Updated: Sep 23
There were so many mornings where I’d walk into the office and find about 200 emails waiting for me. My first thought used to be, “Don’t people sleep?” My second thought was, “How am I ever going to get through these emails in addition to everything else I need to get done today?”
It got to a point where I developed “email denial” and just allowed my inbox to pile up with emails thinking that if somebody wanted me urgently they’d IM me or call my cell. The problem with this attitude was that I missed out on emails that had critical information and was not well-informed when I attended meetings. Also, I fell behind on actions that I needed to take care of and people were beginning not to count on me to get things done. Something had to change.
What I wanted to share in this article are five time saving tips I discovered that I hope will benefit project managers in their battle against the inbox.
Establish Email Subfolders
A fantastic way to get emails out of your inbox and accounted for is to drag them off to a subfolder once you’ve analyzed them. To set yourself up for this, you’ll need subfolders that make sense depending on the typical project management work that you do. For example, I’ve set up subfolders for the following topics:
Projects I’m currently working on
Sub-folders within the projects folder for: Budget Management, Status Reporting, Development, Testing, Approvals, etc.
Project subfolders to track emails regarding specific risks or issues. For example, a Software Integration folder. This way you’ll have an email trail on an important topic.
An example image follows below. The idea here is that you analyze an email and if it doesn’t require an action from you but you want to keep it as reference you can drag that email into one of the below folders.
The ultimate goal is to get emails out of your inbox and filed appropriately. Shortly, we’ll discuss how to handle emails you need to take action as a project manager.
Go through your emails to note actions, not to immediately take action
When you reach an email where you need to take action, do not immediately work on it. Instead, note this task in either an online personal planner or a book planner you can write in. I explain in tip #3 below the advantages of doing this.
Once you note down what needs to be done, move this email out of your inbox and into an appropriate folder for reference if you later need it. The goal here is to have an actionable list that you can prioritize once you’re done going through your emails. Also, you’ll be one step closer to emptying out your inbox and concentrating specifically on your project management work.
Beware the temptation to immediately take care of an email
You're looking at an email and thinking that it will only take about 2 minutes to answer it. However, one thing may lead to another and you may open a can of worms.
For example, you open an email to reply to your colleague about a question they asked about the project plan. This prompts a response from your colleague or they send you an IM. You go back and forth with this person and eventually wind up on an impromptu call with your colleague.
An exception is if you're in an escalation situation and were waiting for a reply from a key person. You need to take action on high-priority items especially if they’re escalations and your teammates are waiting for a response.
Schedule a time when you’ll look at emails
Avoid the temptation of looking at emails every time you hear the dinging sound of a new email. Set up a couple of times during the day when you’ll go through your emails.
An example of the timeframes that can be used are about 15-20 minutes once you get to office and before you start your meetings. Another is about 15-20 minutes after lunch and before you start your afternoon sessions. Of course, all our schedules are different so experiment and see what works for you. Another option is to look at emails during your 3pm lull instead of napping at your desk. At least you’ll look like a productive project manager – just joking!
Leverage an Action Item Document (AID) to note the status of current actions
An effective tool I’ve found over the years is to have an action item Excel document handy as you go through your emails. There are emails that don’t require action from you however you need to note the effect they have on open items within your project.
For example, a software developer sends an email stating that development has been complete and that it is now fine if the quality team tests this component. On the surface, there is no action for you but you might want to make a note in your AID that you need to follow up with the testing team to ensure that they will finish testing on time.
A sample image of this document is below:
Leveraging the above tactics ultimately got me to an empty inbox and helped me to manage my time as a project manager. It’s very easy to give up on your inbox and to let the emails pile up. However, you do run the risk of missing timely information especially if they are related to actions that you must take.