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In The 5 Choices: The Path To Extraordinary Productivity, Kory Kogon, Adam Merrill and Leena Rinne lay out a five-step process to extraordinary productivity. These steps, like acting on the important rather than reacting to the urgent, correspond to how we manage our time, attention and energy.

Kogon is the global practice leader for productivity at US-headquartered consulting and training company FranklinCovey. Merrill is vice-president of innovations for FranklinCovey and Rinne is a senior consultant with the company.

In a chapter titled, “Rule Your Technology, Don’t Let It Rule You", the authors share tips on how executives can tweak their email settings and use calendar invites, among other things, to automatize tasks and prepare for meetings. Edited excerpts:

On a typical workday, individuals send and receive an average of 121 emails, and it is projected that this number will only grow. It is critical that we make the right moves to turn our inbox into an extremely useful productivity engine.

Here is the key paradigm shift around your email. Your email is not just a bunch of messages. Every email is a decision. We said in chapter 1 that one of the most pervasive problems of the twenty-first century for knowledge workers is the sheer number of decisions that need to be made all day long. And when we are busy deleting, moving, being tempted by, or answering emails, we are using up energy that would be better applied elsewhere.

Win Without Fighting is based on the principle of automation. The goal is to confidently automate as many of these decisions as possible so that our brains don’t have to use up energy on the mundane, useless, or unnecessary.

One of the most powerful ways to automate your incoming email is to master the rules or filter functions of your email program. Rules or filters can automatically put many of your emails where you want them to go before they ever hit your inbox! For example, you can set up rules that automatically:

u Delete junk email that made it through your spam filters.

u Delete irrelevant emails that don’t pertain to you.

u Prioritize the cc list and the reply all function.

u Highlight email from critical people like your boss, spouse, key team members, and so on.

u Move key reference documents, trade journals, and the like to their folders for later review.

u Move non-time-sensitive emails from certain groups of users (like people you don’t know) to a custom folder for later review.

u Forward specific emails, like reports, to others.

u Auto-reply to specific senders to let them know if you are out or set expectations about when you will respond.

u Copy specific emails to different locations.

Of course, you should be aware of any corporate guidelines that govern how you handle and delete email. But by taking some Q2 time (the quadrant of extraordinary productivity, where you engage in proactive work, creative thinking, planning, prevention, relationship-building, and learning and renewal) to set up these rules, you can save thousands of hours later on. Let’s say that you get one hundred new emails per day. How many of them are important? Let’s make the following assumptions:

u Thirty of them (30 percent) are vital and need your focused attention right away.

u Forty of them (40 percent) are important but do not require immediate action (reports, ccs, project status, etc.).

u Thirty of them (30 percent) are a waste of time and shouldn’t be there at all (spam and other nonimportant items).

Let’s also assume that it takes you an average of fifteen seconds just to decide what to do with each email. That means you will spend twenty-five minutes per day simply sorting your email. That’s just over two hours in a five-day work week spent sorting email, not actually doing anything with it.

But let’s be real. What happens is, as you read each email, you start to load your brain with all sorts of questions, you read and reread, and sometimes reply. Often you move on to the next email, leaving the old one to sit there for a later decision and/or action. Over time, this results in an inbox filled with hundreds of emails in various stages of uncertainty and completion, which is a source of mental stress hanging over you throughout the day.

If, however, you set up some rules that could accurately discard the 30 percent that shouldn’t be there at all, automatically handle a good portion of the 40 percent that are important but not urgent, and highlight the vital 30 percent, you would have a different email experience altogether.

First, there is a bunch of stuff you wouldn’t even see, because it would have been automatically deleted or filed away for you. This would allow you to reclaim much of the two hours a week you spend simply sorting. Then, you could easily direct your attention to the messages you know are likely to be important, because your rules helped you identify them quickly.

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