The following post by Una Doyle originally appeared the web site for The Law Society of New South Wales (Australia). It is based on a presentation I gave about managing information overload.
How common is it these days to hear co-workers, colleagues, clients – in fact almost everyone you know, bemoan the tidal wave of emails they face on a daily basis. I empathise as I used to suffer from the same overload. That is, until I attended a recent conference on legal education and heard Paul Unger of Affinity Consulting Group share his tips for mastering the magnitude of email. Paul is a recognised expert in the world of legal practice management and technology.
As Paul points out, for many people, maintaining email is the weakest link in their system of work flow primarily because of volume and frequency. They use it as a holding bucket for undecided and unresolved tasks (sound familiar?). He believes that keeping your inbox at 20 or fewer emails is ideal. The reason for this is to ensure you can see your emails in a single screen (or close to it). It is very difficult, and indeed - overwhelming, to process emails and tasks when you are staring at a screen with 500 emails.
Paul’s sage advice is as follows, I’m sure you can relate to it as much as I have:
“If you can deal with it in less than 3 minutes, do one of four things now! DELETE, DO, DELEGATE, DELAY.
The 3-minute rule is gold! Any email that can be responded to or dealt with (saved in a client file, forwarded, deleted, etc.) within 3 minutes should be dealt with immediately - the first time you lay eyes on it. This rule is based on the premise that the 2nd time you have to deal with the email, it will take you longer than 3 minutes to navigate to it, open it, read it, comprehend it, re-familiarise yourself with the topic and then handle it. So, why not just respond to it if you have the 3 minutes to deal with it?
Delete - Whatever you can immediately!
Learn how to use the DELETE key. That should be the first thing that you do before you start dealing with your inbox. Delete the following:
* All the emails that get past your SPAM filter.
* Interoffice SPAM that is irrelevant to you.
* Jokes from annoying friends and co-workers.
* Emails from people you don't like (unless it's important, of course!)
Do - Just do it!
If you can answer the question … make the decision … provide the solution … bring it to a resolution, then just do it! Don't forget that you may be able to deal with it more quickly by picking up the phone or walking around the corner. Remember, an email often invites another email.
Finally, if it is an email that is going to take a while, you should dispose of it in under 3 minutes by adding it to your task list (or calendar) and then saving it into the appropriate client/matter file.
Delegate - If appropriate:
If someone else should be handling the task or issue in the email, then hand it off appropriately. Don't let someone else put “the monkey” back on you, in the words of The One Minute Manager Meets the Monkey by Kenneth Blanchard. Do this immediately unless it is going to take you more than 3 minutes to delegate.
Delay - If necessary:
Already mentioned in the 3-minute Do rule above, if it is an email that is going to take a while, you should simply dispose of it in under 3 minutes by adding it to your task list and then saving it into the appropriate client/matter file.
* Do not use Outlook as your to-do list by leaving unresolved email in your inbox.
* If you keep a paper-based task list, simply add to that and save the email in an appropriate place.
* If you use Outlook to manage your task list, simply drag it over to your Task button in the Outlook navigator.
* In some circumstances, it is okay to set up subfolders under your inbox. Clean them out on a weekly basis.
* If you schedule your tasks as appointments, add to your calendar."
Extract from “Technology: Slave or Servant?”, reproduced with the kind permission of Paul J. Unger, Affinity Consulting Group, LLC, Columbus, Ohio. ©2014 Affinity Consulting, Inc.