actionIf you’ve been challenged by a critical time in your project and have been working overtime on your most important tasks every day, you may have neglected some basic housekeeping. You may have a sizeable chunk of emails in your ‘Reply to’ folder and have built up a couple of hundred action items in your actions logs. This post is to show you how to get back on track and instil some discipline in terms of dedicating the required time to your actions lists and emails. If you don’t, as things sit on your plate un-actioned, the likelihood of risk events increases and so does the cost of resolving the impacts if the risk events do occur.

So what if actions pile up? If they were important I’d be actioning them as my most important tasks right?

For the big ones yes! However some things that require your creative and analytical energy can take all of your time if the project is going through tight deadlines. The added pressure can result in you dedicating more and more time to the deliverables and not reserving any time for the housekeeping.

This creates risk for various reasons:

  • Not managing expectations – Others may be expecting you to be working on something when you actually aren’t, then they eventually get surprised
  • Causing delays to other people’s work – Others may have a dependency on you and be waiting for feedback, not responding for an extended time will cause delays
  • Problems not being uncovered early enough – One of your actions may have identified an issue that people would have started working on immediately, and delaying this could have turned a small issue into a much larger issue.

All of these can do a lot of damage to your hard earned reputation and people will be asking – why didn’t you call it out, let us know or follow that up?

Actioning your action items or emails doesn’t mean solving all the problems yourself – delegate!

This is what project managers do for a large part of their day – Move the actions along. They don’t try to solve the problem for all 200+ actions that may have built up in a log after various stakeholder engagement sessions and workshops and a flood of emails. Instead the experienced PM just makes sure that somebody is covering the action items, and that they are not just sitting in the PM’s to do list gathering virtual dust! That’s the most important thing to prevent risks building up un-noticed – make sure your actions are moving along, not gathering dust.

If you’re starting in project management, or as a people manager, delegation is a very important skill to build up in your capabilities. Without this skill, you’ll be spending all of your time creating work products and won’t be able to spend time planning, gathering data from your colleagues, understanding the organisational structure, or managing a project or a team. These are all activities that you need to be spending time on!

CYA – Cover your bottom

Some people save every email in an effort to CYA. I’ve found that a much more effective way of protecting yourself in a project environment is to follow the rule of:

If there’s an official place for something in a project – put it in its official place as soon as possible

E.g. Actions in actions logs, decisions in decisions registers, risks raised in risk registers, dependencies in dependency registers and project plans, approvals saved in a dedicated place. Etc.

Don’t be afraid to put things in project risk registers that can be seen by many people… All you need to do is state facts, keep it very brief and with positive language – don’t write anything that could offend anybody.

This ensures that you’ll never get caught out and blamed for not having communicated a risk/issue and also that you won’t need to dig through emails to refute blame if someone does try to point the finger at you for a problem.

Digging through emails to refute blame after an issue has occurred, and engaging in these ‘wars’ with people will damage a hard earned reputation and make you look silly and immature, even if you ‘win’. You want to maintain a positive attitude so people see you as positive, calm, helpful and hard working – all the time. Then people think of you as management material.

So how do you do it? Make cycling through your actions and emails the most important task for one day a week

If you’re using the excellently simple productivity habits of a daily 1-2-3 list and spending a solid 1-2 hours on your most important task as soon as you start work, you’ll know exactly how to begin tackling this issue.

Simply add an ‘Email cleanse’ task to your 1-2-3 list once or twice a week, make it a ‘1’ so it’s your most important task and spend an hour on it. Then do the same with an ‘Actions log’ task. Doing this ensures you don’t put off your housekeeping and let your actions and emails grow out of control. I like to use post-it notes for my 1-2-3 tasks and stick them on the bottom of my monitor to pick off during the day.

Keep your email inbox clean – create a system –the simpler the better

Here’s a simple system:

  1. Create 4 folders outside the Inbox – Reply, FollowUp, Reference and Personal (for any non-work emails)
  2. Set up an email rule so that anything you receive that is sent from you (i.e. an email where you Bcc’d yourself) goes to the FollowUp folder
  3. Set aside a few times a day where you’ll actively process your email and during these sessions, go through this cycle.

Email Cleansing Cycle:

  1. If an email requires a reply and you can action within 2 minutes do it immediately, otherwise move it to the Reply folder
  2. If you are sending or replying to an email and you’ll need to follow it up again later, Bcc yourself (so it goes directly to your FollowUp folder for later)
  3. Any approvals you receive for your deliverables (e.g. business signoffs) should be saved somewhere outside of email, then moved to your Reference folder
  4. Any approvals you give should be moved to your Reference folder
  5. Personal emails can be moved to your Personal folder
  6. Cycle through your Reply folder, FollowUp folder and action the items – move them into an actions log and delete the emails if you can.
  7. I like to delete anything else that I can so that I don’t end up with a massive amount of emails – You’ll leave the company at some point and you don’t want to have to sort through mountains of emails to try to work out whether you need to keep anything.

Most executives I’ve met block out time in their diaries for ‘emails’. These people must have 100s of emails waiting for feedback, a decision or direction, without which a project can’t proceed. The longer these replies are delayed, the more the risk (and cost of remediation) increases. So while you may graduate from tracking lists of 100s of action items, risks and pending decisions, you will need to get really good at dealing with emails and delegation in particular to be an executive!

How do you stay on top of the mountain of action items and emails?