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How to Use the 4D Method to Tame Your Email

how to use the 4d method to tame your email. This is an image of a keyboard with an email icon in place of the left bracket and curly brace key

Email can be a constant flood of information, news, updates, to-do items, calendar invites, project updates. But not all emails are of equal importance - some are time-based, some are future-based, some are nice-to-have-someday types of projects. Projects and task communications generate email, Microsoft Team chats, Slack, and other communications. But email seems to be the one that needs to be tamed!

Several years ago, I read about the 4D method in a Microsoft newsletter about dealing with your email. This method is originally attributed to The Power of Focus, a book by Jack Canfield, Mark Victor Hansen, and Les Hewitt. It was designed as a way to distinguish between priorities and non-urgent tasks. It's been a great tool to deal with email. Gmail and Outlook have such large capacities that you could probably get away with never deleting email messages. Talk about overwhelm! Let’s be honest though: email isn't going anywhere so it’s a good idea to get in the habit of taming it.

I'll share how I use the 4D method to manage my email. The 4Ds are:

  • Delete

  • Do

  • Delegate

  • Defer

1: Delete

Not surprisingly, you can delete email. I like to sort email by sender because I can usually sort and mass-delete general notifications quickly. I think another component of deleting is to prevent yourself from getting email when possible. You can unsubscribe to newsletters and updates. Most subscription-based emails have an unsubscribe feature at the bottom.

Emails that can get deleted include calendar invitations (once you accept them they go on your calendar). You can also delete general information, status updates, or newsletters once you read them.

If you have email messages that are FYI or instructional and that you need to reference later, you can use your email's folder feature and move the messages there.

2: Do

There are two sides of "do". The first is if something will take 2 minutes or less, then do it immediately. Sometimes this is just a quick response to an email or looking up information.

The other side of "do" is something that may need a little more work or focus. The general wisdom I read from productivity gurus is to put it on your calendar and schedule it for some time in the day. Technically, some might consider this "delay", but you are still going to do this today. You have made an action plan to do this.

Sometimes information in an email should be contained as documentation or a knowledge base of some sort. Most workplaces have shared document storage spaces that house documentation. A quick copy, paste, and save will create a document that you and others can reference.

3; Delegate

When I first read this idea, I laughed! I have not always had people to delegate to. One day, I was having a conversation with a colleague and bemoaned the fact that I really hate data entry. I didn't have a lot to do but had built it up as an awful thing in my mind. My colleague mentioned that she enjoyed it and would do the 10 minutes-a-week task since it wasn't time-sensitive. When I received email messages pertaining to data entry, I was able to forward to my colleague.

I also "delegate" my email to folders with rules. I am on a listserv that generates a lot of messages. I use a rule to send it to a folder automatically. I also use rules from system notifications (e.g., your process completed successfully). I look at these folders periodically to see if I have missed something, then I will modify the rule as necessary.

If you get a lot of requests electronically, some kind of form can be very helpful, too. A lot of larger companies might have some kind of ticketing or registration system, but if you are in a smaller department or in a department of one, you can use Google Forms or Microsoft Forms and ask people to submit that way. This way, you are delegating the requests to a system. I've found it much easier to manage requests from a list like this rather than from my email. Another favorite tool of mine that I use to manage my personal life is Trello. You can actually use Trello to manage your email. When you receive a message that is task or project-based, you can use the Trello feature to add to your to-do list. (This takes a little bit of time to set up, so is a long-term vs. short-term type of project that might save you time in the long run).

4: Defer

Unless you are in a frontline support role, I think it's wise to turn off your email notifications! The notifications add a sense of urgency as well as interruptions to your focus. Otherwise, it's good to make a plan to do something with the message.

  • Add it to your calendar to do. It can be an individual appointment for yourself or a meeting with someone else if necessary.

  • Add it to a to-do list. This can be the reminder/flags in your email system, a to-do folder in your email list, or another way that you track tasks. (I currently use Trello to track this).

  • If it's information you may need to access later, like login information, move it to a digital storage place. For instance, I have a place on my Trello board with login information for digital courses and products I have purchased.

5: Putting this all together

For most people, it's a good idea to NOT check your email continuously! I try to check it every half hour. I will check it more often if I am waiting for a response or less often if I am deep within a project. I have also started the practice of Inbox 0. I set aside 10 or 15 minutes at the end of my workday to ensure that I have handled my messages in one of the 4 ways above. If there are still messages in my inbox that I need to take action on, I will move them to my task list with the Trello feature.

I have learned that the best way to manage email is to deal with it a little bit every day, then the task isn't so daunting! Do you use the 4Ds? What are your best strategies for dealing with email?


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