Ever tried to organise a really, REALLY, REALLY messy room?
Picture a messy, disorganised, cluttered, upside-down room. No, not that one, messier! Almost there! Messier still! Got it?
Okay, now imagine you have to organise it. But, you cannot throw anything out, and there just is not enough space to hold everything even if you could arrange it.
An almost impossible task if you really give it some thought.
Office paperwork is just like that. Computer file systems. Network storage. E-mail inboxes too.
You might not be able to do anything about all the office paper cluttering up your life, and the computer file system might just be a battle best not fought, but you do not have to win every battle to win the war with clutter.
If you are anything like me, some days you spend almost your entire existence with your e-mail client open, sending messages back and forth across the world with clients, employees and contractors, and hopefully keeping track of it all with dozens of flagged messages awaiting a follow-up or further action to be taken.
The other issue we all face is the "pack rat" mentality when it comes to digital data. Storage is cheap so why not save everything? The only problem is that software applications and their search features are not keeping up with the glut of information we are collecting.
The major problem with most e-mail systems is that they are not actually engineered to allow the end-user, that would be you, to get things done, and get them done efficiently.
Face it, Microsoft Outlook and gmail are very fine applications, but they are stuck in the 1970’s idea of e-mail workflow methods. Microsoft even has an add-on package that you can purchase that provides enhanced CRM (customer relationship management) features to ensure that follow-ups and contact information does not fall through the cracks. Most modern era e-mail packages used in the 21st century cater to a lowest common denominator in terms of functionality and provision for communication.
For this article, I am concentrating mostly on the features of Microsoft Outlook as I have found that is the package most people, who run Microsoft Windows and take their e-mail seriously, actually use. Apple Mac OS X is a whole other subject and I will have to talk about that at another time to give it the time and treatment it deserves.
There are a couple of really simple steps you can employ to getting on top of the e-mail clutter and staying there. Many of the steps are applicable to other e-mail clients too, but some of the plug-ins worth investigating are only available for Microsoft Outlook.
The first step, and the most obvious one, is to create folders for important e-mails such as business correspondence (one for each client), friends (one for each person or category) and family. Microsoft Outlook makes this easy, and using the search function will let you track down all of the e-mails to or from a particular person and move them into the proper folders.
Once you have the folders set up, you can automatically direct all future e-mails to the proper folders by setting up filters in Microsoft Outlook. Unfortunately, whilst the filtering system is reasonably powerful, it is hellishly cumbersome to work with if you have many custom rules and if I really recommend purchasing an add-on package that will make the sorting and storing of e-mails much easier.
There are several add-on products available for Microsoft Outlook that can automatically shuffle your e-mail to the appropriate folders, or even delete it completely before you ever get to see it. The latter functionality being very useful for those annoying aunts that send you the funny cat pictures.
My personal favourite at this time is SimplyFile from TECH HIT. SimplyFile works with all current versions of Microsoft Outlook, and has been very stable in day-to-day usage. After a brief automated training period, SimplyFile acts like a switchboard operator, routing e-mails to the appropriate folders without any nudging from you.
Beyond the automated filtering system in SimplyFile, there are also two very useful features that make working with Outlook so much easier. The first is the “create task from e-mail” option, allowing you to create an Outlook task from the e-mail you are reading, and the other is “create appointment from e-mail” which sets up a dated event at some point in the future. Both of these features are worth the price alone if you have a lot of e-mails that
The greatest waste of time you can force upon yourself when it comes to organising e-mail is to not organise it at all. The search features in gmail, Microsoft Outlook and Apple Mac Mail are exceptionally capable, when they work, but over-reliance on indexing and search when everything is just dumped into a big pile will eventually bite you in arse once the number of e-mails you have to wrangle goes beyond a few hundred messages.
If you have to keep correspondence from clients, business partners, sales leads, employees and colleagues, you need to create a systematic process that can be applied the moment you handle a message. Just like in the ideal world of handling a piece of paperwork only once, if you want to be as efficient as possible, you must apply the same principle to e-mail correspondence too.
Got other non-obvious tips for efficient handling of e-mail? Drop me a line or leave a comment and I’ll be sure to create a follow-up article.