I've been asked this question a few times in the past week and I've struggled to give a quick answer. I thought that maybe it was time I give a longer response.
How on earth do you handle the volume of email that you do?
Frankly, it's an answer I struggle with at times. At the moment, I'm a little upsidedown, but I will get caught up again when things slow down a little.
First off, I recommend reading "Getting Things Done" by David Allen. If nothing else, this book will inspire you that it is possible, that you can stay on top of things.
As always, I am not one content to leave things well enough alone and have tweaked his system. First, a few groundrules, and keep in mind I'm approaching this from the corporate side of things. (If you're struggling with your personal inbox, I do feel for you, and some of these tricks may work for you. As well as mastering Gmail's "multiple inboxes".)
(1) An email is unread until it's dealt with. This causes the little number sign on the inbox(es) to be accurate.
(2) Once an email is dealt with, it goes away. Either to a "file cabinet" with other sorted and filed emails, or it gets deleted. I delete most emails, if there's something I need to keep short-term, it's probably in my sent folder. If I need to keep it long term, I have a section on our wiki of mine where I squirrel away small pieces of information. The wiki has better search functionality and I can rearrange, sort, etc., as I see fit.
(3) Practice good outgoing emails. Address people by name, sign your own name. Bring up quotes where necessary, and remember that some people may be on Blackberries - no fancy formatting, no colors. In all things, be clear. You will begin to help others to be clear.
(4) Never delete on the handheld. You might not be able to find it again, and sometimes you need to dumpster dive for an old email. I drop all email I no longer need into a folder called "answered on blackberry" - that way, when I'm back at my laptop, I can confirm that there's nothing I missed and then quickly delete.
(5) Never process meeting requests on the handheld. Looking at the full calendar on your computer may trigger some thoughts or help you see a bigger picture you might not otherwise be able to see.
(6) Schedule time for you. I keep office hours, regularly booked time from 9-10 am and 4-5 pm. People have learned they can find me at my desk during these times. This actually cuts down on the number of meeting requests I receive, helps people get answers quickly and gives me some work time at the start and end of the day to handle email. Friday's are supposed to be meeting-free, but that never happens, so I do block 3-5 to make I have time to get done what truly needs to be done before I leave for the weekend.
(7) Use all the tools at your advantage. If you can swing it, double monitors. Lots of whiteboards, kept clean. If you find yourself regularly drawing the same diagram over and over again, draw it on a large piece of paper and keep it hung on the wall ready for the next time you need it. Demand a screen on your phone so you can know whose calls you're avoiding. Make it clear on your voicemail message that they'll get a faster response by email. Use IM. And when you can't answer a question right away in IM, copy and paste the conversation into an email to yourself and the person who asked you the question.
(8) Adopt a consistent strategy for offline. I never take my laptop to meetings, unless I'm presenting. I find it produces a phsyical and social boundary between those who use them and the rest of the meeting participants. I do carry a single notebook that has all my meeting notes going back a few years. It has grid paper instead of lined paper. I write down who was at the meeting, where it was held, the date and time. If there's an action item for me, I draw a square on the left-hand side. Back at my desk, I act upon the squares and cross them off.
(9) No last minute meetings. At 3 or 4 pm every day, I block out all unblocked time for the next day. This prevents me from being in last-minute meetings, or me not having time for something urgent that does come up. (We have a culture here that everyone is so busy that when there is something urgent, they will call or IM if they can't find time on everyone's calendar. This allows me flexibility for the truly urgent.)
(10) Have an email goal. My goal, each day, is to have 1/3 fewer emails than I started the day, or 30 less, whichever is more. When I don't meet that goal, I carry over to the next day. This is the only way I keep from drowning, is to realize that the emails are critical and that people are waiting for me, and therefore, it's not something to do when I'm not at meetings, but that it's just as important as meetings, and in many cases, far moreso. Also the reason I have office hours.
(11) HR is important. I manage two teams, and while it can seem like a big block of time, I regularly have 1:1's with each of them. I also try to regularly schedule an hour away from my desk to take care of any HR related actions or go over and understand anything I need to communicate to or ask for from my teams.
(12) The brain is for thinking and innovating, not for storing stuff. If I need to remember something, I email myself. Blackberry is brilliant for that. (Also for when I'm out with my wife and she seems to be expressing interest about something, zing - note to my personal email account and then months later, I have a truly thoughtful birthday or Christmas present idea.) But yeah, if you're struggling to remember a lot of stuff, then your brain isn't free to think, innovate, come up with new ideas, etc.
Ok, how do I do it? In a word, triage.
I practice a very weird version of zero inbox. I strive at all times to keep my main inbox empty. This only works for me because I have a series of additional inboxes that I use instead. First, there are a lot of messages I receive over and over again, related to the ticketing system (mostly status changes) used by the two teams I manage. Those are automatically moved, by rule, into one of my other inboxes. They are auto-generated and typically low priority, I need to be informed, but they rarely contain action and can quickly be read and deleted.
z-incoming - this is the first-level catchall. This is where most automatically sorted email goes. This is also where I throw stuff to sort. If I have a few moments to respond to an email, I do it from here. Otherwise, it gets sorted off into another folder. (Updated, 12:26 pm) I do use the preview pane to quickly skim emails, and then the tool "AutoHotkey" that I mention below.
aa next actions - this is the stuff I absolutely must act upon quickly. After I've sorted everything out of z-incoming, I move on to this folder. The goal is to clear out this folder, but sometimes I need to move stuff on to bb priority 1.
ab schedule/calendar - when it's been a few hours since I've had a chance to read my email because of meetings and stuff, I move all the calendar items here to deal with all at once. Then I'll bring up the calendar on one monitor and go through the calendaring emails on the other. I do like using Google Sync on my Blackberry, but it does not play well with recurring events scheduled by someone else, so I'm pretty close to uninstalling Google Sync.
ac waiting for - this is emails that I've responded to but now expect someone else to get back to me before I can perform an action. I can quickly and regularly scan this box just to remind myself of what I'm waiting for. If someone's taking too long to respond, I can ping them again.
bb priority 1 through be priority 4 and hr - these are the things that are not immediate next action. Some newsletters I read go into a particular priority. As I work through bb priority 1, I may end up moving something to 2. And then as I go through 2, I may end up moving stuff to 3. I include "and hr" on the fourth box for two reasons: one - our HR group sends out a lot of emails, and they tend to give us a lot of advanced warning on requirements, and sometimes they dole out requirements in smaller portions. This allows me to collect them together so that I have them when I need them (and sometimes so I can go schedule some time away from my desk to read them and type them up into instructions that my teams will better understand), and secondly, to remind me that HR is important. In the end, everything that I haven't already processed to has filtered down to the fourth priority level. I get to this box at least once a week and by then, there's nothing more urgent and nothing easier to tackle. Since it's usually the end of the week before I get to this, I also know that this is something that isn't going to come back to me before Tuesday or Wednesday of next week.
Why do my inboxes start with weird letters? Speed. When I'm on the message screen on the Blackberry (where I do most of my triage), I hit "i" to "File" the message and then I can quickly type a couple of characters and pick the folder without having to reach over to the scroll wheel, and then hit enter and I'm done.
(Updated 12:26 pm) Also, on my laptop, I make use of an free, amazingly powerful (but sadly, complex) tool called AutoHotKey. It allows you to create macros for anything. So, I have a series of macros that all start by me pressing the ` (the backwards apostrophe in the top left corner of my keyboard). Then it waits and I can press 1, 2, 3, 4, w, c or n. That immediately takes the email I'm looking at, marks it unread and moves it to the appropriate folder.
Another cool trick is that my inboxes group my mail. This is a big hack that is harder to come by, but one that saves me incredible amounts of time. This can be done to some degree with Outlook, but frankly, this is one area (and probably the only area) where Lotus Notes shines. Because I can completely customize my view, I have all kinds of special things going on. For instance, if the follow-up flag on an email has a "+" in it, Lotus Notes groups my emails together by that follow-up flag instead of the subject. Either way, by grouping emails, you can select a topic to work on and knock out a lot of emails at once.
An example of grouping -- the inbox view rule says to put all EmailRoundtable messages together and then group by subject. (It's smart enough to ignore "RE:" and "FW:" and stuff and keep all like messages together.)
And you may be wondering why I typed this at work when I seem to be so busy. Two reasons... one, I have a Blackberry and a laptop, so even when I'm not here, I'm still working. (Ask my wife, I've been doing a lot of work email the last few nights trying to get caught up.) And secondly, it's a lot of my colleagues that are asking me how I do it, so now I'll have a place to point them to and save everyone some time.
- Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity
- The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures
- Don't Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability, 2nd Edition - Web related, but makes the point that effortless later requires more thought up-front
And that, is how I get things done while keeping my sanity.