Product Manager Secrets For Dealing With Email

by drjim on January 13, 2009

Product Mangers Need To Find A Way To Deal With Lots Of Email

Product Mangers Need To Find A Way To Deal With Lots Of Email

So here we stand together at the start of a new year filled with hopes and dreams that this year will be better than last. Now if we could just do something about that email problem that we’ve all been dealing with…

I don’t know about you, but depending on what part of the product development / release cycle I’m currently at, I can get up to about 300 emails a day. Talk about a Tsunami! You may have already guessed that not all of those emails are all that important; however, I still need to work my way through the pile in order to find the ones that are important!

In the past I was just overwhelmed by this amount of email. I’d sit down and try to work my way through the pile, but by the time I got a few answered, more would have arrived! There seemed to be no way to climb this mountain.

Desperate for some sort of solution, I looked around for a solution. Based on some blogs that I had read, I discovered David Allen’s Getting Things Done approach. I read his book and spent some time thinking about what he had to say.

I must confess that there were a lot of things that David suggested doing that I was just unable to put into practice in my life for one reason or another. However, he made some really good points about email that struck home with me.

David basically said that too many of us (me included) tend to use our “inbox” as a storage place for emails. His suggestion was that we clean out our inboxes and keep them clean. Hmm, this sure seemed like just the thing that I needed to do.

At work I use the corporate Microsoft Exchange email system. After reading David’s book, I went ahead and created two new folders to store email in. I called these folders “@Action” and “@Waiting For”. The “@” symbol is used to make both of these folders easy to find by having them show up at the top of my list of Outlook folders.

The “@Action” folder is used to temporarily store emails that I need to look at further. This allows me to quickly step through my new emails and throw away the junk, reply to the quick answers, and file everything else in @Action.

This allows me to process immense amounts of email very quickly. Yes, I realize that this means that I’ve got more work to do, but it’s still a step in the right direction. Words cannot describe the incredible feeling of satisfaction that one feels when you see an empty email inbox!

The “@Waiting For” file is used slightly differently. Whenever I send an email to someone asking for information or requesting something, the challenge is to remember that I’ve asked for something (and what I’ve asked for). I “BCC” myself on these emails and when I get a copy of the email that I’ve sent, then I go ahead and file it in my “@Waiting For” file.

Now dear reader, you may have already spotted the one flaw in my clever system: I need to remember to review the “@Action” in order to work through those emails that require some study. I also have to remember to go through the “@Waiting For” file in order to go back and remind people that they owe me information.

No system is perfect, but this way of dealing with email has served me well for about 5 years now. I may find a better way in the future, but for now this one takes care of me.

What do you think? Do you have an email system that works for you? Do you think that my system would work for you? Can you think of anything that I should be doing to make my system better? Leave me a comment and let me know what you are thinking.

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Raghavendra January 13, 2009 at 10:10 pm

Nice post.

I use a slightly different approach. I use Inbox as my task list. This will contain only those messages that I have to take some action or my own mails to others, which I have to follow-up later.
I have another “project” folder which contains all mails that might be needed in future (here no categorization and no sub-folders). Whenever I get a mail I either delete it or move it to project folder or keep it in Inbox so that I can take action later. As I finish some action I either delete corresponding mail from Inbox or move it to project folder.
I use a desktop search application to find old mails.

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Dr. Jim Anderson January 14, 2009 at 11:04 am

Raghavendra: I hear you on using desktop search to find old emails – Google Desktop is my best friend! I’m interested in how you use the InBox as your task list. Doesn’t it keep getting things added to it as the day goes on?

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Raghavendra January 15, 2009 at 1:50 pm

Dr. Jim Anderson: Yes, as you said Inbox gets filled fast. I get 150 to 200 mails everyday. As I mentioned in my earlier comment, there are only three actions that I take for new mail. Delete it, move it to project folder or keep it in Inbox. At the end of the day I make sure that my Inbox doesn’t have more than 20 mails(tasks). I don’t use any other task list and reminders. Mail count in my mail box reminds me of my tasks.
I also use rules and formatting features in Microsoft Outlook. Some examples given below.
– I get mails sent to a mailing list with known subject, majority of these mails don’t need any action from me. As many people do I have created rules to delete/move these mails.
– I use auto-formatting settings for my mails in Inbox. All mails sent directly to me will be in red color. Mails due to subscription with a web site/service provider will be in green color. Mails that I send to myself for follow-ups will be in light grey color. So whenever I open my Inbox I will easily know which mails to check first.
– I have tweaked layout of window, tool bars and menu items of Outlook such that I get to see as many mails as possible with auto preview option.

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Dr. Jim Anderson January 16, 2009 at 9:57 am

Raghavendra: Well there you go – you sure seem to have found a way to use your email inbox as a powerful task tracking tool. I like that you are using color coding to identify the most important emails – I set that up awhile ago; however, I used too many different colors and now I can’t remember which is which!

What I would miss if I used your system is that deep down feeling of satisfaction that I get when I see that my inbox is actually empty! My system of moving emails to other files, even through there is really only one, has the danger that I’ll forget to check on those emails that I moved.

I like your system! Now just make sure that you back up ALL of your email files often…!

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Jeff January 16, 2009 at 9:50 pm

There is one point in David Allen’s book that is crucial to the process: the weekly review. In Outlook, I added a weekly reminder to go through my inbox and clean everything up. I also use this time to go through all my tasks in my @actions folder and delete/archive what no longer needs to be in my @waiting for folder. This keeps things neat and tidy and allows me to be on top of things.

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Dr. Jim Anderson January 17, 2009 at 9:23 pm

Jeff: you know, I had forgotten about that part of David’s plan. I can remember that I was always trying to schedule time to do a daily review in order to stay on top of things; however, something always seemed to come up. Eventually my @Actions folder and @Waiting For folders would grow to monstrous size and I’d be right back where I started.

I’m impressed that you’ve been able to make this work for you. Perhaps I need to go back and give it one more try…

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Mike Boudreaux February 7, 2009 at 1:47 pm

Lots of great suggestions. I use these methods to manage my Inbox:
1 – I have a CC: Inbox where all messages go if I’m not in the To: line.
2 – I use rules to move newsletters emails to a separate folder. I rarely look at these unless I have a lot of downtime. I read RSS for news feeds.
3 – I use auto-formatting to mark emails from my upward reports red so I make sure to respond to these promptly.
4 – I delete messages immediately if they don’t require action by me. Deleted items are autoarchived to a PST for searching.
5 – I drag emails that require action to my Task list and delete the message.
6 – I shift-delete replies like “OK” and “good job” and “great idea.”
7 – I shift-delete messages that I reply to and try to only keep the final message in a discussion in my Deleted Items folder.
8 – I never file emails. They are either in Sent items or Deleted items folders.

The CC: Inbox rule is probably the most important one. If I’m on the Cc: list I assume that it is for information only. I usually read these only once/week.

I recently installed Franklin Covey PlanPlus in Outlook and it helps me to prioritize tasks and group them into projects. I’ve used this tool before and I think it is really helpful to prioritize my work. A long time ago I used paper planners from Franklin Covey and so their tools make sense to me.

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Dr. Jim Anderson February 10, 2009 at 10:15 am

Mike: Wow – you’ve been a busy boy! It sure looks like you’ve almost “programmed” your email system to handle email the way that you want it to be handled. What really caught my attention was that you never file email (it only exists in sent / deleted). I’m not so sure I’m on board with this one. I find myself using Google Desktop to search my email every so often in order to find some important piece of info. I think that a deleted folder gets cleaned out every so often and that would screw me up big time! I’ll need to look into that Franklin Covey tool…

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Mike Boudreaux February 10, 2009 at 11:12 am

I didn’t realize how much I have built into my email use habits until I read your comment. It has just built up as best-practices I’ve picked up here and there over the past decade.

Another Outlook email tip – Try installing Xobni (Inbox spelled backward). It shows a window pane next to your Outlook Inbox with information about the recipient, including links to the conversations you have had and the file attachments exchanged. Very useful!

I autoarchive my sent items and deleted items to a separate PST file that includes these same directories. If the email is older than 1 week, then it goes to my offline folder and I know exactly where it is. Even with this frequency I end up moving messages over manually because I will run out of space in my mailbox. People keep sending me big files via email – a major annoyance of mine.

I forgot to mention that I do have one folder that I file to – Important Emails. I put major emails there, like policy communciations, strategic milestones, etc. I have tried filing emails, but I usually end up searching for the place I filed it more than if I just do a text search. When I’m looking for an older message, I usually know the sender or the recipient and the time frame when it was sent and I’ll just go directly to the name in my sent/deleted items folders. I have found that trying to maintain a filing system usually ends up being a bottleneck in keeping my Inbox clean and I can’t find them when I need them anyway.

I think that the most important email management tool in Outlook is shift-delete. If you don’t need to see it ever again, permanently delete it! If I reply to a message, I will often delete the original one because it is duplicated in the body of my reply.

I also don’t typically keep Bookmarks in my Internet browser either, except for corporate Intranet sites that aren’t searchable by Google. Even if I visit a site regularly, I will go there by searching Google. In general, I hate browsing through files and sites to find things. Two clicks at most and I should be where I’m going.

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Dr. Jim Anderson February 11, 2009 at 9:36 am

Mike: You caught my attention with the Xobni reference. I had read about it in the Wall Street Journal and so I installed it. It’s pretty cool looking, but it sure seemed to slow my Outlook down. I ended up removing it because the value that it provided was not worth the wait time that I was sitting though. Have you seen the same thing?

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Aaron Crews February 10, 2009 at 5:50 pm

Mike – those are great ideas. It is an enlightening realization that search is powerful and quick enough now that you do not have to file every email – you can pile it instead. XP users can get great search functionality using Windows Search 4.0 (http://www.microsoft.com/windows/products/winfamily/desktopsearch/default.mspx; this is built into Vista). This gives you a search box in your toolbar that will find any file/email on your computer, including those residing in a .pst archive.

I like the concept of using your deleted items as an archive because the keyboard shortcuts (delete, shift-delete) are built-in. Personally, I do mini-piles: one pile per project and an archive pile. I have macros set up to move the selected emails to the appropriate pile. These macros can be initiated via keyboard shortcut: Alt-Q is Archive, and projects are Alt-1, Alt-2, etc. Deleted items get deleted, and sent items are unfiltered.

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