Note: This post originally appeared on the MENG website
Having an effective contact management system can save you a lot of time and missed opportunities, whether you are in business for yourself, in a job search, or on the job. It’s just too easy to let your inbox grow to unmanageable proportions, miss an important follow-up, waste time with things like “filing” or looking for that one email, or lose touch with potential clients. The key to solving all these problems and more, for me and for my clients, is to have a desktop-based or cloud-based system where all communication elements for a contact are associated with the contact, together in one place. These elements include:
- Calendar entries
- To Do’s
- Links to other contacts
Having the contact serve as the hub for all your information is the ”killer app” that makes finding, scheduling, and reviewing FAST. I go to the contact in my address book and can easily, instantly see everything I need to know.
My approach to contact management also eliminates 95% of email filing. Every email from a contact in my address book is filed in the same place, a folder I call ”contacts.” How can this possibly work? It works perfectly, because I know that if I’m looking for an email I can go to the contact and the email will be right there. Or, I just press ctrl-F, type in a relevant keyword, and the email, task, or calendar entry will be found.
My contact management system also allows me to group and categorize contacts, so I can maximize marketing opportunities by easily sending out targeted communications. For example, if I want to send out an email to all of my clients in finance, I can just select the appropriate group and categories to create the right email list.
My system is based on inexpensive software called Chaos Intellect at www.chaossoftware.com. Note: I have zero affiliation with them; my only hope is that you can apply the principles I’m demonstrating here in finding a system that works for you. If you’re thinking of this software for yourself, keep in mind that it’s PC based only (no Mac version). I understand that Daylite for the Mac has this same killer app, as well as the Avidian Prophet add-on for Microsoft Outlook (I haven’t tested either). Many other packages exist as well.
I personally prefer desktop solutions over a web-based ”cloud” option; desktop is faster and always available. And, and I don’t feel comfortable yet relying solely on the cloud and vendors I don’t know well for my most important information.
My strategy for managing my email inbox and tasks is based loosely on David Allen’s popular Getting Things Done book. Before adopting it, I had an inbox whose size was second to none. But now, my inbox is zero at the end of every day! How is this possible? It requires acting on every email in some way before the day is out. No email just sits there. The key principle (from Allen’s book) is that if an email response takes two minutes or less, just do it- don’t put it off! This principle applies for every kind of email, from client items to concert updates from your favorite band. Just deal with it quickly, and move on to the next one.
If an email will take more than two minutes to address, I either schedule it as a) a task if there is no specific completion time, or b) a calendar entry if it must be done at a specific time (by just dragging and dropping the email into the task or calendar pane of my system, then moving the email out of my inbox). I will occasionally file emails that are not associated with a contact (e.g. certain newsletters). And of course lots of emails can just be deleted.
For tasks, I simply have three categories- ”Today,” ”Next,” and ”When Can.” Today includes items that absolutely must get done sometime today. ”Next” includes high priority items that will move into ”Today” in the next few days. ”When Can” includes items that I want to attend to but are not urgent. With just these categories, I:
- Ensure focus on the things that absolutely must get done today
- Eliminate the time consuming need to ”file” tasks.
- Keep track of important tasks.
Two other quick items: My system is close to paperless. I find paper time-wasting, mainly because I can’t press ctrl-F to find the right papers, quickly scan them to find what I’m looking for, associate them with a contact (way too many contacts for that) or drag and drop papers into just one folder. To move in the paperless direction, it helps to have a scanner.
If you’re going paperless, a backup system is essential. In my experience, something very bad happens roughly every two or three years that makes me VERY thankful for my backups! I make it as painless as possible to back up my system. First, I use SugarSync, an online backup solution that is also able to sync files across computers and maintain the five most recent versions of files. You select the folders you want to back up, and then every time something changes the backup happens instantaneously. Set it and forget it.
The downside to online backup is it takes a long time to back up a lot of data. Backing up 25 or 30 gigabytes could take days. So I only use online backup for my essential folders where documents are changing regularly- this ends up being under 10 gigabytes for me. For everything else I back up to a hard disk that I plug into my laptop. I run this roughly once a week, and my entire hard disk is backed up in a couple of minutes.