My struggles with email triage

I enjoy information, probably more than I should. I’ve managed to find a career path where information really is money — if I can break a story or create a new angle on it, I can eat at the end of the day. I’m constantly on the look out for new information that I can use. I get emails about all sorts of things, follow almost 300 blogs and websites via RSS and generally try to know everything the moment it happens.

As much as I love information, though, I’m willing to admit that I have a problem. I’m starting to get a little overloaded, and my old information triage system just isn’t working for me. Up until now, reading an email or post and acting on it immediately or getting it on my future tasks list has been enough. I was able to take a moment whenever a new email popped up and just go for it. No longer, though. I’ve got enough information coming my way that my system needs to mature.

I already had labels implemented, in both my email account and my RSS reader, but they have become the final word in handling things. For instance, email newsletters are all labeled as such and are only read when more important matters have been dealt with, and are all read together. Same goes for blogs and websites. There are some sites that I simply must read in order to do my work — those go at the top of my list. Everything else can wait until I need a new project.

On Monday, I started an attempt to cut down the time I spend on email and other information. Up until now, I’ve kept a browser window open with my email, my RSS reader and other information tools open at all times. I broke down and took the advice of just about every productivity expert: I closed the window. It made a difference, too. Even taking a minute to delete an email is apparently enough to break my train of thought. It took sheer force of will — I really am an information addict — but, on Monday, I only checked my email four times over the course of my work day. It was okay, too. I know that I got more done than I normally would have, and nothing important slipped through the cracks. I managed to keep my RSS reading and other browsing to the same time frame.

Penelope Trunk said something yesterday, while explaining why she never gets to that first, most important thing on her to-do list immediately. It really resonated with me: “…I sit down to work at 8am and I answer email. Which is never the most important thing, but it is always the most fun, because a full in-box is like a bucket full of lottery tickets: You never know, but you always hope you’ll hit big.” (The rest of the post isn’t about email, for the record.) That’s exactly what happens to me! I sit down, start reading and bump my first few tasks in order to process a few emails that really don’t measure up in importance.

I didn’t touch my computer for almost 36 hours — Monday evening through Wednesday morning. But when I logged on Wednesday and found 97 email in my inbox, I felt great — so many people wanted to talk to little ol’ me! I pared it down to 60 emails that I actually had to do something about, from responding to making notes on my calendar. We’re not even going to think about how many updates were waiting on my RSS reader. I knew that I really ought to just do a bit of quick triage to make sure nothing was urgent, and then move on to dealing with my work for the day. I could have handled anything else later and avoided any worries about a time crunch at the end of the day. But no. I got caught up in my email enjoyment and spent almost two hours going through all those emails, crafting responses and making notes. I have a nice, empty inbox to show for it, as well as a set of undone tasks. Saying that I fell off the wagon would be putting it lightly. Even worse, as I attempted to focus on getting my work done, I had a very difficult time shifting to spending more that a minute or two on the same thoughts.

Creating a new method of processing information is an ongoing attempt for me. It would be far easier if I didn’t enjoy just reading the news for the heck of it, but I do know that getting used to not having information always at my finger tips may be the only way for me to focus on the important things — the things that I get paid for. For me, it’s a matter of finding balance between reading the information that leads me to future work and completing my current projects. I’m starting to think that, at least for me, checking my email once in the morning and once in the evening would be a great goal. I’m not sure how long it will take to reach that goal, but I’m working on repeating Monday’s success.

Do you have any ways that you keep yourself on track? Tricks to keep yourself from getting lost in email and other information? Please share — I may need all the help I can get!

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