Guest Blog: Jordan Fleming on Emails

Posted on 5th February 2016 at 4:10pm by Carl Reader in Business

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Technology is wonderful isn’t it?

Look around you right now. How many bits of technology are you using in your day-to-day lives?

Most of the technology we use is, ostensibly, about making our lives easier. We want things quicker. Easier to access. More integrated. Why would I want to check my computer when my watch can give me directions to the restaurant? Why would I print my boarding pass when my phone is always on?

I get it. I’m a geek too. I LOVE technology. I’m a massive nerd for new bits of kit…for new ways of working technology into my life.

There is, however, one bit of technology that I have found causes more pain and grief to staff and employees than almost any other: email.

(There are days when I’m convinced we should change “the finest trick of the devil is to persuade you that he does not exist” to “the finest trick of the devil is to convince us all to use email”. Apologies to Monsieur Baudelaire.)

Email probably plays a bigger role in your working like (and sometimes your personal) than any other form of communication. We are, all of us, bombarded by it on a daily basis.

And I’m not just talking about scams, advertising & phishing emails. I’m not talking about the sexy lingerie offers you get sent “by mistake” or the promotions from your local chippy.

I’m talking about your daily working life emails. The emails you send and receive every day as part of getting on with your job. Getting Overwhelmed? One of the most common problems I’ve see when helping people set up a system to “manage” their emails, is the simple expectation everyone now seems to have that you have to answer every email immediately.


You don’t really do anything else at someone’s beck and call, so what makes email so special? What gives you the right to expect me to write straight back to you? What gives me the feeling that I have to do it?

All of this leads to people getting overwhelmed by their email and, without a structured way of handling it, to having it negatively impact them both personally and professionally. Email is a tool. It shouldn’t be dictating anything.

Constructing a System

Years ago I had a session with a guy named Bill, who introduced me to a new way of managing my email.
(That’s my way of saying this isn’t unique to me, it’s something that’s been around for a while.)

I took the system to heart, and I have been introducing it to email-bombarded clients of mine for about ten years. Most recently I introduced it to a couple of team members in a printing client of mine down in Brighton, and I’ve never seen so many happy and relieved faces.

So, how do I manage my emails?

Before we start, I need you to create a couple of folders in your email client. Each client is different (Outlook, Gmail, Apple Mail) but they should all be able to do this with ease. These new folders should be easily accessible to you so that you can quickly drag and drop emails into them as the day goes.

The new folders I need you to create are:

> To Respond

> Completed

That’s it. Two simple folders. You don’t need anymore than this to make this system work.

(I know some people (including myself) like to file emails into different folders for clients, people, projects etc. Thats fine, you can do that instead of the “completed” email folder, but don’t get caught up spending all your time organising a cool folder system. Two folders will do)

The Never-Ending Inbox

One of the things we’re going to try to solve with these two email folders is what I like to call “the never-ending inbox” problem. That’s when you have so many emails in your inbox that it’s almost impossible NOT to forget about one of them or forget to do something. I’ve seen people with over a thousand emails in their inbox and with over three hundred “unread” emails. How are you suppose to know what is genuinely unread? What is genuinely important?

The answer is you can’t.

From now on, you shouldn’t have ANY emails in your inbox for more than about an hour (emails coming in overnight don’t count). You inbox should be clear and empty. This is important, because it means that when emails come into your inbox you’ll actually see them and be able to deal with them.

Back to the System

Before you start, you really need to get your inbox down to zero. Take an hour, two…or a whole day. I don’t care. But file away your emails and get your inbox empty again. You’ll like it. It’s cathartic.

Now that we have an empty inbox, the question is how do we deal with emails as they come in?

When emails come in, I assess each one with the following criteria? A) Can I respond in less than 45 seconds? B) Is this urgent enough that I need to respond now?

If the answer to A is Yes, I respond, and simply drag the email into my “Completed” folder. Done! I don’t have to worry about it and it’s out of my inbox.

If the answer is B, guess what? I answer it. Sometimes things are genuinely urgent but I’ll bet I only use this for maybe 1-1.5% of all my emails. It’s very rare that I get an email that can’t wait a couple of hours for me to deal with it when I have the time dedicated to do so.

For every other email, I simply drag them into the “To Respond” folder. That way they are out of my inbox (it’s still empty) and I have a list of emails I have to deal with when I have my next email slot during the day.

Schedule Your Days

Now is a good time to talk about scheduling.

In order to avoid being overwhelmed by emails, and in order to ensure you have enough time in the day to, you know, actually work, I’ve taken to scheduling sets of time in my day where I can respond to emails.

Usually I have forty-five minutes in the morning, thirty minutes at lunch, and an hour at the end of the day. During this time I go to my “To Respond” folder and methodically work through all of these emails based on the priority of the contents. I rarely need any more than that time, and often I need less. This gives me a concentrated time to work on my emails that is never more than four hours apart during a working day.

Unless anything is majorly urgent (in which case, using the system I’ve dealt with it), four hours is fast enough for anybody.

Work the System

If you’re struggling to keep on top of your emails, I’d genuinely recommend implementing the system I’ve described. I’ve introduced it to hundreds of people, and almost everyone has had a massive positive boost to their working habits.

The system works if you work it. Get your inbox down to zero and keep it there. Set times to respond to emails, and stick to them. Don’t be forced into someone else’s idea of when you should respond to their email.

If you’re struggling, give me shout.

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