skip to Main Content

Rachel Willcox’s Spring Cleaning Guide, Part I: Your Inbox

We’ve previously introduced you to our wonderful new administrative assistant, Rachel Willcox. It was only a matter of time before we forced her into writing blog posts for us, too.

This is Part I of Rachel’s “Spring Cleaning” series. Part II to follow, next week.

. . .

I know you don’t want to do it. It’s worse than uphill wind sprints. Worse than taking this hit. Worse than thinking about this moment. Worse than trying to write a blog post that will inescapably be shamed by the sea of Jared’s wit in which it will live. (Editor’s Note: I feel like she’s giving me a run for my money, no?) But, do what I just did: inhale deeply and heed Nike’s timeless advice. And . . . Clean out your inbox. (And, maybe just keep it that way , too . . .)

Doing so will help you to assess each email as belonging to one of two categories: action and information. It will be most efficient to process all the emails of one category first, leaving the second category to be done later, uninterruptedly. It also makes the most sense to do it this way given the archiving you’ll be doing . . . but, we’ll get to that. Let’s address each broader category in turn:

Action emails. You have four options, and only four options: Delete; Delegate; Do; Defer. Sounds familiar, right?

Deleting is pretty easy—junk and other things that don’t matter anymore.

Delegating isn’t too bad either: forward it on, and delete it (you may want to hold onto it for informational purposes, though, in which case you may consider it now morphed into an information email that you’ll want to archive with the rest of that category).

Next is Doing. If whatever slight tendency to procrastinate that birthed your swollen inbox is materializing upon reading that word “procrastinate”, fear not. This one is easy too. If you can answer the email or do the task involved in a minute or two, do it. If not, it belongs to your last group . . .

Deferring just involves adding the email to a task list. In Outlook, this is as simple as dragging and dropping the email into the task pane, and then filling in your header fields fittingly: with due dates, reminders and progress details. Avoid using the generic “flag for follow-up” feature. That just makes more work for another day, when you try to figure out what kind of follow-up you had in mind when first you flagged it.

Now you might have a big task list. Sorry. I can’t help you with that. Or, maybe I can . . . by pimping out the ever-helpful (and in more ways than you could possibly imagine), services of LOMAP. Rodney and Jared are the best. (I know what you’re thinking. Don’t judge me. I have a job to keep.)

. . .

On to information emails, then?

This is all about archiving, which you should do in two ways: (1) saving emails (as .html’s or as documents), which represent important and/or significant amounts of information you are likely to reference later, as well; and (2) using your email server’s archiving feature for information that you’re just nervous about deleting. Some practice management software systems provide email archiving features, as well. We’ve written on this topic twice at the LOMAP Blog (for software and SaaS options and for an Outlook add-on).

Saving emails if you’re using Outlook, or creating Word documents for emails you access via a web browser, is, obviously, rote work. But, be careful. (You should be organized about this process, mostly because my next blog post is going to be about cleaning up your computer.) Title your file informatively (using some kind of standard filing convention–which you’ll hear more about later–and save the file in the folder of the project to which it relates. Otherwise, you might never find it again.

You won’t want to crowd your driver with separate documents for information you’ll probably never use, nor will you be able to fit these emails nicely, even, into a robustly designed computer filing system. So, that’s what archiving is for. It took me awhile before I discovered how easy and useful this is. Maybe that’s just the blonde hair. And, since some of you readers may share this stunning attribute, here’s the ever-simple lowdown for how to archive emails in Outlook:

-Use File > Archive.
-Select the appropriate date from the “Archive items older than” dropdown.
-(Now, here’s the part that won me over:) Click “Browse” under “Archive file” to rename and relocate your email archive document (Outlook creates a .pst file), within your own system. (This will make it easier to find and identify email archives and archived email.)

. . .

Naturally, all of the above is not something you want to do over and over again. Fortunately, I’ve got some ideas:

Check your email only periodically. Continually checking email while you are working on projects means that you won’t feel as though you have the time to deal with either the emails or the projects sufficiently or effectively. Depending on your needs and preferences, you may want to use time or quantity for your email usage metric. You are, after all, trying to create a process that works for you; otherwise , it won’t work, for you . . .

Time. Conventional wisdom advises to check email three or four times daily. Of course, conventional wisdom doesn’t know your schedule, workload, or type of work, so just make a rule and stick to it.
Quantity. If waiting for a certain amount of time to pass is just poorly-suited to the nature and volume of your work and/or messages that you receive, you may want to set a maximum number of messages for your inbox.
Exceptions are Exceptions. There will be obvious exceptions to your created habit, e.g.–when an email related to the project you are working on arrives. So, in that instance: Check that one email, but leave the rest.

I’ve even got some more quick-fire tips than that:

Make Prompt Decisions. Refer to the instructions for deleting, delegating, doing, and deferring, above.

Create Rules in Outlook. This may be
easier and more valuable (perhaps even most valuable) than you realize. The creation of Rules will allow you to expedite dealing with emails that share a similar nature. Create sub-folders in your inbox as necessary, in advance. Right-click on an email of the sort that you will want to apply a rule to, in order to set the appropriate conditions, and to direct it to an inbox sub-folder, or to your tasks. Microsoft offers guidance on managing email messages with rules, here.

Set AutoArchive in Outlook. Adjust the default settings for AutoArchiving according to your needs and preferences. You can change how often AutoArchive is run, how old items must be archived, and where archived items are saved. You can also set AutoArchive to delete old items. Use Tools > Options, select the “Other” tab and click the “AutoArchive” button.

Alright! Once you’re done, you’ve got the go-ahead to celebrate a little.