Email Management – Eating My Own Dog Food

I’ll be giving a presentation on email management next week. In the grand tradition of “practicing what you preach” and “eating your own dog food,” I felt obligated to make sure that I brought my own email management into shape before the presentation.
Last year, the title of my talk referred to “email managment.” This year the title refers to “email triage.” I think the shift in terminology reflects reality.
As a general rule, the cornerstone to successful email management is keeping an empty inbox. The sheer volume of email can make this difficult to achieve on a daily basis and I was way behind, but I really had no problem today getting my inbox to zero (down from 343, which reflects only messages to which I cannot easily apply rules).
One of the my new and recommended email practices is using the flags in Outlook 2003. If I have an email I need to respond to in short order, I give it a red flag and move it out of the inbox and into the appropriate folder. I use other color flags to mean different things. I’ve also set up some saved search folders and can look at the entire set of messages with a certain color flag all in one folder. It seems like a good system.
Unfortunately, red-flagging an email does not mean that you have already responded to it. After patting myself on the back for easily clearing my inbox , I looked into the red flag folder and found . . . 164 items. I knew it was going to be bad, but gee whiz. By working through the list, banging out some easy replies, clearing some red flags that no longer needed to be there and changing the color of some flags, I worked the red flag list down to a much-more manageable, ahem, 93 items, many of which require some kind of thoughtful response that can’t be dashed off.
So, to all of you to whom I owe a reply, I say, man, I’m really sorry, and I promise that you’ll hear from me soon (and, no, don’t think that because I’m posting to my blog that I think that my blog is more important than answering your email – it’s just a different thing).
It’s another example of why it is better to find “touch it once” systems than “handle it later” systems.
The sad thing is that I know that I’m really good at email management – it’s just that the sheer volume is overloading any reasonable systems, for me and everyone else. I think that the root of the problem is we’re trying to make email do too many things for which it is not well suited.