My article on e-mail “infoglut” resulted in a pointer from DoddsSimon to Inbox Zero by Merlin Mann. Merlin takes classic time management ideas and applies them to e-mail. One notion he presents is that much of your e-mail becomes “dead skeletal husks” and can be thrown away. I’m going to suggest instead that your “old” e-mail can be a great project management tool.
As I mentioned in my article Five Techniques For Overcoming Project E-Mail Infoglut, I save just about all project or product related e-mails. One technique that Merlin mentions and that I’ve used for many years is using a single folder to archive my old e-mail. I had for a long time tried to categorize my e-mails into subject folders, but this was always a wasted effort.
I found that I naturally remembered things chronologically. I may not remember what an e-mail said, but I remember that John told me about a particular issue the first week of last month, or we had a similar issue a week before the launch of our product last year. Chronological turns out to be personally my best way of keeping and finding things. When I archive everything in a single folder, this is actually easier for me to use than when I tried to create subject based folders. It worked well for me even before good search tools were available.
Search tools are now so advanced that searching can find things quickly including related slides, documents, web pages and spreadsheets on your PC. I use Google Desktop, but I’ve also used other products and can’t live without a good search tool on my PC. I’ve found that I’ll often tag some of my e-mails and other documents to help find things later. With good search tools, it may not even matter if you put e-mail into separate folders or add tags or not.
Why do I save all my e-mail? Merlin suggests the notion that often your incoming e-mail, once you’ve acted on it, is a “Dead Skeletal Husk and You Can Throw it Away.” Instead, I look at my e-mail as a database of what the organization is doing and what it has done in the past. When starting up a new project, I will research what we’ve done in the past and what other projects have done. I have found that e-mail is often a better source for this kind of research than any official checklist or formal archive of project material (though I still like to find these). I don’t see e-mail as dead at all but a great resource to be used over and over again.
In many ways I find there are advantages to project and e-mail “infoglut.” Think of it as being like the Internet. You know that somewhere, with patience and persistence, you will find just about anything you want to know. I may attempt to categorize and bookmark what I’ve seen, but in the end when I get stuck and can’t find what I’m looking for, I know I can successfully resort to searching. In my experience, “old” e-mail is one of the riches sources of practical management information available and is often an underutilized project management tool.