Archives for posts with tag: email system

A well thought out folder structure based on artefacts (e.g. payslips from Company X go in the Company X folder under the Payslips folder within your Financials folder) is essential for keeping your digital files organised so that you and your significant other (for personal) or colleagues (for work) can locate things easily.

I’ve learned that email is a different beast altogether.

Having a simple workflow for processing your email, combined with the Instant Search operators results in many productivity benefits during your stay and when moving between companies.

As a lot of large corporates run Microsoft Outlook by default, this post focusses on using the Instant Search operators Microsoft Outlook; however you can achieve the same results with any email client.

Work email is highly transient and only viewed by you

Why spend time creating a careful filing system for work emails when you’re going to delete them all after finishing your contract or moving to a new company anyway? Even while staying at the same company you often end up deleting all work emails older than a year, or once a project has implemented.

You’re also the only one looking through your emails, so no need to place things where others can find them, especially when you find out how much faster it is to find emails using the search tools at our disposal.

With a folder structure, you waste time thinking about where to file each email when you’re done with it – this can be a constant drain reducing your decision making willpower throughout the day, making you less productive. You also waste time trying to find emails: did I put that in folder X or folder Y?

The AE Simple Email Workflow

Have a look at the AE Simple Email Workflow. Full Inbox Zero article here is well worth a read.

I actually prefer their newer Inbox Zero workflow diagram, as it shows the path to Trash and the Calendar which you need to utilise to decrease email clutter. Full email challenge article.

There are no folders and emails are put into an Archive folder without any thinking needed after processing them. This eliminates the drain on decision making willpower. The other thing you’ll notice is the use of a task manager. I’m currently just using a single paper list for my major tasks for the day and using the Outlook flags for emails I need to reply to or follow up.

This is a really great system that will make you more productive processing emails. The Instant Search operators make you more productive working with your email archive and faster at finding emails.

Instant Search – setting up Outlook

Change the default search to include all mail items by following this simple guide with screenshots from ExtendOffice.

Now all you need to do is press Ctrl+E and type the query.

Warning: If you’re afraid of personal messages showing in search results while someone is standing over your shoulder, don’t use all mail items by default. As long as you have everything in one archive folder your searches will still be very effective.

The Outlook Instant Search operators

The basic syntax is <operator:keyword>. Here’s what I found useful in the past week since I’ve been using the Instant Search.

  1. from:<name>
  2. from:<name> to:<name>
  3. received:>=1/1/2017 from:<name>
  4. received:11/3/2017..15/3/2017
  5. hasattachment:true
  6. subject:”Project XYZ update”
  7. about:Communications
  8. hasflag:true

Once you find a message, you can quickly search for all other messages in that conversation using:

Shift+F10, then press f, then press c

Or simply right click the email, select Find Related, then click Messages in This Conversation

The query is updated with:

[Conversation]:=”Email subject line”

Using just this handful of operators I’ve dramatically reduced the time needed to find emails, and there are many more operators I haven’t tried yet.

The comprehensive office support article explains each operator with examples.

If you still have any doubts, try this for one week: keep a log of your searches and what you were looking for when you did them. For example here’s my log:

  • search 1: from:”name” about:auto
  • search 2: from:”me” hasattachment:true about:PDF
  • search 3: from:”me” to:name hasattachment:true
  • search 4: from:name received:past month
  • search 5: subject:”important project”
  • search 6: sent:>=date subject:project
  • search 7: from:me to:name about:words
  • search 8: from:name
  • search 9: [Conversation]:=”market report”
  • search 10: from:me subject:words
  • search 11: from:name
  • search 12: from:name received:=date
  • search 13:

Some operators appear to work faster than others

I haven’t been able to find much specific information on this, however noticed that using “about:keyword” seems to slow the search considerably while using “from:person” and “received:>= date” and “subject:keyword” are very fast.

A little time investment learning the most efficient way of performing a common task

This is one example of how a small investment in learning the most efficient way of performing a common day to day task can repay itself over and over each day resulting in huge cumulative benefits over the course of your working life.

Another one of these is learning the Excel shortcuts for showing/hiding columns, deleting a selected row or column, quickly formatting the header row for data tables, formatting cells as currency, changing the selection in a formula between absolute and relative referencing using F4, and learning how to use Excel tables.

Yet another is learning to type correctly – this will really pay off every day for the rest of your working life! Or at least until technology input alternatives become the norm.

Aside – Slightly different system for personal emails at work

Workplaces commonly have restrictions on .pst files for information security which can make it hard to get personal emails off your work email when you sometimes want to retain these.

I still like to use a very small number of folders specifically to separate personal emails as this makes it easy to save these when move between companies. There are a couple of quick straight forward methods:

  1. Select all messages in one of your personal folders, then save as .txt using the file menu in Outlook. This article has more detail on saving one or more outlook emails to text
  2. Or, you can select multiple emails and print to PDF using CutePDF Writer.

Further reading on getting the most out of Microsoft Outlook

  1. Very long article however some great ideas in there, maybe read over a few sessions: Best practices for Outlook.
  2. According to this article there is a limit to the number of items you can have in one folder without slowing your searches: Single folder item limit.
  3. Indexing – If your searches are extremely slow, perhaps indexing isn’t turned on: Indexing article.

What’s the next great benefit from efficiently performing a day to day task? Getting serious about learning to use Google search operators correctly?

Let us know if you have other email searching tips or strategies.


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?