By Sarah M. Tetlow.
Picture this scene that is all too familiar to most lawyers. They arrive in their office or workspace and open their laptop while taking a seat. The bottom of the screen invites them into a vast array of application options, and the first that they open is their email. Twenty-three bolded messages await them at the top – the unread emails. They quickly scan the bolded lines to find a response from their client. They read the response, sigh, and close that email, for now. They click on a few more emails, without making a decision about them, before getting up to grab some coffee.
Lying below those twenty-three new and bolded emails is another 10,542 messages. Those emails consist of priorities neglected, assignments forgotten, and essential communication comingled with spam and solicitations. Email has transitioned from a communication tool into something that demands our constant attention and defines how to spend our time in our practice. There is a better way.
Without looking at your email, how many messages are in your inbox right now? Take a guess and write that number here _____. If your guess is anything above 30 emails, this strategy will help you control and organize your email more effectively. The A.R.T.T. Email Productivity System™ (or “ARTT System”) in this article will help you run a more efficient law practice and increase your firm's revenue. A successful law practice must have healthy habits and systems around the primary form of communication with clients, colleagues, and opposing counsel. Demand control of your email, your workday, and your law practice starting today. Whether you have 50 emails or 50,000, there is a healthier way to manage email.
I. Jelly Belly Variety Pack
I live about 45-minutes from the Jelly Belly Factory in Vacaville, California. In 2019, I took my two young sons to the Jelly Belly factory tour. During the tour, participants wear the “Jelly Belly Factory” tour hat and taste jellybeans throughout their various development stages. The tour finishes in the merchandise store. Amongst candy, toys, clothing, and other paraphernalia, the tourists cannot help but notice the colorful bin of jellybeans. Not surprisingly, one of the top sellers of the Jelly Belly factory is the jellybean variety pack.
After leaving the factory, you open the variety pack of jellybeans and immediately start searching for that favorite color. You dig through the mix to find as many of the bright red Very Cherry that you can find. Once you have exhausted that hunt, you reach for the light pink Bubble Gums. Then the white Coconut and the speckled green Juicy Pear. As you continue this behavior, you sometimes come across a random Very Cherry that you missed, and you snatch it up before it disappears again. Then you get to the bottom of the mix, and you’re left with the Toasted Marshmallow or the Buttered Popcorn. The flavors that you cannot pay anyone to take from you.
When I am working with my clients on their email and email management approach, I compare the variety pack of jellybeans to their email inbox. They experience decision fatigue each time they check email and have to decide what to do with the email. It compares to the jellybean variety pack, searching through each time it demands our attention, knowing which flavor to pick, yet having to put in the effort to find that flavor. While Jelly Belly variety packs are colorful and fun, the problem is that it involves too much energy to find the one you want. Similarly, in many lawyers' email inboxes, they also are blending all of their ARTT. Is it urgent? Is it important? Is it junk? Is it handled? Is there an action associated with this email? When is that action?
Email programs attempted to solve this problem by creating a simplistic system: Read and Unread. The problem with using “Unread” and “Read” to track “Action” and everything else is that your brain has to work harder to identify: What is the priority of this action email? How long do I need to set aside for this email? When do I need to handle it?
II. What is the A.R.T.T. Email Productivity System™?
Instead of operating from the variety pack of jellybeans – the mixed ARTT of email – try selecting only your favorite flavors and reducing the decision fatigue. Establish an email inbox that supports the ARTT of email separated into the various actions you need to “do."
First, you have Action emails. Then, you have two types of Reference emails: those that are actionable and those that are archival. Next, you have Tracking emails. Finally, some emails belong straight into the Trash.
Action. Action emails are typically something that you should DO within a reasonable amount of time once the email is received. These are typically either quick decisions or need to be transferred to your project list.
Reference – Actionable. Reference Actionable emails are your DELAY. The webinar for two weeks from now. The scheduled phone call with a client in a week. The plane ticket for two months from now. There is an action tied to the email; however, the action is sometime in the future. We need to delay the action, so the email does not stay in your inbox, demanding your frequent attention and mitigating the more urgent correspondence.
Reference – Archival. The Reference Archival is the email that does not have an action tied to it at all, but you do not want to delete it either. These are the bulk of your email messages. You file them away to have the conversation's history but no longer need to associate an action with the message. Leaving these emails in your inbox is like licking each jellybean and then placing it back in the variety pack. It just does not make sense.
Tracking. The Tracking emails you have DELEGATED to someone, and you need a response or need to track the email. Consider the question you asked the client and need an answer back. The assignment you gave the associate with a deadline of next week. These do not require action by you at this time, but you want to keep track of the communication.
Trash. Finally, how many messages in your inbox are indeed trash, and you haven’t bothered to DELETE them? Why bother when you are so overwhelmed by all of the emails that you don’t want to make that extra effort or decision to hit delete. Yet, these Buttered Popcorn emails are further impacting your ability to manage your email. They are contributing to the overall decision fatigue you face when staring at your email.
III. How to apply the ARTT System.
When “Uncle Bill” created Outlook and the idea of “Unread” and “Read” came to fruition,
it was a brilliant way to separate the emails that we needed to decide on from those that have already been considered. As time has passed, technology advanced, society has shifted to an increase in asynchronous communication, the method of "Unread" and "Read" has become obsolete and unreliable. Fortunately, Outlook, and other email platforms, are designed to support a system such as the ARTT System. Busy and talented lawyers have altered their lives and their practices by implementing the ARTT System and suddenly being more responsive, proactive, and organized for themselves and their clients. All while reporting working more efficiently and effectively, resulting in a reduction of hours spent working and increased firm revenue. Email is a powerful tool; however, it is essential to revert to using it as the communication tool it was designed to be and not the method by which you decide what to work on next.
Now, recheck your email inbox. How many messages are really in your inbox? I’ll wait while you write the answer here ______. How far off are you from your guess above? How would it feel to get that number down by half? One-third of that number? Forget percentages; how would it feel to see less than 30 emails waiting for you to decide where in your ARTT System they belong? You can be successful in your life and practice by approaching your email with a new perspective, mastering the ARTT of email, and separating the Action from the Reference, Tracking, and Trash.
About the Author Sarah M. Tetlow is the founder of Firm Focus, which focuses on productivity consulting for attorneys and other legal professionals. She uses her past experiences, organizational and strategic thought process, education, and training to help law firms improve their bottom line and operate more efficiently. More importantly, attorneys see a reduction in stress and anxiety and increased focus and new business.
Sarah created the A.R.T.T. Email Productivity System™ to help lawyers and busy professionals manage their email more intentionally and strategically and reduce decision fatigue. Sarah frequently teaches the ARTT System to attorney clients in group settings and one-on-one private sessions.
Sarah has experienced first-hand the stresses that attorneys endure in trying to manage multiple projects. They also have the daily necessity to react to more pressing needs in a matter of minutes, causing frequent mind-shifting and multi-tasking. Sarah’s mission, and the reason for starting Firm Focus, is the desire to see a change in the industry. To help attorneys and other legal professionals experience control over their day and mitigate the poor habits caused by the workload. Ultimately, through Firm Focus, Sarah wants to help attorneys boost productivity and reduce stress at work.
You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org