"Chaos results when the world changes faster than people"—Unknown. The rapid development and expansion of new information technology over the past two decades has proven to be a double-edged sword for most healthcare organizations. Although many of these changes offer a tangible benefit in the form of cost savings and improved time management (for example, the widespread adoption of online business meetings as an alternative to face-to-face meetings), it also creates chaos for people trying to keep up with a continually evolving business environment in which the volume and breadth of information at our fingertips can seem overwhelming.
The purpose of this article is to provide a few simple rules and tools to assist with creating order out of the chaos in your e-mail inbox, which has become a critical information conduit for most healthcare administrators. This article is based on Microsoft Outlook product features, but the principles for information control and organization are applicable to any e-mail system. Implementation of these few simple tools will improve organizational efficiency while helping to prioritize critical correspondence, assignments, and projects.
- On average, check your e-mails two to three times per day.
- Don't check e-mail constantly with a handheld device while in a meeting.
- Don't "touch" an e-mail more than twice.
- Sort e-mails by subject.
- Carbon copy (cc) yourself and flag all e-mails that need follow up.
Rule #1. For those of you who are addicted to the latest technology and always have to be up-to-the-second on all the latest news and information, the first two rules are going to be difficult for you to implement. In order to increase efficiency, only check your e-mails two to three times per day on average. At minimum, check your e-mail every morning when you arrive and again before you leave work. This ensures that you don't have any critical correspondence or issues that you need to address and can plan your day accordingly. If you have time once mid-morning and/or mid-afternoon, check your e-mails again.
Rule #2. Don't check your e-mails constantly while at work with a handheld device. Because you're usually doing so while you're in a meeting, this activity may cause you to miss new information that's being presented, thus slowing the meeting down or creating a need for additional follow-up at a later date. Also, it's unlikely that you'll read and process the information in the e-mail while you're in attendance at the meeting because you're probably holding the handheld device under the table so as not to be discovered and you're reading really fast. In addition, when you're checking e-mail from a handheld device, you may not be as diligent about flagging and cc'ing yourself. The exception to this rule would be if you're waiting for time-sensitive material or notification; however, sticking to the rule is recommended for increased efficiency and decreased chaos.
Rule #3. Don't touch an e-mail more than twice because it wastes time and decreases efficiency. Use the following system for handling your e-mail:
- open and delete
- open and file
- open and flag or categorize.
If you're disciplined enough to stick with this simple rule, you'll have an inbox with a manageable number of organized and flagged e-mails (50 to 100) instead of an unmanageable number (hundreds of unorganized e-mails).
Rule #4. Sort your e-mails by subject. This rule will help you avoid reading multiple versions of the same e-mail. If you sort by subject, you can read the most recent version of the e-mail that includes the "e-mail trail," thus saving time. Note: Some individuals don't follow these simple rules, so it's always a good idea to briefly scan other versions of the e-mail with the same subject title to ensure someone didn't deviate from the e-mail trail. After scanning, immediately delete or file the other versions of the e-mail and then either delete, file, or flag the most recent version as needed.
Rule #5. Lastly, cc yourself on e-mails that need follow-up. When you do this, you have the most current e-mail trail in your inbox, so you can delete the previous same subject e-mails. Then you can flag or file the e-mail for follow-up. For example, in a few seconds you can decrease your inbox from five e-mails with the same subject to one e-mail that's all inclusive. If you don't think you can follow all these rules at once, start by making folders and filing or deleting the existing e-mails in you inbox.
The following instructions are based on Microsoft Outlook 2010. Consult your owner's manual or the Outlook help screen if you're using a different version.
Using follow-up flags. Flags are designed to provide follow-up reminders that can be customized to generate a reminder alert at a specific date and time. Flagged messages can then be sorted in the inbox message pane based on subject, category, or follow-up date assigned, thus providing a quick and simple way to prioritize your correspondence. Flagging messages in your inbox can be done by:
- right clicking on the flag icon in the right column. This will display default options including "Today," "Tomorrow," "This Week," "Next Week," "No Date," "Custom," and "Add Reminder." The custom function allows you to choose a start date and due date for each message, which builds in a reminder message set to launch at the date and time you select.
- selecting the message in your inbox by left clicking. Then left click on the follow-up flag in the ribbon at the top of the page. The default displays previously noted will appear.
You can create a "Set Quick Click" function if there's one particular flag that you frequently use, such as "Today." When you right click the flag column, select "Set Quick Click" from the pull-down menu and change the quick click function to "Today" and then click "OK." When you return to the inbox message pane, simply left click on the flag column to set the "Today" reminder.
Now that you've flagged the messages appropriately, you can sort your inbox messages by subject, category, or follow-up date assigned. In the file menu at the top of the screen, left click on the "View" tab and chose "Flag: Due Date" from the "Arrangement" menu. The inbox messages will be sorted according to calendar priority.
Using categories. Another useful function is the color categories that can be assigned to e-mail messages, allowing you to quickly identify and sort incoming correspondence into distinct groupings. You might find it helpful to organize your inbox items into six or seven different large classifications that you can later use to make filing read messages easier or, if you have many inbox items to sort through, quickly find the e-mail message you need based on the category of correspondence. For example, you might want to organize your e-mails into the following categories: business operations, human resources, finance/contracts, compliance, information management, patient care/quality, and risk management.
To set color categories, simply click on "Categorize" under the "Home" tab on the top toolbar and then click "All Categories." You can then add, delete, or rename the default color categories based on your groupings. To assign a particular category to an e-mail, simply right click on the empty box to the right of the e-mail to pull up your category options and choose the appropriate category. To sort by category or subject, simply left click on the word "Subject" or "Categories" located in the gray bar directly above your e-mail messages.
Building new folders and filing e-mails. The simplest and most important tool at your disposal for organizing your correspondence is the folder filing system. For those who are familiar with Outlook and web-based e-mail systems, this may seem like a no-brainer but, surprisingly, many healthcare administrators are either unaware or unskilled at using this basic function.
The navigation pane contains your inbox folder, as well as a sent items folder and deleted items trash bin. Within your inbox folder, you can create folders where you can store e-mails for record keeping purposes. To create a new folder, simply click on the "Folder" tab at the top, select "New Folder," name the new folder, and click "OK." After you're finished with a particular e-mail and want to save it for your records, simply click and drag the e-mail from the main inbox pane to the folder of your choosing in the navigation pane.
There are some general rules you should follow when organizing your folders. Much like any filing system, the challenge is to walk that fine line between simplicity and specificity; you need to maintain a filing system with distinct, discernable categories while simultaneously avoiding excessive categorization. Too few folders can leave you sorting through hundreds of e-mails to find what you need; too many folders can lead to endless and time-consuming searching.
Start by developing folders to match general departments of operation, such as risk management, human resources, or other main functions of practice administration. Within each main folder, you may have one or two additional sublevels. For example, within your subfolder for human resources, you might want to establish files for each employee and a separate folder for general policy/procedure related e-mails.
Avoid using more than two or three levels of subfolders or you may find it difficult to remember where you stored your e-mails. The idea is to quickly pull up e-mail records at a moment's notice, not waste 10 minutes searching for where you stored your correspondence. However, if you do forget where an e-mail is stored, you can always use the search function. On the top toolbar, click the "Search" tab, "All Mail Items," type in any word related to the correspondence you need, and then click the magnifying glass to search.
Deleting old items. This may seem axiomatic, but make sure you empty the items from your trash bin regularly. Some people falsely believe that after they delete an e-mail, it disappears. The truth is that those e-mails are simply moved to your recycle bin, eating up valuable mailbox space until you empty the bin. Right click on the "Deleted Items" icon and click "Empty Deleted Items" on a regular basis to keep your system running smoothly.
One step ahead!
In order to stay one step ahead of the chaos in today's technologically driven world, try implementing one or two of the general rules or tools set forth in this article. If you keep adding one or two each week, before you know it you'll have the most organized e-mail box in the office, which means you'll be spending less time reading and searching for e-mails every day.