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I’m a Project Manager at a busy Digital Production Company. What does that mean?

Well, for starters it means keeping countless client interactions organized, keeping production moving on dozens of different projects, and making sure I never forget anything.

So, how does someone like me keep everything straight?

There are a ton of organizational tools, apps, and software out there. Personally, I’ve used Evernote, Basecamp, and even the Stickies app on my Mac, just to name a few. But, what is the one tool we all use everyday, that, for most of us, drives our entire workday? The answer is Email.

For many people, email can be a defensive battle of response and reaction. We start work with an ambitious list of things to do, sit down with our hot coffee, and start on the first item. Then, the first email of the day rolls in. Before you know it, it’s quitting time and your to-do list looks much like it did that morning.

I’m sure you’re wondering: ‘How do we solve the interrupting nature of email without ignoring it?’

I’ve read tons of articles that suggest closing your email for most of the day with exception to 2 or 3 email response blocks where you dive in and respond to everything at once. That can be productive, but In my line of work, not reading email for several hours could be detrimental to progress on active projects.

I tend to disagree with this approach and I’m not saying ignore your email. I’m saying take control of your email and use it as an efficiency tool.

When I started at Element 74 over 3 years ago, Toni, our Director of Project Management, showed me her technique for maintaining email organization (and sanity) and how to turn the inbox into the ultimate efficiency tool.

Here’s how you do it:

1. Think of Your Inbox as the To-Do List

Toni and I have a goal: Make sure our inboxes are scroll bar free, because the deeper the inbox, the farther behind we are. It’s even turned into a friendly competition and we often check in with each other to see which of us is ahead.

Maybe that sounds difficult, or even impossible. If your inbox has a scroll bar right now, I’ll show you how to fix it.

2. Create Folders and Use Them

Start by creating folders for each one of your clients, tasks, projects, etc. Then, move everything that has been taken care of to its corresponding folder. This may take a little bit, but it WILL be worth it, I promise.

Once you’re done, your inbox will have become a list of incomplete to-do items and your folders are your completed, checked-off items.

NOTE: Don’t shortcut it by using Rules.

It’s not about setting rules in Outlook that organize your email in the corresponding folders automatically. If you’re using this to-do list method, automated rules can actually make it harder to stay on top of your email because you’ll multiple inboxes to keep track of.

3. Decide When to Respond

When filtering through your inbox, take one of the following 3 actions:

  • If it’s a simple task and will not disrupt your current work flow, go ahead and tackle the task. Then you can file it into the corresponding folder—it’s done. Once you start doing this routinely, dropping an email in a sub-folder will be an awesome feeling—like checking a task off of your list.
  • Delegate the task to a co-worker by forwarding it to them or by replying to the sender and copying your coworker. Let the sender know that your coworker will be taking that task. Then, folder the email—it’s done.
  • Finally, flag it for later—this is a to-do item.

4. Clear Out the Flagged Emails

With the items you can’t get to immediately, you can flag or categorize them for later. Outlook has color coded categories that you can set up or you can toggle the ‘Follow Up’ flags.

If you start to get a deep inbox with a scroll bar, don’t worry, just carve out some dedicated time for email response in between other projects.

Note: Responding to every email right away is a dangerous, defensive game. It will begin to control your day and prevent you from completing the items that you set out to get done.

While writing this Blog I have received about 10 emails and I have not read them. It’s not that the task of writing this blog is more important than my client’s emails, but instead, it’s a matter of maintaining efficiency by working on one task at a time. Once I’m finished I’ll start going through my emails, and complete as many items as I can before I need to start my next project.

If you filter your email by flag or category, be sure to mark the flag as complete or remove the category before you move the email to its appropriate folder.

It’s a simple system but if your inbox has hundreds of emails, it may take a while to set up. But once you have it set up, you’ll be so happy that you did.

What organization tools or tips do you have? Leave a comment below. I’d love to hear about how you manage your workflow.

Austin Bollinger

About the Author

Austin Bollinger
Austin holds a creative mind with many facets. From lifting weights to building his own desk to experimenting in graphic design and videography, he never ceases to surprise the team with his interest.

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