Staying Productive and Distraction Free While in “Email Jail”

“Email Jail” is that place you go every work day to check your email and remain in a trance of open, reply, send, repeat until your next appointment, you get tired of your inbox, or you actually get to the illusive Inbox Zero. Anything that cuts crap time to save valuable time is gold in my book and cutting time off of the least awesome part of my day is gold in my book! Time is money as we all know being stuck at the end of the day with an inbox with emails still beckoning feels super unproductive in retrospect. Now, I am not out to overwhelm you or cause there to be a new process to how you do things, but what I will share here will save time (and money of course) and make your time your spend on emailing people, spent more wisely. At my place of employment, Outlook is and has been the standard as I am sure most reading this are used to. I will refer to Outlook 2013 in my example, so please review your version if what is read here does not match up. Outlook is a little more permission based than Gmail for example, and set-up out of the box it is not actually very well polished for my taste. These are the settings I changed to optimize my jail time and serve get released on good behavior. GoToJailweb2

Shut off your pop-up and sound notifications

By default, Outlook pops up a little notice in the bottom-left corner of your desktop, and if you have speakers, you know there is also a noise notification. I do not know about you, but I cannot have every new email become an important notice especially when most are not worthy having read the title to.

  1. Under ‘File’, choose Settings and you will find the Message arrival section in the Mail tab.
  2. Make sure both the “Play a sound” and “Display a Desktop Alert” boxes are unchecked.
  3. Click “OK”.

These only serve to distract you from writing your current email reply or getting that important proposal over to your client. This will ensure emails are sent on-time and you are not left with a dozen drafts at 4pm. I typically go by a FIFO rule (first in, first out) when managing email and these two features shut off really help to keep me on task.

Minimize the number of folders kept

Outlook-Inbox-Capture
I truly only use the four folders in ‘Favorites” and have my other drop-downs closed most of the time.

Nothing makes me cringe more when looking at someone else’s email client setup than seeing a folder tree, and I am not exaggerating, with literally hundreds of folders under a hierarchy that is 10-15 levels deep. This system is typically split up by nested folder inside nested folder creating a superbeast of a directory to work through when dropping an completed or archivable email. This email sorting habit will bog you down very quickly; navigating where to file an email away for every email from every person ever. I have seen folders with a single email contained inside and it was from someone whom that person will likely never contact again… why did they keep this email? Obsession is the only logical answer, or “insanity” to be more blunt.. A system was started long ago in a cubicle far, far away and if you were to stray from this system, a chaotic calamity of email disorganization would creep in, right? Well, just off to the right here is my own Outlook folder pane. You’ll see I have expanded all the folders, but I typically just use the four folders in my Favorites section. Yep, just four folders, and three of them are there by Outlook default – Inbox (notice the Inbox Zeroness going on, oh ya!), Completed, Sent, and Deleted. By utilizing the built-in search features (both universal search and search bar) you create the folder hierarchy in a sense. For example, I wanted to know when that Marketo webinar is that is coming up, and since I did not opt to have them send me an invite when I registered, I need to dig up that email reminder.

  1. In the ‘Completed’ folder (I place underscore’s in front of the word to utilize alphanumerics to order my list the way I want)
  2. I start by sorting by “From” and start typing M-A-R-K-E-T-O and Viola!
  3. You see that I have found everything from Marketo, but note that I did not type this in the search bar but utilized the universal search since technically the Inbox pane was selected when I started typing. (Literally, just start typing after sorting, it works even though you cannot see it being typed)

CaptureAs you will see, it lists all the threads in alphanumeric order, yet chronologically within each thread. The only other folders I use are the Archives and I have those sorted by fiscal quarters. Sidebar: I will drop 3-month chunks of completed emails, that are all 3-6 months old, and drop them into a device archive folder. I want my “Completed” folder to contain only those items in the last 6 months. Everything older than that I will likely no longer need, readily available that is. It is the only system of anything I run that is superbly device-dependent, but I am cloud-driven for 99% of my work technology these days.

 Open application to Calendar, Tasks or ANYTHING but your Inbox

Want to start the day off in a frantic mess? Didn’t think so. So why start off in the weeds when you should put everything planned for today in the fore-front of your mind. By using a desktop version of Outlook, by default, the program opens to the Mail ribbon, and more specifically the Inbox. Ideally, I like to have it open to the Calendar ribbon so I can get a look at what my day looks like, plan for hard stops on meeting that are back-to-back and note any important people I need to see or call, and do this before I begin to peak into the fires I need to put out later on in the day as well. To do this:

  1. Go to ‘File’, and choose ‘Options’,
  2. Then choose the ‘Advanced’ ribbon. The second set of option should say “Outlook start and exit” and just click ‘Browse’.
  3. The option for Calendar should be there. For me, this is the part I would like to open first by default, but you could make Tasks open first if that is more relevant to you. It could even open default to Outbox, just in case you’d like to start the day making sure your emails did all make it out the door yesterday.

By starting off your day looking at the game plan you look to start a much more successful day. Furthermore, by starting off your positive email habits sooner (as in now, right now, stop, go do what I just wrote about here!) you can start to cultivate a more productive work day as a result. As much as email plays a role in business communications today, making sure it’s primed for success is key to surviving your stay in Email Jail.

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