A Kanban Board is a technique of visualizing your work items and their progression through the different stages of completion over time. A task will typically start within your 'To Do' section, move then to the 'In progress' section when you start working on it and finally, when completed, end its journey in the 'Done' column.

While you can choose to maintain a Kanban Board in the digital space (one of the most popular tools is Trello: http://www.trello.com), it is often recommended that you focus on the physical world: just find a whiteboard or a large piece of paper and stick some Post-Its to it, like so:

Kanban Board

A board as shown above is the most simple Kanban board imaginable. Extensions on this are possible:

  • Prioritize the tasks in the To Do column. Tasks that are to be worked on first are at the top of the column while lower priority tasks are towards the bottom
  • You can use differently coloured Post-Its to indicate different types of tasks: for example, new development tasks could be yellow, defects blue, enhancements green etc.
  • You can have more than three columns. In IT teams, for example, you typically see a larger number of columns: To Do, Analysis, Development, Testing & Deployment

Ofcourse, this way of working is most often used at the level of the team. But what on a more personal level?

A McKinsey Global Institute study from 2012 found that email was the second most time-consuming activity for white-collar workers (second only to 'role-specific tasks'). Productivity gains in the treating of emails can therefore boost overall productivity by a significant amount.

I, personally, am a heavy Outlook user at work. Most work-related tasks are received and handled through my professional mailbox. As such, it makes sense to optimize my follow-up of emails through outlook.

Outlook management is hard

The elusive goal of the 'empty' Inbox

Let's go back to the good ol' times when working in an office entailed sending and receiving physical letters (and ofcourse, occasionally celebrating business success with a bottle of whiskey).

The term 'Inbox' (same for the term 'Outbox') dates from that time and you can still find its original meaning in the dictionary:

a boxlike tray, basket, or the like, as on a desk, for holding incoming mail, messages, or work / Source: http://www.dictionary.com

Inbox and Outbox

The daily use of such a 'physical' Inbox has important parallels with the use of our 'digital' one today:

As proud owner of the inbox, you took the top letter and carried out the related task. When that was done, you archived the letter and moved on to the next one in the pile. This continued until your Inbox was empty (preferably before the end of the workday).

What I am basically getting at is that your 'Inbox' was then only used for incoming mails that were still to be treated by you. As soon as you had read a particular letter and executed the relevant action associated with it you moved it out of your Inbox.

The advantage of this way or working is that you create a clear goal for yourself: at the end of the day your mailbox should be empty. In this noble pursuit, you have the added benefit to not get distracted by past or irrelevant emails.

Back in the present, things have gone slightly downhill: people now keep all sorts of emails (read & unread) in their Inbox and/or have an elaborate system of folders and sub-folders where emails are sometimes automatically redirected to by means of rules.

  • First of all, this has the crucial flaw that your inbox becomes a repository for all kinds of mails and all structure is lost. On top of that, your satisfactory 'goal' (no more emails in your Inbox at the end of the day) has vanished.
  • On top of that, the popular ease of the read/unread functionality to signal progress is actively deceiving you: just reading an email doesn't necessarily mean that there are no more actions to take.
  • Lastly, if you have read and unread emails side-by-side in your Inbox, you will always have unwanted distractions when looking through them.

1) A radical notion...

My first point is the simplest:

Emails should not spend more time in your Inbox than is absolutely necessary.

An email in your inbox signals something to be done. As an analogy, you can picture yourself being a barista in a Starbucks franchise. Every customer who lines up in a (hopefully, orderly) queue next to the counter can be compared to an email in your inbox. Every customer might have different wants and needs, but you will only know what that is until you ask him (or her).

The same applies to your Inbox. Some emails might be purely informative while others require you to act in some form or another.

As a Starbucks barista aims to have no more waiting customers in the queue at the end of the working day, so you should aim to have no more emails waiting in your Inbox. Practically, this means that you move emails that have been treated out of your Inbox. Ofcourse, this is easier said than done - some emails require an effort from you that can easily take days, so because of those emails your email won't always be completely empty.

Our goal

2) Prioritize, prioritize, prioritize...

The role of leadership is to transform the complex situation into small pieces and prioritize them - Carlos Ghosn (CEO of Renault)

The default option of most email clients is that incoming emails are automatically placed in your Inbox and that these emails are sorted from most recent on top to least recent on the bottom. When you start using your inbox as explained under #1, this default setting makes exactly zero sense. While you might not have even conciously used a prioritization system, the default has provided you with one. In technical terms, that default prioritization system is called LIFO, which means, Last In First Out.

For an analogy, we can go back to our Starbucks queue: imagine that the last arriving customer would always be served first. What outrage would that cause?

I would argue that FIFO (First in First Out) makes vastly more sense: the oldest email should be logically regarded as most urgent and as such be most visible in your Inbox - thus placed near the top.

Let's get to the point and have a look at my prioritization system:

4 category prioritization

I work with four categories:

  • 1 - High Priority
  • 2 - Medium Priority
  • 3 - Low Priority
  • ( and ofcourse the default (none) for emails that are not yet categorized )

(For your information, the numbers ('1 -', '2 -' and '3 -') are only there so as to have the categories in the right order when ordering alphabetically on categories in your Inbox.)

So let's go through the typical life of an email that arrives in my mailbox:

1) An email arrives in your mailbox. It starts its life on the bottom of the (none) category section like so:
Email arrives in mailbox

2) As I read my emails from top to bottom, I first read the email with subject 'First email received'. This makes sense because that email is objectively older (and thus (probably) more urgent), so I first have to treat that one before moving on to the email of 18:11.

So let's open that one:

3) Let's read what it says:

Hi Philippe, could you please ask the Legal Department's approval for the change we are working on? Could you make sure to have it ASAP, this could make or break our business case and I need to tell my superior by tomorrow evening!

4) OK, I notice directly that an action is required from me for this email (I need to ask the Legal Department for an advice). I ask myself the following question: "Can I do the action under (roughly) 2 minutes?"

  • If yes - I do the associated action immediately and move the email to Done afterwards.
  • If no - I need to decide about the priority I will give this item.

5) Unfortunately, I cannot execute this action in less than 2 minutes... So now I need to decide how much priority to give to this action. Three possibilities exist:

  • High Importance/Urgency: categorize as 1 - High Priority
  • Medium Importance/Urgency: categorize as 2 - Medium Priority
  • Low Importance/Urgency: categorize as 3 - Low Priority

I decide that the email has High Priority because its quite important ("it can make or break the business case!") and it is also very urgent ("I need to tell my management by tomorrow evening!").

So I categorize the email as '1 - High Priority and it is automatically moved down, within that section in my Inbox.

6) I repeat step 1 through 5 for all other non-categorized emails in my inbox from oldest to newest: so from top to bottom.

7) When that's done, I can just continue working from top to bottom. First one is High Priority and the top one in that section is the oldest one. So it makes sense to work on that first.

Improvement 1 - Follow-up of Sent emails

During the workday, I typically send a large number of emails to colleagues in order to request work or ask for information. After sending, these emails inadvertently disappear into the dark caverns of my Sent Emails folder, never to be seen again. We all seem to be a little bit too comfortable with this way of working, as if sending the initial email constituted 'a job well done' and the rest of the responsibility lies solely with the recipient. Ofcourse, people (including the person at the other end of the email) are forgetful, procrastinate and don't necessary have the same priorities in mind as you do. As a result, you might receive a response immediately, a day later, a few days later... or even never! This means that you, the sender, needs to follow-up on any request you send out of the door. Ofcourse, you can track your outgoing emails for which you need a response in a separate Excel or Word document, or even use Post-Its sticked to the top of your monitor. But why not see the follow-up of Sent emails as another action for yourself?

Solution: create a rule that copies the sent email to your inbox whenever you send an email.