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Friday, June 17, 2016

Email management

Working at the American Library Association (ALA) means being at the hub of all kinds of professional communications.

There is news: from Chicago, from the association, from states, from the nation, from the world.

I have stakeholders: library colleagues across the board, ALA members, my staff, other ALA staff members, ALA leadership; the publishing community (both established and emergent); the press and other media representatives; the society at large; an international community of librarians and journalists.

I have projects: internal database development, staff workflow restructuring, joint ALA office leadership development and training, growing new channels of thought leadership.

Wait a minute: no wonder I'm a little stressed!

My point: I've had to grow. Fast. Most of it has been fun and interesting. But there has been one key source of anxiety, the biggest bugaboo of my work life lately: the unending flood of email, and my struggle to stay on top of it. I'm pretty sure I dreamed about it last night. No doubt that's why I woke up today around 5 a.m. and started (mind)mapping the issues.

Here's the first thing I've learned: before I even go to work, every morning lately I pull out a little index card and write down the three to five things I really think I need to get done that day. My best efforts, my first efforts, go to those. It's helped.

Throughout the day, though, I'm dealing with all that email. Sometimes, it's an urgent notification. Sometimes, it's just me taking a break between the big stuff.

After 5 months of processing all this both consciously and unconsciously, I think I've come up with an email management model. It looks something like this.


Most of the time, hitting the delete button is absolutely the right thing to do. The mail doesn't apply to me. I already knew it. I can find it somewhere else.


The second issue requires me to take some action. Those actions seem to fall into the following categories:


I can respond in just a few moments or minutes. Someone sent me a comment; I send a comment back. Someone asks me for a link or a file; I click on an attachment. Maybe it's a little longer: I have to dig into some older files, do a little research. But it's still under 10-15 minutes, and the relationship justifies the time.

In both of these cases: it makes sense to just get it out of the way, rather than pass over it and hope I remember to come back. That way, it doesn't linger and eat away at my conscience.

Add to my running "To Do" list

Here's the way my brain works. I need a distinct list of the things I hope to get around to. If I put it on the calendar, and something disrupts me, I lose it. I just don't remember to move it to another day. Often, the whole point of an email is that I have to take some action by some time. So I extract that from the email, put it on my to do list, and delete the message. That way, all of my "stuff to do" is on one list, not scattered across multiple messages or calendars.


Or it could be something related to one of those larger projects. And here's the key: most of the time, the right answer is to take it OUT of Outlook (the email client of ALA). If I stay in Outlook, I'm focused on mail. That means I'm always losing sight of a project in the flood of new email. If I move to a project management tool, I focus on meaning and management. So I pop over to one of my other tools (lately, Dynalist [], an online outliner that is dead simple to use) to record the relevant information, and outline the next steps. Dynalist notes are quickly searchable and re-arrangeable. Then I can delete the email.


All I have to do is to take a meeting request and put it on my schedule. Accept, decline, hunt around for a date, and send an invite. Again, the goal is just to get it out of the Inbox.

Read later

Often, I get an Internet link that's kind of interesting. It might wind up being a URL in our IF newsletter. It might just be diverting. But I can usually figure that out in a paragraph or two, and just drag it out of my Inbox to a "later" folder. If I don't get to it, it doesn't matter.


And here's where I got trapped. When you start a new job, you don't know what you'll have to know later. So you tend to save everything in Outlook, leaving it as part of a "maybe-I'll-need-this-later" pool. But Outlook doesn't really do searches very well, although it pretends to. And the sandpile grows and grows...

"Remember it" falls into three subsets:

Active email thread

Typically, this is short term. We're nailing down the content for next week's program. We're hammering out a pitch, presentation, or project. It makes sense to stash it in an Inbox subfolder, or even the main folder... as long as it only lasts a couple of days.

A note

There's a snippet of info that's good to tuck away. It gets filed, for me, in either SimpleNote (a quick, highly searchable notes database accessible from all my devices), or Dynalist (which is more about a work journal and project management notes).

A file

Intellectual Freedom folks tend to produce discrete Word documents. That might be a draft Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights. It might be an academic research report. In either case, the smart thing to do is save it to my file system: either working files (my home drive), or permanent shared files (a network location). These are longer pieces worthy of saving, and become part of a working or permanent file system.

An archive

When the project or thread wraps up, I may not need it. But maybe, even probably, I'll need to go back and reconstruct something, or remember who was involved. Then I can archive the folder, and get it off of the daily dashboard.

And there you have it

  • Throw it away
  • Do it
  • Remember it
Of course, it may well be that in future weeks I'll see the folly of my ways yet again. But I will say this: today, I not only ended the day with nothing in that day's in-basket, I plowed back through 9 days earlier. I think I'm finally seeing how to handle an essential communications tool at this significantly higher volume.

Now I need to re-consider the taxonomy of my filing system. But that's another post.

And you?

This represents just one man's attempt to sort out this issue. What have you tried? What's more important: what's worked?

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