Other than the backlog itself, it’s clear from my conversations with y’all that filing is a huge source of confusion and a big challenge for many of you when it comes to your email systems.
So here’s an excerpt from the forthcoming Easier Email guidebook about organizing and filing your messages.
[ Tip: Everything you're about to read applies to organizing your paper records as well. ]
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First and most importantly, in order to make your filing work, you must distinguish between active and reference-only messages. Trying to organize both types in the same way is the root of most filing problems.
Active messages are in-progress and requires some sort of action. There’s something specific you want to do with them.
Reference-only messages are records of past actions or communications you need to save for future reference should the need arise (but likely won’t). Most messages in this category are financial or other transactional communications that you need to keep for legal or similar reasons. In contrast to active messages, they are passive.
Because you don’t need to do anything with them, reference-only messages are easily archived by project or sender – what or who generated them. Drop them into an appropriately labeled digital file folder and you’re done.
When filing reference messages, avoid getting too granular with your categories. Start with broad groupings. Your records will tell you when it’s time to divide (usually when it takes a bit longer to find something you need than you’d like it to). In the meantime, put things where you would first look for them (not where you think you should put it because that’s what someone else told you to do). Trust and rely on the ever-improving powers of the search features of email programs and services. And match your organizational efforts to the likelihood that you will ever need to find this thing again. Keep it simple, sweethearts.
Active messages, on the other hand, must be organized by the actions they require – and grouping them by project or sender likely won’t tell you what to do with them. Plus, filing is a form of out-of-sight-out-of-mind. Active messages must remain visibly in front of you in some way.
And keeping them visibly in front of you – or at least the actions they require – may mean moving them into a different space than your inbox.
For me, any message that requires more than a straightforward answer (something needs to be decided or coordinated before I can reply) is forwarded to my favorite project management program so the action can be added to my weekly to-do list (otherwise that mini-project will never get done and then *shazam* I’ve got a backlog). You could create a “pending” or “in progress” folder to hold such messages until they have been handled if you like. And once completed, they can be archived like all other reference messages.
For instance, filing a potential testimonial by sender doesn’t tell you what to do with it. Creating a folder labeled “testimonials” would be better. But unless gathering testimonials is a regular part of a marketing routine that points you to that folder, its contents are going to be forgotten. Getting that action – “request approval to share comments as testimonial” – on to your to-do list gives you the best chance of follow-through. And your in-box can’t effectively function as your to-do list because it isn’t action specific and it can’t show you this task in the context of everything else you need to do.
If you’re getting bogged down in active messages, this is likely an indication that the systems that feed your email aren’t as clear as they need to be. This is not a filing problem, but a lack of clarity about where email fits into the larger processes of your business and life.
Similarly, messages that don’t require immediate action or need to be saved for your records – a newsletter with useful information that you want to reference in future, for instance – also likely need to be moved to a space other than your inbox in order to be useful rather than forgotten. I prefer a service like Evernote over a project management service for creating such a centralized “library” of materials, which can also include snippets from the internet, and my own notes.
Again, the information you keep must correspond to and support other active systems and endeavors (learning, marketing, content development, etc.) – otherwise they have no reason to arrive in your inbox in the first place, or to be saved there or anyplace else. To do otherwise is a recipe for overwhelm and guilt.
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Like this excerpt? Want more? Reserve your copy of Easier Email and make a date with your overflowing inbox to give it some much-needed TLC – and save some moolah in the process as a reward for planning ahead. – details here