A messy pile of file folders with a pen and a stapler on a desk.

Workspace: Email processes

As everything started winding down at years end and I took some time to clear out some of the leftover clutter around the office, I started thinking about the organizational tools I used over the past year and see if there was anything I could do to better.

Before you can manage others, you have to manage yourself. Early in my career, I started this process with my email when I noticed that most of my messages fell into four types. (Thanks are due here to Stephanie Winston for her TRAF system of organization.)

  • Informational messages: These are things I needed to know about  in the moment and then no longer needed, like script notices that told me things were nominal or that updates were successful.
  • Task reminder messages: These are notes that remind me to take or complete an action. Like changing the backup tapes or checking on the amount of paper ready for the printers.
  • Requests for enhancement/modifications: Messages from users containing suggestions for features or requests for changing functionality. These emails require that I take an action and then store to prove who requested a change, when it was requested and my reply with the completion or denial notice.
  • Questions better answered by someone else on the team: I’m the first to admit, I don’t do everything. Most projects require a team effort and some queries are better answered by the team member who is responsible for that aspect of the project.

To get a handle on these messages I stopped just reading messages and started taking actions in my inbox. When I log in for the day I scan my email and review any of the Informational messages. If no action is needed the email is immediately deleted. Any messages I find that need to be handled by someone else, or that I need information from someone else to complete, are forwarded to the right team member and left in my inbox only if I need to follow up on the actions taken, otherwise it’s deleted. Task reminder emails are then next, I complete the required actions and delete the email. Last are those Request messages, those are prioritized by impact and need and then I handle (or deny) the request and move the email into my storage folder. The goal here is to simply have nothing left in my inbox at the end of the day.

A picture of Geof's desk. Multi monitors, a netbook and desk blotter surround an empty chair.This worked great for getting a handle on email, I found myself less overwhelmed by cascading piles of email and I found that I was more productive. Some of this due to seeing myself approach a goal, an empty inbox, and some of this due to keeping me focused on tasks that can be handled rather than letting the mundane information break my concentration. This method works for email, snail-mail, faxes, and even team task assignments.

As my management responsibilities increased I figured out quickly that I needed to also keep up with what my team members were (and were not!) doing. I took my email management and started keeping a similar process for each of the team members. I started this with a basic file folder that held notes and task information and when I would meet with the team member I would pull out their folder and run through what ever was inside.

The results were dramatic. My new team was able to complete tasks that had been left wallowing in the lonely mists of time for far too long, mainly because team members would forget these older tasks in favor of the most recent event’s task. I call this squeaky mouse syndrome. The task, (event, client, manager) who makes the most recent noise is the thing the team handles. I’ve expanded on this and now use Google Keep rather than file folders to keep my team on track.


~Geof “Everything fits in a box” Franklin


Researching ways to improve scientist’s access to data. Programming software to solve humanity’s problems. Disseminating emergency preparedness knowledge. Sharing knowledge about science. Practicing amateur radio. Serving humanity through volunteer efforts. Drives a robot to work.


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