IT & the Lawyer

Inbox tyranny

"How many e-mails do you receive in a day?", a colleague asked the other day, frowning. "On average 45 to 55," I replied, "not counting junk mail."

I am a non-practising conveyancer involved in training. My colleague is a practising conveyancer and is also involved in the management of the firm where he is a partner. He probably receives double my daily dose of e-mails.

Many conveyancers and conveyancing paralegals feel like they are chained to their e-mail inboxes. By way of 'Pacman' analogy: you spend the better part of the day 'fighting the aliens', but as soon as you kill off one, two more float down, eager to devour you. And so you battle on bravely day after day, surviving, but with no end in sight.

The daily task of managing one's Inbox leaves little time in the workday for thinking deeply and doing the actual work. If you receive 60 'relevant' e-mails on any given day, and if you spend an average of six minutes on each e-mail (open, read, reflect on, decide what to do about it, research the topic/find the info requested, draft a response, consider whether to copy anyone else, send, print for file), you will be glued to your computer screen for six solid hours. This figure does not include the minutes needed to initiate and send new e-mails.

How can conveyancers and conveyancing paralegals escape the tyranny of the Inbox? There probably is no real cure for the problem (unless we are prepared to change careers), so we have to be content to experiment with a few organising tips and management techniques.

Here then, are a few ideas to experiment with. Perhaps one or two of them will be useful, helping to free up a few minutes, or to create the temporary illusion that you are in control of your Inbox rather than the other way around.

1. Short and sweet. No need for flowery language or long introductions; get to the point immediately. E-mail ethics allow this, and even demand it. Drop the "how are Sally and the kids?" question unless there is a good reason to ask. If you are on the receiving end of such a question, don't feel obliged to respond; the enquirer is probably trying to be polite and will generally not consider it rude if you ignore the question. In fact, nine times out of ten, the person will not remember having asked.

2. Keep your Inbox uncluttered. If you keep all received e-mails in your Inbox until they have finally been dealt with, you will end up with a heavy psychological weight on your mind. Your brain subconsciously tries to remember all 'open' issues (things you need to do something about) and the really important e-mails will lose their impact in a sea of words. Rather make use of subfolders, and reserve the Inbox for freshly received e-mails.

3. Subfolders in the Inbox. Consider creating five subfolders in your Inbox:
1. Urgent
2. In due course
3. Maybe/someday/remember
4. Subscriptions/must read
5. For amusement

You could consider adding "Waiting for action" and "Think about the next step" but beware: the more subfolders, the more energy you will have to spend in sorting and retrieving information.

4. Create a 'projects' file on the same level as your Inbox (not subfolders, same level). Create subfolders under 'projects,' according to need and arranged alphabetically in a way that makes sense to you; for example "Dog: Get a dog for Anna" and "Jones: Trf Erf 234 to Smith". Drag 'closed' (finalised) e-mails from your Inbox into these project subfolders if you are not yet ready to delete them. Your mind will be relieved of the psychological burden, knowing that the tasks are completed, but that the paper trail is still available in case you need it.

5. Spend the first hour of your workday unplugged, if possible. Before hooking in to your Inbox, spend the first hour of the day attending to things on your desk. If you can get a few paper to-do's out of the way first, you will feel so much better about yourself.

6. Step 1: plug in and receive e-mails, drag into subfolders, step 2: unplug, step 3: process. When you start on the day's first catch of e-mails, spend the first few minutes sorting theminto the subfolders outlined above. Then, if possible, unplug and give yourself a 20 to 30 minute deadline (or whatever is appropriate) to read through your subscriptions or other legal updates. Then tackle the 'urgent' folder, also imposing a deadline on yourself. In this way, you ought to be able to reach the e-mails in the 'in due course' subfolder, in due course.

7. Stay unplugged and focus on 'closing', if at all possible. It depends on the nature of your job and your personality, but it is generally distracting and discouraging to see new e-mails streaming in constantly. Rather stay unplugged for an hour or two or three, processing the e-mails you have received, aiming to 'close' or at least further the issues. Then download a fresh batch of e-mails, and repeat the process. Aim to download e-mails in three or maximum four batches per day.

8. Eat the elephant one bite at a time. For a task where you do not yet clearly see the next action to be taken, or where completing the task involves huge effort, break up the task (or the thinking about the task) into manageable bits. For example, give yourself five minutes to brainstorm (in an e-mail to yourself) what the next step should be. Or, in an e-mail to yourself, write just a preliminary heading and the five main points of the proposed article you need to write for your firm's newsletter. Next time round you will be able to fine-tune and add.

9 Send emails to yourself. With the use of proper subfolders the Inbox can be a great 'to do' list and a reminder of what needs to be followed up at some stage. For example, when you e-mail Mrs Admin to "please order a back-p toner for my printer", you will bcc or cc yourself, and drag the received e-mail into the 'in due course' subfolder. In this way you will not lose track of delegated tasks and reminders.

10. Be strict about not wasting your time on e-mail jokes and gobbledygook. The golden rule: don't send them, don't read them; they are terrible time-wasters. If you absolutely cannot resist, drag them into a 'for amusement' subfolder and take them home to enjoy, or read during lunch hour (if you have one). Empty this folder once a month to purge unread items. In this way you will not feel you are really missing out.

11. When in doubt, delete. You can always retrieve something from the 'deleted items folder' by using the built-in search facility or Google, if you discover later that you do actually still need the info. Empty the 'deleted' folder regularly, say, once every three months. If you are scared to death about losing something, make a backup on cd or print a paper record. Then empty the folder.

12. Keep a 'reference' subfolder under 'projects'. Keep all those useful legal updates and articles which you may wish to refer to at a later stage in a 'reference' subfolder, created in the 'projects' folder. (Not under inbox- there you will only keep 'open' items).

Then spend the free minutes you have gained by using these tips, on contemplating the meaning of life.

Lizelle Kilbourn

ITA Training Academy (Pty) Ltd,
a subsidiary of Smith Tabata Buchanan Boyes

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