3 months before I moved out here and started working at Microsoft, a friend of mine told me: “KC, you need a pilot… because you have the organizational Zen, but not the tools required to implement it”. Little did I know that I would shortly find that tool, and it would be Outlook. I apparently give off an impression of being on top of the little things, because I recently had a coworker ask me how I kept track of all the things I needed to do and follow up on (that’s one of the major focuses of any PM job is following up on things, and a release manager is a sort of PM that does even more tracking and following up on even more things). I’m not a follower of David Allen (at least, not yet – I own “Getting Things Done” but haven’t gotten around to reading it), my system is just something I cobbled together over the years based on what I learned about myself.
Many years ago I read the results of a usability study about Outlook that talked about broad categories of how customers manage email, and at the time there were two main categories – pilers and filers. I am a filer, meaning that I have many folders that are project or topic-based (and are usually organized in some hierarchical fashion), and I sort inbound email into those folders if I might need it later and use search or manually browse to the folder later when I need to retrieve them. In my case, the sibling folders to my Inbox are things like:
- Mailing Lists: All mass mailing lists go here, including lists like the check-in emails. I do expand the node periodically and glance through the lists, but generally if something is in this folder, it can safely be deleted.
- News: All of my RSS feeds are stored under here, and I have a couple of search folders that look in a subset of these folders.
- Email: I send out a weekly email to the Exchange team detailing what’s going on in the team and the project. Throughout the week, as I find things that I want to include in my mail, I stick them in this folder. Come thursday evening, I sort through the folder and put together the draft of the mail and then delete the items from this folder.
- Saved: Everything I want to archive but not remove from my mailbox goes here. This includes a folder for account numbers and confirmation emails for expensive items I want to track, a folder called “Organizational Changes” where I save all of the hello and goodbye emails from everyone (as well as the birth announcements from my coworkers having kids) and other miscellaneous things that I don’t refer to often but like to have around. I periodically archive this to a PST that I then leave copies of on several machines.
- Also under Saved is my kudos folder, which is where I store every email where someone paid me a compliment, big or small. This is a great thing that I find incredibly useful during rough times (or review time, for that matter!). I never archive this folder to a PST because I like looking back on it year after year. For example, when I was a tester in Outlook, I spent a fair amount of time one weekend helping a customer by writing VBA macros to make Outlook’s IMAP support use the standard Outlook deletion model (i.e. rather than ‘mark items for deletion’ and then purge the folder, have a deleted items folder where all the deleted items go and then empty that one at will). The customer was so grateful that they mailed my boss, who forwarded it to his boss, who forwarded it to his boss, all the way up to Steve Sinofsky. I still get a huge kick out of re-reading that thread. The best part was, I had a blast doing it, because it was a project I’d always wanted to do on my own but never got around to it.
- Seattle Trip: This is a temporary folder. My entire family is coming out to visit us in a few weeks, and I’m keeping all of the email about the trip stored here for easy retrieval.
- Areas: This is my main subfolder hive. Underneath “Areas”, I have 5 subfolders covering the top few projects I’m working on. Each of those 5 has 3-20 subfolders underneath it. One of the 5 folders is Release Management, and I store reference material related to being a release manager there (such as email threads from the internal project managers distribution list with useful info on how other product teams manage software projects, etc).
Pilers are people who tend to keep all of their mail in a single folder (usually the Inbox) and rely heavily on sorting and also search to find the mail. So a piler tends to have many items (I peeked over the shoulder of a coworker once and saw that he had 22,000 unread items in his inbox) in a single folder and is constantly sorting on the from/to/received/size/etc and performing searches in that folder. Pilers also frequently have very large deleted items folders, because they use deleted items as a way of storing things they don’t need right now but may in the future.
Here are some of the other strategies I use to stay on top of things:
- My “create task from email” macro. I use this for items that I need to remember to do, but there’s no real deadline. I do set a reminder but only to keep it in my face, not because the due date is really that important.
- My custom named colored flags. Right now I’m using all 6 flag colors: 3 are project based, two are general work ones (one is “things specific to release management”, one is “everything else”) and one is for personal/family issues.
- My search folders. I use a few key search folders such as looking for my name in the body of email sent to mailing lists I read.
- I try to move items out of my inbox as soon as I’m “done” with them. If I needed to do something based on the email, I usually do whatever I need to do and then delete or file the item. I sometimes flag it for later or keep it marked unread.
- If I need to do something and there is time pressure, I will put it on my calendar and force myself to not use that time to catch up on email or other issues, but to focus on that to-do.
I’m far from perfect and it’s still very possible for something to get lost in my inbox when I get overwhelmed (I really should get around to reading GTD, hey I know what – I’ll create a task to remind me to do it!), but for the most part this system works fairly well for me.
There’s no “right” way, each system has its ups and downs and not all systems work for all people as there’s a heavy human element in any organizational zen. On that note, I really enjoyed this story from an anonymous associate of mine who is an Exchange administrator:
A few years ago I was moving a big wig’s mailbox to another server. When I opened his mailbox to spot check it, I was horrified to find the inbox completely empty. I did find everything, but it was all in his deleted items, something like 2 years worth of stuff. I figured it was some weird glitch, so I moved it all back up to his inbox. After he logged in, he called me on the phone and asked me why I screwed up his “system” of keeping all his important emails in deleted items.