Who doesn’t feel overwhelmed at least some of the time by the amount of incoming information? We are increasingly inundated with information, some of it very useful to us and critical to our successful performance, but much of it extraneous and distracting. To avoid feeling overwhelmed by the physical clutter of paper mail and the mental chaos of an abundance of electronic information, it is critical to systematically deal with each incoming piece. This means knowing how to process email, regular mail, faxes, information from trade shows, meeting notes and more.
The first step involves making a decision on how to treat a new piece of information when it comes in. I suggest there are only three real options: Do, Delete or Designate.
This category includes incoming mail that requires an action, by you or a delegate. Set aside time each day for processing incoming mail incorporating time to address items which can be responded to quickly – in no more than a few minutes each.
It can be most productive to review email during a few scheduled periods throughout the day, such as mid-morning, after lunch and before the day’s end. If you start your day reviewing email try to avoid being sidetracked and derailing the plans you’ve made for your day. If you process mail as it arrives you run the risk of losing minutes of productive time as you are interrupted and switch between tasks. Consider the loss of focus to your overall productivity.
For actions that can’t be taken immediately, schedule them in your calendar add them to your to do list. If it’s appropriate to delegate the task, do so as quickly as possible to give the assigned person more time to process the request. When delegating, be clear about when you need the job done. “Asap”, “as soon as you can”, and “when you have a moment” don’t provide much help.
For current projects, it can be helpful to have desktop file folders available to hold related materials. Desktop systems are easy to see which prevent you from forgetting about the action. Be careful to file them away when a project is done or you’ll end up with a cluttered and ineffective system.
Above all, be sure to follow privacy laws and corporate guidance to comply with information management and retention requirements to determine what information is appropriate to delete.
To avoid feeling overwhelmed by the amount of information you own and to ensure efficient use of storage space, it may be necessary to delete items that you have completed and no longer need, or that can easily be sourced again when needed.
Open paper mail near a recycling bin or shredder so you can discard or destroy unneeded pieces as you read them. Always shred anything containing sensitive or confidential information.
Unneeded electronic mail may also be discarded as it is read. If you’re like me, there are sometimes emails you want to hang onto for a little while, in case you need to access them. A simple way to store them temporarily is to create a folder for each month of the year. Store emails you need temporarily in the month they are received. Every month, delete the folder from two months ago. It might give you the peace of mind you need and keep your inbox from overflowing.
If you have let emails accumulate, rather than deleting them chronologically, one by one which is very time consuming, considering batch deleting based on the age of the message or the sender, or to free up space quickly by size of file. This is my preferred method. I find having to delete each email a tedious process, so I archive important messages and batch delete. You may be surprised that I have no need to achieve “inbox zero”. I do need to know that I am keeping on top of my deliverables. They are two very different things.
Any item that you wish to easily find and use later must have a home. Figuring out where that home should be will depend on how you think about looking for the item. Your system for personal information management must be simple and easy to use so you can quickly put away an item the first time you review it. This will help to avoid information accumulating, having to handle the same piece several times and time lost searching for missing information. Stay tuned for a follow-up post on creating an effective filing system.
Watch out for the deadly ‘D’, deferring. Deferring a decision is easy to do, especially if you are reading emails on the move, or without enough time to process them. If your read an email on the fly and don’t have time to treat it properly, consider marking it as unread to avoid it slipping through the cracks. When back at your desk, you’ll likely pick up with the most recent set of incoming messages and may miss acting on the earlier message.