2 October 2017

What To Do About The Non-Urgent But Useful Emails

My Melbourne friend Nigel sent me a great question about email. Because it’s an issue for many, I decided to share it in this week’s blog.


Here’s a dilemma that I face frequently with email and workflow.

 I stare at my email feed. It stares back at me, blankly. “So what are you going to do”, it challenges me. A quick triage of “Yes”, “No”, “Good idea”, Delete, delete, delete, archive, unsubscribe, and “see you at 4pm on Tuesday at my office” …. and I’m down to 9 emails left, undecided.

 A quick glance at the subscribed emails remaining says that they are a good read – but need five minutes to read, and probably re-read and extract some quotes.

 Do I ..

a. dump them into a ‘read’ folder in email

b. gently slide them into a ‘read’ folder in my task list

c. open them in my browser and tag them for reading later

d. just read them then and there?

 Then there’s that one email that needs considered time to respond to, and a response drafted and re-crafted.

 Do I ..

a. Tag it and leave it in the email

b. dump it in a ‘respond later’ folder in email

c. send it to my task list … where it will be buried

d. draft a response immediately, and set a time to get back to it?

 So the question is about principles:

Should emails that become more “read” or “work” than email

a. stay in email

b. be put into an email subfolder (out of the inbox)

c. become a task

d. be calendarised

Here are my thoughts, not only for Nigel, but anyone who’s pondered the same questions.

However, before I begin, a caution. There is always more than one possible answer.

As Nigel correctly says, it is a question of principles:

1.  The first of two equally important principles is – keep your chosen method simple. The more complex a system, or the more lists or places you have to check in a day, the less likely you are to follow them – unless you’re in the smaller group of people who love complex processes and have enough desk time to work them.

2.  The second key principle –Don’t let email side-track you when you’re working on higher priorities. Chunk blocks of time to work on lower-level emails when you’ve gone as far as you can on higher priorities. Do high-value tasks when you’ve got your highest energy.

3.  Whatever system you choose has to work for you. If you need to see things in order to remember them, tucking items into Tasks or even into dedicated folders for later action will probably not work for you. On the other hand, if you have a large number of vital emails every day, leaving ‘to read later’ mail in your mailbox will cause clutter and overwhelm; such items would be best removed to another location. (See below for options).

So, what to do?

Let’s get Tasks out of the way first. A few expert email users use Tasks well. However, I find most of my clients don’t like that feature, in Outlook at least. (And nor do I.) For most people it becomes a big ugly dumping ground of good intentions, coupled with increasing guilt.  You can’t easily prioritise items once they’re thrown in there, and it becomes one more place to check. So no, I don’t recommend Nigel puts these ‘nice to do’ or ‘action required’ items into Tasks. (NB. It is possible that other systems are more useful. I’m only knowledgeable about Outlook.)

Shifting tasks into appropriately named subfolders, such as ‘To Read’ or ‘Action Required’ is the preferred option of some. I’ve tried this more than once, but I find items shifted out of sight are out of mind. This is probably due to my processing style – I need to see things to remember them. However, it might work for you. It’s a tidy solution.

Three strategies:  

1. If something requires a significant chunk of time, drag and drop the email into Calendar. This turns it into an appointment, plus it creates an exact copy of the email in the Calendar while the original email remains in whichever folder you’ve allocated it to. There are several benefits:

* It’s out of your day-today mail box (I recommend Unread Mail, not Indox – more of that shortly)

* The entire email is in Calendar so when you’re ready everything is in one place

* You get a pop-up reminder until you choose to dismiss it

* Because it’s an appointment you’ll be reminded as you schedule other activities.

Example: Nigel sent me his query a few weeks ago. I let him know it would be a few weeks before I gave a full reply.  I then copied his email into a Calendar item and filed the original in my Content for Articles folder. I could then forget it until ready to do this blog post; the pop-up box was my aide memoire.

Caution: Be minimal about how much goes into Calendar, or it will turn into another version of an ignored Tasks list.

2. This next strategy will help you avoid a cluttered Calendar. For less important or non-time-sensitive items I leave them in my Unread Mail folder, not my Inbox. If I’ve opened them I’ll turn them back to Unread so they don’t disappear. I can hear you saying ‘Isn’t that double-handling?’ and yes, it is. But more important is not to get side-tracked, as per Principle 2. If we stop and deal with every email as it arrives we will major in minor things, never getting a clear run at our important priorities.For instance, in my Unread Mail folder right now I’ve got tips from a book distributor, four mails relating to research on my next book, a blog post I want to read, and an invoice that I will pay when I do my next run of accounts.  If the list gets too long and I can’t see white space at the bottom of the screen, I prioritise an hour of catch up time.

3.  Another possible strategy, if you like structure, is to set a regular reading time – an ‘appointment with yourself’ – in your Calendar and click and drag all the blog posts and FYI reading into that time slot.

So what’s the deal about the Unread Mail folder?

Many people don’t even know they’ve got one. It’s one of the default Search Folders; it saves heaps of time and reduces clutter.

There are several benefits:

1. It’s a reminder of tasks waiting, as outlined in Strategy 2. (It doesn’t replace your prioritised daily list, however.)

2.  Rules are really useful. They can automatically file mail from regular correspondents straight into designated folders, rather than the Inbox.           However, unless you’re using Unread Mail you won’t see those new mails.

To set up your Unread Mail folder

If you can’t see it in your folder list, right-click on Search Folders and choose Unread Mail. It will populate with everything in any folder (except Trash) that’s yet unread. Now, click and drag it up to your Favorites box at top left.  Then, when you start your email session, go to Unread Mail first, instead of Inbox. Nothing will be missed.

One more important tip: If you’re in the habit of looking at email on your phone, anything you need to action later, turn back to Unread.


What are your favourite strategies?  I’d love you to add them to the blog.


A version of this article also appears in Robyn’s regular NZ Herald Online column


Robyn Pearce (known as the Time Queen) runs an international time management and productivity business, based in New Zealand. Get your free report ‘How To Master Time In Only 90 Seconds’ and ongoing time tips at www.gettingagrip.com  





1 thought on “What To Do About The Non-Urgent But Useful Emails”

  1. Hi Robyn. That’s a superb summary of the options available to Nigel.

    I would strongly endorse your comments about making better use of the calendar – everything that has to be done (reading or a task) has to be done at a particular time and so it makes sense to allocate this time. The earlier in the process we make this decision, the more control we have. And a block of time can be allocated for one or multiple items (ie: 30 mins to read 6 e-mails).

    The only thing I would add is to use the 2-minute rule (as per David Allen) when processing email. Give yourself permission to take up to 2 mins the first time you read an email – at the end of 2 mins you’ll be in a much better position to decide on the next action and you’ll find the Pareto Principle kicks in. For 80% of them, you’ll have got the essence of the issue and no further reading is needed. For 15-16% of them, you’ll want to spend another 5 mins or so to read more deeply. The remaining 4-5% might be something you want to set aside a specific time to unpack further (as Robyn did with Nigel’s question).

    I have found that the 2-minute rule is the key to keeping up with all the reading we have to do to stay up-to-date in our field of expertise.

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