People that can’t reply to an email in a timely fashion are of no use to me. They’re of no use to you, either, if you’re expecting a reply and it doesn’t come in a reasonable timeframe. You took the time to email them, and ask something of them if you are expecting a response back. Doesn’t it drive you crazy when people don’t respond?
There exists this sort of “I’m okay, you’re okay” idea when it comes to email that some people are Filers, while others are Pilers:
Filers tend to have a very large hierarchy of folders that they have built over time, and carefully move each email to it’s rightful place once it has served it’s purpose. For filers, nothing feels better than to completely empty their inbox; it means everything has been tidied up.
Pilers, on the other hand, tend to leave everything in their inbox. They feel that they can quickly search their inbox for anything that they might need, so they can’t be bothered to take the time to build a complicated and confusing hierarchy of folders to have to go looking through when they need to find an old message. Pilers consider their inbox as a storage area for tasks that are on the go, reminders, pretty much anything they might want to store in digital format.
It is my experience that email “pilers” are infinitely more likely to ignore, miss, forget or otherwise have some sort of excuse for not replying to an email when a reply is expected.
I consider Pilers to be rude.
Let me explain:
The problem with the system that Pilers use is that email never stops arriving. For many of us, it arrives at a faster rate than we believe we can handle it (another excuse for piling). What this means is that as new mail comes in, important mail gets pushed down, off the first screen of messages, and out of the piler’s consciousness. That message that they’ve read 8 times and thought “oh, I need to get back to her about that” eventually gets pushed off the screen, and is never thought of again, unless the piler specifically remembers that message, which is unlikely. What you end up with is messages that waste time being read and reread again and again, which are often never resolved. Even the ones that are replied to right away waste the piler’s time, because they still see it over and over again when scanning for messages/reminders/to-dos in their inbox, until it is pushed off-screen by new messages coming in.
You respond to your voicemail in a timely fashion, don’t you? If you can’t be bothered to adhere to a system that ensures you respond to the email you receive, you’re being rude.
I, as you might have guessed, am a Filer. If you saw my desk, or my car, or my home, this would probably surprise you. You see, I’m inherently a very messy person.
I am a Filer, but in a slightly different way; rather than having a complex hierarchy of folders, I keep a relatively simple one. Work Related, Personal, and a handful of others. You see, I agree that there are search tools that allow us to find important email quickly (some good ones are listed at the bottom of this post), so I don’t feel the need to categorize to the Nth degree. This allows me to not be stressed out by my folder structure.
But the important thing is that I try to keep my inbox as empty as possible. I get between 150 and 200 emails each day, and yet when I leave work I rarely have more than 5-8 messages left in my inbox. The goal is to get to zero, and while it’s possible, it’s hard. Why is this important to me? Because I know that when people send me email, they learn that they can be confident that I will respond in a timely fashion. I’m teaching people that they can rely on me. Those of you that Pile are probably teaching people that they can’t rely on you.
And the crazy thing is that it’s no harder to be a Filer! In fact, it makes life easier, and far less stressful. I feel guilty only about those 5-8 emails that I haven’t yet handled; Pilers feel guilty about the myriad of emails that they may have forgotten in their inbox somewhere.
There are two simple principles to learn if you want to become a polite (and therefore reliable) email correspondent:
<li>Inbox means In-box. It's meant to catch everything that is coming in. It is not a task list. It is not a reminder area or note board. Tasks that need to be accomplished should have their own place; whether you use the Task section in Microsoft Outlook, a simple Tasks folder to move emails to that need to be done, or even a scrap of paper with a list of To-do items on it. Move emails that require you to do something to an appropriate place. Move reference material to an appropriate place, even if it's simply a folder called 'Reference'. Delete the messages you don't need.</li> <li>Reply. Give an answer. Even if that answer is 'no'. It's so tempting to let a message linger in your Inbox when you know that you can help or know the answer the sender is looking for, but don't have time right now. You want to be helpful. But by procrastinating, and putting off the reply, you're not truly being helpful. If you know that you will not be able to reply fully in a timely fashion, let the person know. Reply and give them a timeframe of when you will be able to give their message the attention it needs, and/or provide them with an alternative course of action. If you know that Debbie down the hall also knows the answer, let them know that as soon as possible. Maybe Debbie has time to help. This has the added benefit of allowing you to move the email out of your inbox to your tasks list or elsewhere. </li>
If any of this is appealing to you, I recommend getting a copy of Getting Things Done by David Allen. Imagine cleaning up your entire life like we’ve just cleaned up your inbox, and you have a sense of what David’s system offers.
Stop being rude!
Desktop Search Tools Below is a list of free programs that fall into the category of Desktop Search tools that I feel comfortable recommending. I have personally tested each of these, and list them in order of personal preference.
Yahoo Desktop Search Built on the superb X-1 desktop search engine, Yahoo’s offering has the added benefit of being free. Works with Outlook and Outlook Express. Index is very powerful, and can index files on your hard drive, with much flexibility. Highly recommended.
Copernic Desktop Search Very similar features to Yahoo Desktop Search. I find Yahoo’s offering slightly faster when searching, and I prefer the user interface on YDS, but Copernic has a very solid free offering with this product.
Lookout Lookout is a powerful free search plugin that resides completely within Outlook. Microsoft liked it so much, they bought the company that makes it. Microsoft has since released MSN Toolbar which has desktop search functionality, however I’m not a huge fan of that product. Lookout is still available, and well worth a look. It doesn’t handle file system indexing as well as the first two offerings, but is arguably the best email search tool for Outlook users.
Getting Things Done If I hit a nerve with you with this post, and you are interested in learning more about how to become more organized, you may wish to check out the following sites. Below are some of my favourite blogs, and if you use RSS I recommend subscribing to every one of them.
Marc Orchant’s wonderful blogs: Marc’s Outlook on Productivity
Other Favourite Blogs: Working Smart
The official David Allen Getting Things Done site