How to Use the 4D Method to Better Manage Your Email

For email to work, it has to be a manageable and productive tool. One of the best ways to get your inbox under control is with the 4D method. Here's how.

For me, email is a constant river of news, updates, requests, and replies that flood my inbox hour after hour. There’s no dam that I can put up that will stop the flood that is perpetually threatening to overwhelm me.

Don’t get me wrong, though. I believe in email. It’s an indispensable part of work and despite the growth of alternate communication tools like Slack, email isn’t going anywhere. It’s fantastic for asynchronous work and sharing more in-depth thoughts and information. There’s a place for email communication in every workplace as long as it’s used correctly.

But for email to continue to work, it has to be a manageable and productive tool. A key part of taming my inbox has been learning how to manage my email better and the “4D method” has been game-changing for me.

4D email management gives you 4 choices for handling each email message: Delete it, Do it, Delegate it, or Defer it.

This method works to tame both your individual work email inbox as well as any shared inboxes like your company’s info@ or sales@ inboxes. If your company’s info@ is constantly overflowing, the 4D method, coupled with the right email tools, will help your team get more done, without drowning in email.

Here are the four steps in the 4D method and how to make them work for you.

1. Delete It

This rule is especially important for those of you who keep every email they’ve ever received in their inbox, both read and unread. If this is something you do, deleting everything can seem like a scary proposition, but you’ll definitely want to start with a clean slate for 4D to work for you.

If you’re using Gmail, Outpost, or some other email system with effectively unlimited storage, you can choose to Archive everything instead of deleting. This will just move all of your email out of your inbox and you’ll be able to find anything you need using search. Gmail pioneered the idea of archiving instead of deleting as storage became essentially free. This may feel more comfortable for most people.

Once you have a clean slate in your inbox, you need to keep the habit up. If you don’t need to reply to an email or take any other action, just delete (or archive) it. Get it out of your inbox as soon as you’re done reading it.

You’ll typically do this with these types of emails:

  • Calendar invites
  • Project updates and alerts that you don’t need to reply to
  • Newsletters
  • Sales and promotional emails
  • Status updates

Don’t forget to use that unsubscribe link in the bottom of most newsletters and promotional emails you get. It may take you a few extra minutes a week as you ramp up with 4D email management, but you’ll soon cut down on all of the useless newsletters and promotional emails that you get.

2. Do It

Of course, some emails do require a response or require you to do something. The rule of thumb for 4D email management is to take care of anything that’s going to take you 2 minutes or less. If you can do it right away with little effort, just get it done – don’t procrastinate.

But, if you have 15 emails that require quick 2-minute responses, that adds up to potentially 30 minutes of work. So, you’ll need to start thinking about time management. Schedule time to answer your email and use the few minutes of downtime between meetings to knock off a few of the “do it” emails.

Don’t be tempted to constantly check your email and handle all of the 2-minute tasks. Block off time in your calendar so you can focus and work through large batches of email to clear out the clutter.

Another strategy that you can use to cut down your “do it” time is to use templates for quick responses. If you find that you routinely get emails that require a standard response, you can compose your response once and save it as a template to cut & paste so you can reply even faster. If you’re using an email tool like Outpost that has a built-in template feature, replying with a template is just a two-click process.

Some email tools (Outpost included) have automation “rules” so that emails that contain certain keywords or come from certain addresses get automatic replies. This automation lets the software take care of the “do it” part of 4D email management, freeing up even more time.

3. Delegate It

Of all the emails you get that do need replies, are you always the best person to reply? Of course, you probably can reply to most emails, but should you? If there is someone else in your organization who can reply, delegate the email to them. If you’re using Outpost, you can just assign the email to a teammate and then keep track of the response. Otherwise, forwarding an email is a good alternative.

You’ll want to delegate emails in these situations:

  • If there’s someone on your team who’s better suited to answering the question
  • If someone else has more time available and can take on the additional work
  • If the email requests information that you don’t readily have at hand

You don’t have to be the manager of a team to delegate email responses. Oftentimes there are other people on your team who can reply to emails better than you can or who have information that you don’t have. Don’t be afraid to ask if someone else can take on an email response.

Email software can also come to the rescue here and take care of delegation for you. Look for software that has automation rules as a feature. You can use this feature to have the software automatically assign or forward certain types of emails, based on the keywords in the email, the original sender, or any other type of criteria. 

4. Defer It

If you can’t delete an email, reply in under 2 minutes, or delegate it, you need to defer it.

Deferring an email just means that you’ll set aside time later to spend time reading the email and providing a thoughtful reply. You might do this when you need to read a draft of a document that someone sent you or spend time reviewing a new design and providing feedback.

When you choose to defer an email, you need to create a task for that work. Some people like to use task management software so they can keep track of everything in one place. Others like to keep their email tasks in their email.

If you fall into this latter category and want to keep your email tasks in your email, use folders or tags to catalog and organize your deferred email that you need to deal with. If you use Outpost, the easiest thing to do is create a “to do” tag and apply it to any emails that you need to handle. You could also use the “star” feature to highlight the deferred emails that need your time.

Other email systems have similar tagging systems or folders that you can create to catalog your deferred emails.

Now, schedule time on your calendar to deal with your deferred emails. Answering these emails should be important work since you didn’t delegate, delete, or just immediately do the work. So, block out the appropriate amount of time to get the work done.

A nice thing to do before deferring an email is to do a very quick reply letting the sender know that you can’t get to their request right away. Let them know when you expect to be able to provide a thoughtful response from you. This is another place that templates can save you time. Create a standard response that says that it might take you a few days to craft a detailed reply and let the sender know that if the question is urgent to let you know.

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Email productivity is just the beginning

The 4D method takes practice. You have to ruthlessly delete, remove hesitation for quick replies, and have no fear of delegation. It’s all about taking decisive action with your email so that you can tame the wild beast that it is. 

An important thing to consider that I’ve mentioned a few times is blocking time on your calendar specifically to handle email. This is a core tenant of Tim Ferris’s 4 Hour Work Week book and it is an important extension of the 4D method.

When you have mastered 4D, you might see the impacts spreading into other areas of your work world. For example, you may be able to apply the 4D method to meetings. Instead of accepting every meeting, only go to the meetings where you can provide real value. You may be able to “delete” or “delegate” certain meetings instead of losing another hour of your workday.

At the end of the day, improving productivity is all about creating and sticking to new habits. You have to work hard to establish the habit, but once it becomes second nature, you’ll find yourself with significantly more free time and (hopefully!) a nearly empty inbox.

Organize your team and your email with Outpost

Most teams struggle to manage their info@ or support@ inboxes. Missed messages, duplicate replies, and inbox confusion are common because traditional email wasn’t designed for teams. That’s why we built Outpost: to make your shared inboxes truly collaborative.

With Outpost, your team can work together in the same inbox, without sharing passwords or stepping on each other’s toes. Outpost is simple because shared email should be. Team up on email, stay organized, and take better care of your customers.

If you’re interested, you can start a free trial of Outpost today, or schedule a custom tour to learn how Outpost will help you save time and get more done. 

Posted in: Email Productivity

Noah Parsons

Noah Parsons

Before joining Palo Alto Software, Noah Parsons was an early Internet marketing and product expert in the Silicon Valley. He joined Yahoo! in 1996 as one of its first 101 employees and become Producer of the Yahoo! Employment property as part of the Yahoo! Classifieds team before leaving to serve as Director of Production at Epinions.com. He is a graduate of Princeton University. Noah devotes most of his free time to his three young sons. In the winter you'll find him giving them lessons on the ski slopes, and in summer they're usually involved in a variety of outdoor pursuits. Noah is currently the COO at Palo Alto Software, makers of Outpost and the online business plan app LivePlan, and content curator and creator of the Emergent Newsletter.

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