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Email Workflow: It’s Simple! Email workflows cannot exist outside of project management systems

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series Basic Workflows

Email workflow is an important topic simply because email has overrun our lives. Stories of inboxes with over 1,000 emails abound. There are also as many email workflow solutions, although most now based along the lines of GTD which, in summary, boils down to:

  1. If you can respond in two minutes, then do it; otherwise
  2. Delegate it; or
  3. Action it for later; or
  4. Trash it.

I tried that. It didn’t work. The process described sounds great, but it is incomplete in several ways. First, it assumes that these are the only scenarios. They are not. Even when an email fits these scenarios, the system only tells you what to do but there is not enough information on how to do it.

Email workflow is simple, but email is a complex interaction

Yes, I said that email workflow is simple in the title of this post, but that does not mean that email interaction is always simple.

Action responsibility, or fire and forget

Imagine that you are a project leader on a sensitive project and a project team member sends you an email asking for clarification on an important issue. It takes you under two minutes to respond, so you do it. But because the issue is so important, you request that your team member to confirm their understanding. Although this workflow clears your email quickly it does not solve your project issues. Remember, clearing email quickly is second to get your work done properly. So you have to figure out how to track responsibilities for decisions and actions that go along with some of these emails.

Delegation needs supervision, or fire lots and forget

Delegating an email feels great. One more thing off your plate. But when you delegate something, you still remain responsible for it. If it goes wrong, your boss isn’t going to accept the excuse that your subordinate screwed up. Things get more complex when the delegated email triggers more than one action, or even a small project. Most important of all, delegation is simply forwarding an email to someone else. So what is it that you have to do as part of your delegation beyond just forwarding the email?

Action it for later, or hide it and feel better

The problem with GTD and similar workflows is that they tell you how to manage things out of your inbox but not how to manage them into your outbox. I’ve already the issue of how contexts fail you. The other advice, go with your gut, makes no sense. Why have an email workflow if you’re just going to go with your gut later on. Why not go with your gut from the beginning?

It isn’t even clear what actioning something for later. Mostly it seems to be interpreted as moving the email into a folder named @Action. All that does is move the mess of emails from your inbox to another folder. It’s like sweeping the dirt under the carpet. If you can’t see it then it isn’t there. Some, though, have figured out a better way and I’ll talk about that later.

Conventional email workflow summary

Do you know the difference between a process and a procedure? A process is a high level description for what to do but doesn’t have enough details to do anything. A process for washing clothes might look like:

  1. Separate the laundry by color and type
  2. Load the washer with just one type of laundry
  3. Add detergent and softener
  4. Select the correct cycle
  5. Push start

It seems to make perfect sense. But give that process to someone who has never done laundry before and they will never be able to do the laundry. That’s what procedures are for, they detail each step that needs to be taken. In the world of personal productivity there doesn’t seem to be a clear definition of whether a productivity workflow is more process or more procedure.  I want actionable workflows and so I define them as procedures. If you want to do something productive, I suggest that you do the same.

A simple email workflow

Emails can be simple when they are independent of a project. Those types of emails are easy to deal with and you don’t need a workflow to deal with them. It is the complex emails that are the challenge. What makes them complex? They are part of a project, which includes life facets such as “home” or “marriage.” But what about complex emails that are not part of a project? If it is complex and not part of a project, then why would you waste your time on it?

The bottom line is that you cannot manage your email if you don’t already have a system to manage your projects. Once you have a system to manage your projects then your email workflow is a snap:

  1. If the email is easy, deal with it
  2. If the email is part of a project, put it in your project management system
  3. Delete everything else

Epilogue

You’re going to have questions about this. I’d like to cover some of the more obvious ones.

What if you don’t have a project management system?

If you don’t have a project management system or workflow then it doesn’t matter what you do with your email. Whatever you try to do, you will get stuck, either by not knowing how to deal with the email, or how to deal with the contents of the email. My best advice would be to get working on a project management system as a priority. In the mean time just add the email to you task list and archiving the original email and use that as a backstop until you finalise your project management system. You might ask why take the extra step of adding the email to a task list? The answer is that the more places there are to look for stuff, such as multiple folders beginning with “@”, e.g. @Action, @Waiting, @Hold, etc. the greater the probability that you will miss something.

Are life facets projects?

Some people get upset at thinking of their life facets, e.g. marriage as a project. I’m not saying that marriage is a project. I’m saying that your responsibilities to your marriage can be managed as a project. Do you really want an ad hoc approach to an email from your spouse saying “Hi honey, sorry but I’ll be stuck at work tomorrow so can you pick the kids up from school?”

If an email is not easy, related to a project or life facet is it really trash?

The answer is yes. Life is hard and there is far too little time to do far too much work. If someone sends you an email that is complex but not related to an existing project or life facet then they are asking you to do something complex over email. That’s just not right. They should ask to meet with you, send you an agenda, actually put some effort in. Perhaps instead of deleting the email you might ask them to simplify it, break it down into simpler components. Your choice.

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