Thinking outside the [in]box


Email. It’s inescapable.

According to a July 2012 McKinsey Global Institute report on “the social economy,” the average worker will spend 28% of the work day simply managing email. And not only does email take up a lot of our time, it randomizes us by drawing our attention not to the most urgent or important tasks but simply to the most recent item to land in our inbox. Worse still, most people insist on checking their email first thing in the morning, which is the worst possible time, as explained in this article, and far more in-depth, in this book.

Our job as Executive Assistants is to keep our exec focused on the highest priority tasks, and that certainly is NOT slogging through the never-ending stream of emails pouring into that inbox. We can, and should, significantly reduce the amount of time our execs spend on email, and what follows is a brief tutorial on how.

Step 1: open the [in]box

open the box

You should have full access to your exec’s email, always and from anywhere. Yes, this step requires a lot of trust and letting go of control, which is not every exec’s strong suit. Be patient, but persistent, and remind him that the EA/exec partnership cannot function properly without a heaping helping of both.

There are countless reasons for this, but the main one is that it’s inefficient and frankly silly for your exec to be the bottleneck to your ability to take as many things off of her plate as possible.

Most email systems will have a “delegation” function which will allow you access without her needing to give you her password, etc. Here are links for the most popular email clients:

  1. Gmail

  2. Outlook

  3. MacMail

Once you’re set up as a delegate, you will be able to read and work with emails directly in your exec’s inbox. No more forwards and cc’s with no access to context, no more messages languishing in your exec’s email for weeks with no action taken. Now you’re in the driver’s seat.

But beware! You are subject to the same temptations as your boss. Don’t let the inbox become your to-do list!! Instead, move on to step 2:

Step 2: triage


First, you will need to create 3 folders:


  2. FYI


When you go through your exec’s email, you will sift everything in the inbox into one of 4 categories (yes, I know you only created 3 folders — stay with me):

  1. Things you can take care of yourself (i.e. requests for meetings you know your exec will want to take, documents to be filed, printed, or sent, etc.)

  2. Things that only your exec can do

  3. Things that don’t require immediate action

  4. Requests for your exec’s time, their response to which is not immediately obvious to you

Here’s what you do with each:

  1. Forward it to yourself or, if your exec is comfortable with the idea, answer on her behalf

  2. File it in ACTION

  3. File it in FYI

  4. File it in REQUESTS

The goal here is to keep your exec at INBOX ZERO (meaning their inbox is completely empty) at all times. That way they aren’t tempted to fall down the rabbit hole of their email rather than sticking to the plan.

I recommend you set up time each morning to quickly go through the requests folder together. That way you can quickly cross off anything to which your exec answers “no,” and reach out to the rest for scheduling or to RSVP.

You should also schedule in time for your exec to go through their “action” folder every day, and make sure it gets used properly. I’ll cover that in the next section.

Expect that the “FYI” folder will get looked at rarely if at all. So if there’s information in there you know for sure your exec will want to see, err on the side of caution and put it in ACTION.

Step 3: Take action


Okay, so you’ve narrowed your exec’s email down to something manageable, and taken care of or forwarded to yourself any emails that have action items you can handle on your own. Now it’s time to transform those emails into properly prioritized tasks so you can both get back to focusing on the really important stuff.

Although I phrase these steps as directions for you, I recommend you and your exec both follow this same procedure during scheduled email time. It might feel awkward “training” your boss, or at least reminding her of these best practices, but don’t cheat her out of a value add if you see an opportunity there to improve her efficiency. I find that if hover over Bossman’s shoulder during email time on Monday, he’s more likely to stick to this procedure for the remainder of the week.

  1. Time box. Give yourself 30 minutes max to deal with email at one sitting, and then move on.

  2. Triage. Yes, I know you already did that. Yes, you have to do it again. And so does your exec. Because now you’re going through your inbox and he’s going through his action folder, and you’ll both need to gauge whether a given email can be taken care of in under 2 minutes (in which case you should just take care of it right away), or if there’s a more involved action item attached.

  3. Transfer action items to your to-do list. As I’ve mentioned, I use Trello for this, but you can use whatever system you prefer. The point is not to use your email inbox as your to-do list, because it’s not well designed for that. Once an action item has been added to your to-do list, you can Boomerang it to return later, or you can simply archive it and move on.

  4. Prioritize items on your to-do list and then work from there, NOT from your email.

Following this procedure a couple of times a day will keep your inboxes uncluttered, your to-do lists well stocked and properly prioritized, and your energy focused on the most important tasks, not on sorting through endless emails.

Live bravely, work deliberately, and eat good chocolate.

#email #GettingThingsDone #Organization #TipsampTricks

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