emails used to sit in my inbox for weeks – I wanted to do something about them, but I was not yet ready or they were not yet urgent enough. I would read them again and again – sometimes several times a day – to check what was important or approaching a deadline. With the triage system, I read each email when it comes in. Many of them I deal with there an then; the others are put aside until the day that I have designated to handle it. I still read many emails too many times, but it is much less often than it used to be.
  • Create space for today –
    Because I live mostly in my ‘Today’ box, not my inbox, I have more time to concentrate on the work that I should be doing. I do not anxiously monitor incoming emails, because I know I will look at those later in the day.

Hopefully there are some useful tips in here that others can pick up for your own email productivity and workflow.

What’s your preferred system?

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Dave Briggs

I'm an experienced senior manager in digital and ICT, looking for interim engagements to modernise technology teams to help organisations transform.

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