Let’s look at an average day in the life of an Agile team member. For many of us the day may start with a team standup meeting. The daily standup is the moment when we update each other about the progress and align on what is the next important thing that we need to complete today to make sure team focus is kept and we can achieve our common objectives.

So, we do our update, define the focus of the day, then we go back to our workspace, and… Mail kicks in. According to some studies, an average knowledge worker, like we all are, spends 15 hours per week doing mail. And typically, mail comes all the time, causing a lot of task switching and change of focus. Usually, responding to mails is something on top of our tasks in the team, sometimes related and sometimes not directly relevant to the tasks we are working on. If you think about it, it is a whole additional backlog that we handle every day, and that remains not very transparent and difficult to manage overall. A common example in software development teams are support inquiries that may come from customers or other teams, and it is very natural in these cases that once the mail notification pops up in the corner of the computer screen, people will click to check what the issue is. Often, this will result in further investigation, so that we can respond fast and solve the problem. In addition to the time we spend on these activities, switching back to our previous task is related to more time needed to refocus again and continue our work. And in many cases, this is neither urgent nor important.

So, let’s look at some ways to start managing our hidden backlog more efficiently and transparently to ourselves, so that we can be more efficient and transparent to our teams as well.

There are some simple rules that we can adopt in our teams to minimize mail-related waste.

#1 Limit mail communication

If you can just call the person you need, and have a quick direct communication on whatever question you need to discuss, just do it. It often saves a lot of time from circulating follow up mails, cc-ing a bunch of people who might not need to know all the details, or may jump into the discussion themselves, causing even more mails being sent around. Let alone the misunderstanding that happens often in written communication, especially when you communicate in a non-native language.

#2 Agree on mail processing rules with your team and stakeholders

If you cannot avoid sending some emails around, it might be helpful to set common rules for mail processing with your team and the people you work with most often, so that you can retain focus through the day. Mail communication does not need to be instantaneous in nature – it’s a matter of establishing some rules and expectations. We have better means for instant communication, such as Slack or HipChat, which can be used for questions and discussions that require immediate reaction. (We might argue that chats also tend to be a focus killer, but it is a matter of setting up clear rules as to how and when we use them. After all, sharing a good joke with the team is tempting, but we can also do it in a separate channel, so that we don’t cause interruptions.) In this case, we can use mail for communication that can be planned and processed with a certain delay.

#3 Establish a personal routine with mail

If you have managed to reduce the overall load in your mailbox, and to establish expectations – congratulations! But perhaps there is still a lot coming in that you need to manage. One way to do that is to apply the zero inbox concept. I have been practicing Zero inbox for several years, and it is an approach that helps me work efficiently on mails, while also being able to schedule and do my primary work as well.

The concept of zero inbox builds around a few simple rules:

  • Review your inbox at specified timeslots during the day
  • Process all new mail by deciding what to do with it: reply immediately, put in your backlog to work on it later, or just read and get rid of it
  • Prioritize the backlog of mails you need to attend to, and schedule them as tasks in your calendar

For example, I have scheduled timeslots of 30 min. in the morning and in the afternoon to go through the new mails, and decide what to do with each of them. For mails that involve a very quick reply, and I can process within a couple of minutes, I do reply immediately. Mails that would require additional research or preparation, so that I can answer adequately, get into my To Do list. Mails that are informative, or simply spam, get scanned, and then deleted (some of them I might decide to archive in case I need to refer to them later).

Once I’ve done that, my inbox folder remains empty (hence, the zero inbox concept), and I can focus on scheduling work for the items that require more time investment. I follow some priorities that I have defined for myself based on the simple urgent/important prioritization technique – for example, urgent mails with a deadline typically come higher on the list. Next are things that I consider important even though they are not super urgent. When I have my priorities, I look at the timeslots that are available on my calendar and decide when I can start working on them.

I assume that for Agile teams all of this is very familiar and common sense, yet it requires some awareness and discipline to establish on an individual level. And also, having a tool that makes all of this really easy to handle, is indispensable. I must admit that I have tried a lot of different approaches with the mailboxes that I have used – typically, Gmail, Outlook, or Thunderbird. I’ve tried using labels, and I’ve tried sorting mails in different folders, but still there was a great deal of inconvenience when it comes to prioritizing or achieving real zero inbox.

So, in this blog post I want to share a recent discovery I came across a couple of months ago. It is called Flow-e – a tool that turns your mailbox in a Kanban board. I use it eversince and I think as long as I continue using it, my Gmail inbox will never be the same 🙂 Flow-e plugs seamlessly into the inbox, giving you possibilities to design and maintain your own workflow, and achieve zero inbox super easy. I just do what I describe above, and I can do it really quickly, because the tool itself nicely combines lean concepts of workflow management with the idea of zero inbox. So, at the end of my 30 minutes dedicated to mail management, I have an empty inbox and a clear To Do list, which I can order by priority, and track along the flow with some additional indicators that help me organize my work and make sure I am not missing anything.

Here is how neat my mailbox looks right now:

In addition to the familiar Kanban board, I have an overview of my calendar, so that I can easily schedule work in.

One additional step towards having clear prioritized backlog of all the things I need to do in addition to mails, is to actually use my mailbox as a primary personal task board, and include all work there. Previously, I would just send myself a mail for each task that I needed to add to the backlog. Now, Flow-e gives me the possibility to also add tasks that are not related to mails, so I can easily replace my personal task list (or Trello board) with Flow-e, adding all the work here, and prioritizing it accordingly. So, now my hidden backlog becomes transparent and ordered together with all the other project-related tasks. Being transparent to myself, I can ensure transparency to the whole team, and stay focused on our common goal, without missing some of my personal commitments either.

If you haven’t tried zero inbox before, perhaps you can give it a try. It’s even better if you try it with Flow-e – it will make your experiment much easier, and you are likely to stick with it.

Time killer: your hidden backlog and how to manage it