One of the biggest challenges people ask me about is trying to avoid getting buried under the tidal wave of e-mail that threatens to bury us. You know the story — you get to your desk in the morning and discover that you have 40 e-mails waiting for you. You settle in and start attacking them, but get bogged down in trying to get through the first couple of messages and the tasks they require and, before you know it, you have a meeting to get to or a call to make and you still haven´t gone through the messages you received overnight, never mind the ones that will come throughout the day. Sound familiar?
Here´s the problem that so many people face. When an e-mail requires some action, they feel that they should take that action right away. If they do that, the reasoning goes, then they will never have to deal with the message again. Good in theory, but unfortunately things don´t work that way. That´s not nearly as efficient as we need it to be. It just means that we get bogged down and don´t get nearly as much accomplished as we can, or as we need to.
Next time we face a situation like this, here´s what I want you to try. First, start out by sitting down at your desk with a pad of paper sitting beside your keyboard. There are higher tech solutions that you could reach for than a pad of paper, but I don´t care. This time around, the tangibility and simplicity of the paper will serve you well. Now, open up your mailbox. As you read each message, write down the actions that are needed from you on the pad of paper. Once you´ve read it, file the message away in your folders (you do have folders to manage your e-mail, don´t you?).
By the time you have made it through your messages you will have an empty inbox and a full pad of paper. Revel in the feeling of having made it through your messages. Your pad is now your to-do list, but you still have two more steps before you are done. First, look at your tasks on the list and prioritize them. You can do that however you want to, but I prefer a simple ranking system. I assign each task a 1, 2, or 3. A 1 is a task that has to get done before I go home. A 2 needs to get done, too, but can wait until after the 1´s are done. A 3 is a task that I know I am more than likely not going to get to, but by giving it a number I am consciously letting myself pretend I will.
Once the list is prioritized, the final step is to leave it alone. Go to your meeting, make your call, or do whatever you need to do. Instead of struggling to tackle your list whenever you can grab a second or two, schedule a block of time, turn your phone off, close your door and tackle your list. If you do it this way, you actually stand a chance of getting something done.