A Lesson From 6 Months Of Email

Every six months, I archive my Sent Items folder. This may sound geeky, but it’s one of the most productive and satisfying activities I do all year. Why do I love getting rid of old email? The main answer is that there is no more straightforward measure of activity in this digital age than the Sent Items folder. Every email I personally wrote is an effort to advance some aspect of my personal or professional life.

These are messages to clients, advice to friends, requests to vendors or follow-ups to prospects. Each email represents me trying to get something done. When I look at my total Sent Items for half a year, I feel pretty great.

The numbers in particular are fantastically motivating. From July 1, 2010 to December 31, 2010, I wrote a total of 4,849 emails. Some are only a few words and others run for several paragraphs. They are spread across over a thousand individual recipients (although the largest percentage of emails were inside the company.) That’s a ton of work, and it’s easy to see where the time went: into communicating essential ideas over email.

You can go farther down the analysis. Of those emails, I initially flagged 1,567 for follow-up. That’s a feature of my email program, Microsoft Outlook, which I use when I think I might need to check again with the recipient about the content of my email. I don’t use the flagging feature for people inside my company naturally, and I don’t use it for messages that are sent just to personal contacts. Therefore, those 1,567 emails represent current or potential business opportunities!

Emails tend to pile up as a sequence of replies. I do my best to keep a flag on only the most current email in a follow-up chain, so that means that although I marked 1,500+ emails at one time, I processed most of those conversations to a resolution.

There were only 143 emails remaining. That means I chased down 1,424 individual interactions to get a satisfactory reply! That number is encouraging. It means that I’m getting answers, advancing opportunities and building business in a very real way over email.

That’s not to say that my Sent Items data is the only measure of my work. And in fact, I actually do the archiving six months later (to keep recent sent email handy), so the information is not current. Nevertheless, this quick checkup feels great. I know I’m working hard and what I have to show for it.

Finally, archiving old email provides a satisfying finality to days gone by. If a conversation is older than six months, then I need to accept that it’s no longer happening. There’s a catharsis in letting go of old email. Messages I sent in the distant past will probably never receive replies. If I need to reach that person still, it’s time to write a new message, or better yet, to pick up the phone.

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Robby Slaughter is the founder of Slaughter Development, a workflow and productivity consulting company. After an extensive career in IT systems development, Robby realised that the principal challenges affecting individual workers are not technological in nature, but psychological. He discovered that to become more effective and efficient at work, we need to empower individuals with authority and responsibility. His consulting practice now focuses exclusively on assessing workflow challenges, helping stakeholders to design and develop new business processes, and implement systematic, stakeholder-driven changes throughout the organisation.