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My Four F's of Effective Email Management

I work for a multinational company, and I’ve tried every to-do list manager going, I’ve even tried to write a few myself. I inevitably stick with it for a week or two, and then give up. There’s a very simple reason for this.

My mailbox is my to-do list.

I rarely have action items that are not generated directly from an email, and I hate duplicating my efforts.

What I’ve tried

I’ve tried every productivity system going. GTD, Pomodoro, Don’t Break The Chain, Trusted Trio, and many more, and none of them really fit well with the way my work goes. I can rarely dedicate 25 uninterrupted minutes to a task, I don’t have daily tasks, and GTD means I spend more time filing and logging my daily tasks than I do working on them.

I’ve always loved the Inbox Zero ideology, but the key principles are challenging, and don’t work well with the way I need to manage my inbox.

Instead, I have developed my own system, based on Microsoft’s PIFEM with only a few tweaks.

PIFEM In One Minute

  • PIFEM uses a series of Outlook Categories and Due Date Flags for all items in your Inbox.
  • 4 Search folders are configured to allow you to filter on items that are only Due on certain days, and are grouped by Category/Priority
  • This allows you to very quickly pivot on different groups of items to see things such as:
  • Items due today
  • Highest priority items
  • Low priority items to be read on “your bookshelf”
  • Most importantly, it allows you to prioritise each item, and it allows you to define when you want to work on an item.

How I adapted it

First of all, I analysed my current ways of working, and determined ways to streamline the process. I based my steps on the 4 D’s:

  • Delete
  • Delay
  • Delegate
  • Do

This was a great starting point, but there were some tweaks I needed to make.

Delete

I try never to delete emails. This is partly for evidence reasons (CYA in case someone accuses me of not doing my job properly), and partly for reference reasons. A lot of useful knowledge is stored in my mailbox, and I want that to be available and searchable further down the line. I played around for a while with calling this step ‘Archive’, before settling on ‘File’ (File fits my 4 F’s mnemonic).

Delay

There’s never any reason simply to delay acting on an email. The only kind of email that needs ‘delaying’ is one that requires action, but not immediately. As a result, I renamed this step ‘Follow-up’.

Delegate

I rarely need to delegate something — I’m not yet high enough in the food chain. If it’s not something I can act on, I need to Forward it to someone who can act on it.

Do

At the end of the day, this is the whole point of any productivity system — doing stuff. And what’s the point of doing stuff? To finish it. Yes, I might get involved in a longer email thread with multiple action points, but each email is likely to only have one or two action items, and I should be able to Finish with the email.

The Four F’s

Most time management systems insist on spending no longer than two minutes on each email. My system is to spend as long as I need until I’m ready to classify the message based on my four F’s. I work through the F’s in this way for each new email:

  1. Finish — can I finish this now? Do I have time to get this done right now? If so, do it. It might take two minutes, it might take twenty, but if I don’t have time or I can’t finish it for whatever reason, move on to the next step. Note that ‘Finishing’ an email simply means completing all action items. There may be times when I classify an email as ‘Finished’ after scheduling a meeting to discuss in more detail. This is fine. You need to read between the lines and determine each actionable task from the email. Once there are no more actionable tasks, the email is finished, even if you expect further replies in the email thread with more action items.
  2. Forward — given all the time in the world, would I be able to finish this? If not, forward it to someone who can. If I could finish this task, and I have decided not to, would it be appropriate to pass it to someone else? If yes, forward it, otherwise, move to the next step.
  3. Follow-up — I’ve decided not to Finish this, and not to Forward it for someone else to Finish. Is this a task I need to do at some point? If it is, schedule a Follow Up. This may be today, tomorrow, at some point this week or at some point next week. If I don’t need to do anything, then move on to the final step.
  4. File — move this email to an archive, as it contains no actionable tasks.

Practical Setup

You’ll need to set up a few quick steps and a few folders in order for the system to work effectively.

Folders

You should create a single, ‘Filed’ folder. You can call this what you like, but this will be the holding ground for all of your emails once they’re cleared out of your inbox.

Next, you’ll need to set up a few custom search folders, searching in your Inbox. The criteria are as follows:

  1. Inbox (for triage) — Due Date — does not exist
  2. Follow Up Today — Flag Status — not equal to — Completed and Due Date — on or before — [Today]
  3. Follow Up Later — Flag Status — not equal to — Completed and Due Date — on or after — [Tomorrow]
  4. Finished — Only items which: — are marked completed — note that this will also need to include your ‘Filed’ folder.

You’re all set with your folders, now to set up the Quick Steps

Quick Steps

The following quick steps should be set up. You can fiddle with these a little if you want to set up any additional preferences or classifications.

1. Finish — Flag Message — Mark Complete and Move to folder — Filed. I also mark the email as read, but this is optional.

2. Forward — Forward — to — blank and Mark complete. I also mark the email as read, but this is optional.

3. Follow Up — Flag Message — This week.

4. File — Flag Message — Mark Complete and Move to folder — Filed. I also mark the email as read, but this is optional.

You’ll notice that quick steps 1 and 4 do the exact same thing. It is intentional that these are separated — the idea is to force me to decide how to handle the email. The ‘Finish’ quick step is only for once I have completed any action items, the ‘File’ step means no action is required. You could consolidate these quick steps into one if you like, but I would recommend against it to avoid confusion.

Usage Examples

Now you’re all set up, you just need to practice using the system. I’ve put a few examples below, feel free to think about your own

  • I receive an email from my boss, asking me to dig into a particular issue. I think it will take approximately half an hour to do, but it’s not a critical priority. I flag this for Follow up — Today
  • I receive an email from my colleague requesting urgent assistance with a case. It will likely take about 10 minutes to reply, but it’s very urgent, so I write and send my reply, and then flag this as Finished
  • I am copied in on an email requesting further information about something. I don’t need to act on this at all as it is already directed to the right person, so I flag this to be Filed
  • I am copied in on another email asking for some clarification. It’s not addressed to the right person, and I can’t see the right person in the recipients. I can’t answer the query myself, so I Forward the email to the right person.
  • My manager has asked me for a status update on a current project by the end of the week. It’s neither urgent, nor is it something I could easily do now given my current workload. I flag this for Follow up — This week.
  • I have now reached the end of my inbox, so I open my Follow Up — Today folder, and begin Finishing the tasks. Once my motivation starts to fade, I switch back to my inbox, and start from the top again.
  • As soon as both my inbox and my Follow Up — Today folders are empty, I move on to the Follow Up Later folder, and begin working through this folder. I check each email against the four F’s, which allows me to identify any low hanging fruit, or action items I no longer need to complete.
  • Once my Inbox, and my Follow Up folders are all empty, Solitaire beckons. Note that I still haven’t managed to get to this stage yet…