In today’s office, we’re all plagued by an ever-expanding inbox. I’ve found this to be one of the most challenging aspects of my job as a manager. Each email is essentially a task, or to-do, that someone else is assigning to me. Everyone in business today spends a significant amount of time managing their Inbox to get things done. What I discovered today, however, is that there’s more to managing email than handling your Inbox. Your Sent Items folder represents an important, and often ignored area of email management. In this article, I’ll detail the need to manage your Send Items, and propose my solution. Your input it always welcome below in the comments.
Every incoming message is a set of tasks for me. At the very least I need to open each message, skim it, and delete, archive, forward, or read and respond. This doesn’t include any “real work” that the email may demand (researching a product, running a report, etc). Like most of you, I find moments in the day to sit down and wrestle with the inbox, slashing away at it and trying to keep it to a reasonable size. I’ve learned to take each email, parse it, and act on it. This action may be an email response, a delegation of a task, an addition to a to-do list, an archiving, or a simple press of the delete key. With these tools, I can bring my inbox down to size and focus on my other tasks. But all this time, I’ve been missing something critical – I’ve only been managing my inbox, what about my outbox?
I’ve been reading David Allen’s critically acclaimed book, “Getting Things Done”, in an effort to find a way to manage my time and my tasks. I’m only on Chapter 4, but I’m already gaining some clarity about the scope of tasks that I surround myself with every day. One area that Allen opened my eyes to is the concept of the “open loop”, which represents an unfinished task, project, or communication. As he points out early in the book, an open loop can be an action that you are waiting for someone else to do. Allen recommends tracking these in a list called “Waiting For” and reviewing this list on a regular basis. At any given time, I’m waiting for 10 or more people to get back to me, and this is something I have trouble keeping track of.
The realization I came to today is that almost every email I send represents a task on the “Waiting For” list. How many messages have I sent out so someone assigning them the “next step” on a project, and then simply forgot about it? How often do they drop the ball and stall or kill the project? Maybe I’ve emailed my employee and asked him or her to draft up a letter for a client, or maybe I’ve asked a client for some data that I can’t continue without, or maybe I’ve opened up a trouble ticket with a software vendor. In any case, most of my outgoing emails require an action on someone else’s part, an action that I am actively waiting for and need to follow up on.
The “Waiting For” email list, aka my Sent Items, might be bigger than my Inbox! As I realized this, my heart sunk a little. I thought of all the new tasks I had made myself aware of. I envisioned opening up a to do list every time I sent an email and painstakingly transcribing details about the outgoing message, who needed to act, when I expected a response, when I needed one, etc. This sounds like an absolute nightmare. Fortunately, I found a pretty simple solution that I wanted to share with everyone, and see how it works for me or for anyone else.
The Technique: Managing Your Sent Items with “Resolved Sent”
The key to managing your sent items will be to essentially have two folders for sent items. The first folder is just your normal “Sent” folder – where sent messages are automatically placed by your software upon send. This is the temporary home of all sent mail, and your goal will be to clear this folder just like you do your inbox. Your goal will be to eventually move all of your sent messages into a second folder, which I’ll call the “Resolved Sent Items” folder. This folder is for sent items that do not require any follow up, and can be forgotten about forever.
As with any GTD technique, this would only work with proper review. I need to regularly go through my Sent Items folder and accomplish two goals: move messages to the Resolved Sent Items folder, and be reminded of items that I’m still waiting for. I propose doing these separately.
At the end of each day, I will go through the day’s sent mail, which lives at the top of the Sent Items folder This task is simple, all I need to do is look at each message and determine it is an “open loop” or not. If the loop is closed, the message gets moved to Resolved Sent Items. If the message is still an open loop, it stays put.
At the start of each day, I should look at the Sent Items folder in its entirety. Every single message in the folder represents something I’m waiting on (since I’ve screened the list the night before). As I read through these open loops, I may be prompted to send reminder emails, change courses on projects, or just to be aware that I am waiting. Once I’ve been through this list in the morning, I can forget about it until the end of the day, when the pattern repeats.
This can be implemented with either folders (Outlook) or labels (Gmail, Thunderbird). Outlook users can create a subfolder of the Sent Items folder called “Resolved Sent Items” and label users can create a label called “Resolved Sent” which they can attach to sent items. Either way, it will be easy to pull up a list of all sent messages that aren’t finalized, and parse them.
Success in business is accomplished many ways, and one of the tried and tested means of accomplishment in business is follow-up. I pride myself in being reliable and responsible with my tasks. This new, wider vision of my task responsibilities is intimidating, but will also allow me to perform in a more successful, organized, and stress free manner, if I can keep up with the twice daily reviews. Please post your feedback and comments below.
Update: Someone came up with a pretty cool looking way to do this with Gmail. See here: http://todmaffin.com/waitingfor. I haven’t tested it but it looks like a wonderful implementation. Now if only someone would come up with a similar solution in Outlook.