Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Managing the Email Monster

Communication is key to nearly any museum job, and even the jobs that used to be able to hide away without much talking to people (archivists, curators, registrars, conservators) are being asked to step to the forefront and interact more with the public - and more with their colleagues in the public sphere.

I have been in the background, and in the front lines. I prefer the front lines. When I'm not on the front lines in person, I am an email fiend. I'm that smartphone-addicted person who checks email every 20 minutes. I don't really play games and 90% of my apps are practical or utilitarian, but email alone is the main reason I love my smartphone.

Used and managed well, it is an unbelievably powerful tool - especially for those of us who think more clearly in text than verbally.

But after one particularly busy day last week, I counted: I had sent 55 emails and received well over 150. I felt exhausted and drawn out. Most of the emails I sent had been substantive, answering question or chasing down new things. My hands were actually sore from typing - and email was far from all I'd been doing that day.

I flashed back to a workshop I'd attended a few years ago, before I had such a busy and intense job; we'd had a group discussion about workflow and the topic of email came up. I volunteered that I often put email on a to-do list: I set aside a concentrated time of my day, perhaps 20-40 minutes, to answer what needed to be done, and then I moved on to other things. A few of the more seasoned museum professionals in the room scoffed at me, and no doubt secretly though I was more than a bit naive. (If memory serves, someone in the background even snorted derisively.)

Fast forward to today. There is zero chance that putting "email" on my to-do list and setting aside 20 minutes will take care of it. (I still use that tactic for voicemail, though.) It comes in too often; there are too many urgent and semi-urgent questions to answer; it requires too much thought and follow-up to answer the questions. (Even my personal email is frequently out of control, though not quite as busy as my work email.)

That said, I still maintain that the basic principle of my idea is sound. Here are a few tactics I use to manage even the hugely increased amount of email I go through on a daily basis.

Inbox Zero. This is my holy grail, as it is for many others. I believe the system has layers to it - and it's even marketed - but in essentials, for me, it means two things. First, any email still in my inbox is essentially a to-do list item. It represents a question unanswered, a task unfinished, or a person who needs to hear from me. Second, once that item is done, the email is taken care of. It's deleted or slotted into a folder. Period. Gone. I have hit it only a handful of times with my work email, but it's my preferred default for personal email, and I'm there on a semi-regular basis.

No Unread Emails. Nope. None. I have a coworker who marks items that she needs to respond to as unread, and lets them build in her inbox. That's fine! It would make my skin crawl. I may set them aside for brief, specific periods of time (usually while digging in to answer older emails) but I don't even just not read them. I always glance at them. Unread emails are information floating orphaned out in the void, and that means that I'm not processing everything I need to. Not ok.

Folders. I am obsessive about folders (in Outlook) and labels (in Gmail). I have tiers upon tiers of folders. I keep them closed up when I'm not actively working on that project, but they're an extensive filing system that I'm constantly tweaking. Once an email has been processed, I decide whether it contains useful information; if so, it gets filed. If not, it gets deleted. It does not sit in my inbox longer than strictly necessary. (For some categories of email that I may need to refer to - but not actively answer or read every day - that means I've set up automatic filters to label or file emails as they come in.)

Letting Go. Sometimes, a conversation could go on endlessly. That may mean it's a pleasant conversation - or it may be someone nagging you about a product or service to sell. I try hard to judge the point at which the necessities of polite conversation have been satisfied - and then move on. That may mean deleting, but most often it means filing or archiving. I don't want that line of thought cluttering up my inbox or my mind.

Staying Connected. This is not a gospel for everyone, but for me - checking email first thing in the morning, before I'm even up and out of bed, is a crucial part of my system. I'll often skim important things and start processing and thinking about my answers to them as I get ready for my day. Checking email quickly while waiting in line somewhere lets me get three or four more deleted or archived. It's rare for me to actually reply to an email using my phone, but taking advantage of the otherwise empty moments lets me get ready to tackle the bigger stuff when I'm sitting down at a desk.

What about you? Any tactics you use, or have you given up?