Rules to Better Inbox Management

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According to Statista, 269 billion em ails were sent per day in 2017. That’s a lot of emails, and they can pile up fast - which is why it’s so important to keep your inbox under control. Emails are legal documents and should be treated with the same care as any other correspondence with clients or employees. You should endeavour to keep your inbox as a to-do list only and know how to file or delete emails as necessary so that your inbox reflects an accurate record of requests, conversations, and decisions.

Just as Rules to Better Email is about how to best write and use emails, Rules to Bett er Inbox Management covers how best to organise and store emails. An analogue equivalent to these rules might be “How to write books” and “How to organise your library”.

rules-to-better-inbox-management.png 

​​​ Figure: Don't let your inbox become a vortex of doom - keep it organised!

Keep reading to learn the rules to better inbox management!


  1. Do you clean your inbox per topics?

    Your inbox should be a task list and should be kept clean. When cleaning up their inbox people tend to go from top to bottom. A better way to do it is to search for a specific topic and clean up all related emails
    clean-inbox-by-topic-outlook-search.png
    Figure: Good example - Search for "SugarLearning", reply 'done' to all emails and delete them​
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  2. Dones - Do you reply 'Done' and delete the original email?

    ​​​If someone asks you to perform a task by email, don't reply "OK, I will do that" or fail to reply at all. Instead, do the task and reply "Done" when the task has been completed, and then delete the email. This way the person requesting the task knows that it has been done, and doesn't waste time following you up. 

    Read "Definition of Done" for more information about the steps that need to be finished before replying to a done email.
    • If the task is already done, then reply "ALREADY DONE".
    • If you don't agree with the task or are unable to complete the task, reply "NOT DONE - the reason is XXX".
    • If there are multiple tasks that are DONE and NOT DONE then, reply with "PARTIAL DONE - See below." at the top of the email.

    Note:  Only say done when the work is done. If you have added the email to your backlog or todo list then instead of ‘Done’, say ‘Added to backlog – URL is xxx’.

    NOT Done Email
    Figure: Not Done Email

    Tip 1: Provide Detail in your "Done"

    In any reply, include relevant information, such as the URL and the code or text that has been updated, which allows the person requesting the work to check what was done and allows for offline reading.

    Use SnagIt with Balloons in screenshots.

    Bad Done Email
    Figure: Bad Example of a "Done" email.
    Good Done Email
    Figure: Good Example of a "Done" email as it has both the link and the changed text.

    If you find that you have already sent a "Done", and then the client asks you to undo the change, reply "Undone".

    Tip 2: Reply "Done" to multiple tasks

    It is important that you reply correctly to emails with multiple tasks.

    Hi Damian,

    As per our conversation:

    1. Change the logo on the SSW website to our new logo
    2. Take a photo of you standing on your head

    Bob

    Figure: Original Email

    Hi Bob,

    I couldn’t find a camera so I haven’t done it all.

    Damian

    Figure: Bad Example – It’s not clear which tasks have been done and which haven’t

    Hi Bob,

    >Change the logo on the SSW website to our new logo
    Done. See www.ssw.com.au
    >Take a photo of you standing on your head
    Not Done. I couldn’t find a camera.

    Damian

    Figure: Good Example – It’s very clear which tasks have been done and which haven’t

    Hi Bob,

    1. Done (see www.ssw.com.au)
    2. Not Done - We don't have a camera

    Damian

    Figure: Good Example – It’s clear which tasks have been done and which haven’t

    Hi Bob,

    I've replied inline in red.

    Damian

    -------

    Hi Damian,

    As per our conversation:

    1.  Change the logo on the SSW website to our new logo. Done - see www.ssw.com.au
    2.  Take a photo of you standing on your head. Not Done - We don't have a camera 

    Bob

    Figure: OK Example – It’s clear which tasks have been done, but we prefer not to reply inline

    Hi Bob,

    All Done
    See www.ssw.com.au for the new logo.

    Damian

    Figure: Good example – It’s still clear that all tasks have been done.

    Tip 3: Reply "Done" if you have a task that is > 4 hours

    Ideally, all tasks should be less than 4 hours. If you are given a task that is going to take days, then split it following the 4 hours rule

    Q: What if you can do 8 out of 9 items? Can I reply "Done"?

    A: Yes. If there are multiple items of work in an email and you can't do them all at once (in say 4 hours), reply "Done" to each item individually, and put yourself in the TO: so you can go back and do the remaining items. (See rule "To Myself")

    Done - 8 out of 9 tasks.

    Tip 4: Don't consolidate emails

    If you get multiple emails or tasks, don't consolidate. It is still best to reply to each email individually as you go, rather than compile the information into one email. This way the person requesting the work hasn't lost the email history and can understand what the work done relates to. It also means that testing and/or feedback can come in as soon as possible after the 1st completed task.

    Tip 5: Now Delete your email - Aim for 0 inbox

    There is no point keeping emails that just clutter your Inbox. You don't need to keep the original email because after you have replied "Done", there is a copy in "Sent Items". If you must keep an email, then move to your "Saved Items" folder. 

    Tip 6: Include URLs in screen captures

    Screen captures should always include the:
    * URL
    * Top left - so you can see what browser it is eg. Internet Explorer or FireFox

    Tip 7: When appropriate use text instead of an image

    To: Ross
    From: J Liu
    Subject: RE: BUG on Product.aspx

    DONE - There was a problem with the SQL. I added the line highlighted in​ Yellow:

    SELECT
    ProdName = CASE WHEN Download.ProdCategoryID <> '' THEN ProdCategory.CategoryName
    ELSE Download.ProdName END,
    Downloads = (SELECT Count(*) FROM ClientDiary
    WHERE ClientDiary.DownloadID = Download.DownloadID AND ClientDiary.CategoryID = 'DOWN'
    AND ClientDiary.DateCreated > '01/01/2000'
    AND ClientDiary.DateCreated < '01/01/2003')
    FROM
    Download
    LEFT JOIN ProdCategory ON Download.ProdCategoryID = ProdCategory.CategoryID ​ ​ ORDER By Downloads DESC​
    Figure: Good example - Most of the time screens need images. However, this "DONE" uses text instead of an image. It is easier to search and easy to reply with a modification

    Tip 8: Handle an email once

    Follow a tip I got from my accounting days... "A sign of an efficient person is they handle a piece of paper once". When you get an email - don't just open it, have a quick look and close it with the idea that you will go back to it later. Read it, make a decision and do the action. Delete as many emails as you can on the first go.

    Tip 9: Use an Email tool for Outlook

    We use a program called Team Companion that you can use to reply "Done" to tasks in TFS. See more information on this at Dones - Do you reply 'Done' using Team Companion when using TFS?

    Tip 10: Consider alternatives in a team environment

    In a development team environment, it is better to move emails to bug tracking systems e.g.:

    1. TFS Work Items
    2. JIRA

    Tip 11: Include a video when appropriate

    Record a quick and dirty "Done Video"

    VIDEO - Top 10+ Rules to Better Email Communication with Ulysses Maclaren

  3. Do you know how to hand over tasks (aka Emails) to others?

    This rule is a variation of the popular rule Do you send "As Per Our Conversation" emails?

    The most dangerous time in a task's life cycle is in a handover. This is the most likely time for a misunderstanding to occur leading to a task getting lost and not being completed.

    Always make sure you clearly reallocate a task with an email to the person who will complete the task​ like the good example below:
    New,
    
    I already talked with Sergei, he will handle it.
    ________________________________________
    From: Adam 
    To: Andy
    Cc: Sergei; 
    Subject: Timepro!
    
    Hi Andy,
    
    As per our conversation yesterday about TimePro! 
    keeps crashing when I do a search under 'Company', please fix
    
    
    Figure: Bad example - task not clearly redirected
    Sergei
    
    As per our conversation - please action
    ________________________________________
    From: Adam
    To: Andy
    Cc: Sergei
    Subject: Timepro!
    
    Hi Andy,
    
    As per our conversation yesterday about TimePro! 
    keeps crashing when I do a search under 'Company', please fix
    
    
    Figure: Good example - task clearly redirected

    If you need to hand over an entire project there are more details here: Do you know how to hand over a project?

  4. Do you know the right way to report bugs and give feedback?

    ​​​​When reporting bugs and giving product feedback, it is essential that you are as descriptive as possible, so that the developer can reproduce the error to find out what the problem is or understand what features you are requesting

    Try to have one email per bug​/suggestion, but if the bugs/suggestions are related or very small (e.g. they are all on the same page) then you should group them together in a single email.​
    do-you-know-the-right-way-to-report-bugs-bad-example.png
    Figure: Bad Example - This email isn't going to help the developer much - it is vague and has no screen capture, and gives no alternate way for the developer to contact the user regarding the issue
    do-you-know-the-right-way-to-report-bugs-good-example.png
    Figure: Good Example - This email includes the product name and version, the category of the issue (BUG), a screen capture and contact number, and shows that the user's system is up to date

    A great template to follow is the Functional Bug template from the ASP.NET open-source project. Spending time to provide as much detail as possible, by ensuring you have the three critical components of: Steps to reproduce, Expected outcome, and Actual outcome, will save the both you and the developer time and frustration in the long run.

    Also, make sure your descriptions are detailed and useful as that can make finding the solution quicker and easier.

    Make sure you always explain and give as many details as you can of how you got an error or a bad experience.

    Hi, Rebecca,

               Where is SSW TV on the navigation?

    - Adam  

    Figure: Bad example - Lack of details

    Hi, Rebecca,

    1. Navigated to ssw.com.au
    2. Scrolling down looking for a big graphic like "CHECK OUT SSW TV! CLICK HERE!"
      (Nothing)
      Me, thinking… "Hmm… let's try the menu at the top..."
    3. About Us? Nope.
    4. Services? Nope.
    5. Products and Support? Nope.
    6. Training? Nope.
    7. User Group? Nope.
    8. Rules? Nope.
      Me, thinking... "OK. Now where? Most likely, the SSW company description will list it..."
    9. Navigates to About Us.
    10. Me, scrolls down… nothing.
      Me, thinking... "OK. Weird. Let's go back."
    11. Me, goes back to homepage.
      Me, thinking… "Is there a site map?"
    12. Scrolls to bottom of page. Clicks sitemap link.
      Me, thinking... "Ctrl+F for TV? Nope."
    13. Me, gives up… types tv.ssw.com.au to try and get lucky. Huzzah!

    - Adam

    Figure: Good example - We can easily identify more the one way to improve the UX

    Better than a good description of the bug is a screen recording. This should be followed for a more detailed report. Use Snagit (preferred) or Jing to record your screen.

     
    Figure: Good example - Recording bug reports in a video can make the issue clearer to see
     
    Figure: Good example - Giving feature requests via video

    Related rules

  5. Do you sort your emails by "Received" and "Important"?

    ​OK - so now you've got your important emails identified, don't let them get lost in the quagmire. If you use Outlook make use of its inbuilt functionality. Always sort your emails by the Received, but add a secondary sort by "Important". This way your important emails always stay at the top to haunt you until they are done.

    Sort by Recieved and Important
    Figure: Good Example - Sorted by Important and Received Date
    The Red Exclamation Mark is a good start, but the Blue Arrow keeps getting my attention.

    Use sort by importance to sort the items with the blue arrow to the bottom.

  6. Do you group your emails by Conversation and Date?

    You may be involved in different tasks simultaneously every day.  The best way to organize your tasks and follow each task individually is grouping your emails by conversation.  By default, Outlook groups the emails by Date.
    Figure: Bad example. Email messages are grouped by Date
    Figure:  Good example.  Email messages are grouped by Conversation

    Follow these steps to group by conversation:

    1. Open Outlook and select the Mail View.
    2. Right-click any column and choose the "Customize Current View..." option.
    3. Select the "Group by..." option as displayed in the image.
      Figure:  Steps to group by conversation field
    4. Select the "Conversation" field from the list.  (Leave empty the remaining groups)
    VIDEO - Top 10+ Rules to Better Email Communication with Ulysses Maclaren
  7. Do you know the "touch it once" principle? (AKA if something takes less than 5 minutes, do it immediately)

    There is a hidden cost that every task or email in your inbox adds that is easy to miss, and that is that every time you scan over an item and decide not to do it, you are really just kicking the can down the road, and your future self will have to later scan that item again, and possibly again decide that it’s not worth doing yet, and so kick it further down the road.

    This tiny cost once multiplied multiple times per task, and considering how many small (<5 minutes) style tasks we all get in a given day, can end up taking up a sizable portion of your effective time while at work.

    To combat this, if you ever receive a task that would take 5 minutes or less to complete, do it immediately, reply done if necessary, and then delete it.

    Another way to implement this principle to save yourself the cognitive load of re-reading emails is to forward emails to followupthen.com. For example, if you know you won’t be able to work on a particular task for at least 2 weeks because of a dependency, forward the email to 2weeks@followupthen.com, and it will reappear in your inbox at the time you can actually do something about it.

  8. Do you save important items in a separate folder?

    There are many types of emails which you receive but will never actually reply to. For example, a client may email "Sounds great - please go ahead." These kinds of emails should be kept as a reference for the future.

    Emails that came into your mailbox should not be left in your Inbox. The aim is to read, action (if needed) and delete. You should be trying to get your Inbox down to 0 items.

    So what's left in your 'Inbox' should only be 'To Do' items. Sure you might want to add subfolders to group related projects etc. but these subfolders should also contain items 'To Do'. Some people leave emails in their Inbox, for later reference only. We believe this is not a good idea, and you should create 2 folders outside your Inbox called 'Saved Items' and 'Saved Personal Items' for such emails.

    Figure: Good Example - Save important reference items in a separate folder

    Microsoft Outlook provides you with 4 main folders: 'Draft', 'Inbox', 'Outbox' and 'Send Items'. But we believe they are missing 2 additional folders: 'Saved Items' and 'Saved Personal Items'. You can use these two folders to keep your work-related or personal emails that you wanted to keep.

    You can create these two folders next to the Inbox and move the emails there.


  9. Do you unsubscribe from irrelevant newsletters?

    ​Throughout your years of surfing the net, you're sure to have subscribed to some newsletters that may have interested you at the time. As your interests and preferences change, you will find that you're still on many different lists.

    ​Instead of deleting the email from your Inbox and thinking that the problem has been solved, you should take the necessary steps to unsubscribe from the list so that you will never get bothered again. ​​