I had a management professor who admitted to having an obsessive personality. He told a story in class one time about how he was reorganizing the bookshelf once he realized that the books that he reached for most frequently were further away than the books he rarely looked at. His objective was to optimize his bookshelf setup to minimize the effort required by each reach. A little effort put in now to re-arrange the tomes based on personal popularity would be won back many times over by reduced reaching effort and distance for months to come. His wife saw what he was doing and summarily kicked him out of the house. She then went one further and insisted that he needed a hobby, preferably one outside where she wasn’t. Given his propensity for productivity, she assigned him mowing the lawn, which had always been the responsibility of a landscaping service.

So off he went to mow the lawn. The next week when he went out to mow his wife saw him leave with a notepad. Then she saw him carrying the notepad every week for the next couple of months when he went out to cut the grass, and then scribbling in it as soon as he returned inside. Finally she confronted him about it, demanding to know what was on the pad. He showed her the tables he had written of mowing times for various permutations of his mowing trials: clockwise, counter clockwise, inside spiral, outside spiral, big box / little box, out and back runway and other mowing patterns he had conceived and named. “What on earth are you doing? You’re just supposed to be mowing the lawn.” He responded, “Honey, I am. And not only am I mowing.” He pointed triumphantly at his table, “I think I have achieved The Perfect Mow.”

You may never quite achieve The Perfect Email, but obsessing a little bit about your email program can be healthy and productive. The challenge comes from identifying which parts to obsess over. Priorities are difficult to set. What’s worse, they are different for each organization. So instead of giving you advice on which components of your email program to obsess over, I’ll give you instead what my obsessive management professor gave me – a framework for decision-making.

To start, make a list of everything you would like to change or improve about your email program. Your list might include “increase deliverability” or “add a preferences center” or “lift open rates”. To determine what makes the list, use this test: if an intern showed up at your desk and said, “I can do this for you in a week, for free, and it won’t take any of your time or other internal resources” would you let the intern have at it? If you would, add the item to your list.

Next, use the following three categories to determine how urgent each item on your list is, based on the magnitude of its impact, either to your results or to your strategy. Think of each of these categories as filters to help you measure the absolute importance of each item. Doing it this way helps you focus on which initiatives will translate into results, and keep you from checking off items that are easy to fix, but which don’t have the same direct benefits on your email program:

Intelligent Neglect: If this item is on your list now, then it is something you haven’t done before now as well. They might include a redesign to your email template to make it more contemporary, or the addition of social media links. Maybe it’s a subscriber analysis that identifies who in your list has not responded to a message in the past six months, making them good candidates for a win-back campaign. Whatever it is, your program has survived without it so far – can it continue to do so? Is this item a nice to have, but not a need to have? Are you unsure of how your email program will improve if you implement this item? If the answer to these questions is Yes, the item is a good candidate for Intelligent Neglect. Keep it on your list and go after it opportunistically – if the resources suddenly free up, or if there is a way to roll it into a bigger project.

Focus: There may be some items on your list that as an email marketer you have long yearned for, but have not yet made the sacrifices necessary to implement. Maybe it’s that preferences center you know would make your segmentation efforts easier and your messages more relevant. Or it might be the creation of a new niche newsletter that targets a small but strategically important segment of your list. To determine if an items deserves Focus, ask these questions: Will my email program see increased results as soon as I implement this? Are email programs I admire already doing this? Am I committing a brand failure by not offering this in my email program currently? If the answer to these questions is Yes, slot the item into the Focus category. These are priority items that need resources as soon as they become avaialable – maybe even earlier, as improvements grow from sacrifice.

Obsession: The final category is reserved for those items which compel you (or your CEO) to remark, “How in the world is it that we don’t have this already?” At some organizations, it may be an email template that is optimized for mobile devices. Or it could be a new process for importing new subscribers into your email database, or allowing new subscriptions in the first place. These are your 3-alarm fires. Sound the alarm if the answer to these questions is Yes: Are you missing opportunities to grow or improve your business for each day that this item is not implemented? Does the absence of this item put you afoul of CAN-SPAM laws, or risk alienating subscribers? Are you the only company in your industry that has not yet implemented this initiative, and does its absence put you at a competitive disadvantage? Can money spent in other marketing channels be optimized if this item is in place? Allocate some time every day to move these projects forward, and share clear deadlines on each with marketing management to ensure they get done.

The lines between each of these categories are fuzzy, of course. In fact, I think of them more as a continuum. If it is difficult to determine what projects take precedence over others, try plotting them visually along a horizontal line, with “Intelligent Neglect” at the left, “Focus” in the middle and “Obesssion” at the far right. Mapping them visually might also help you find the resources you need to drive your “Obsession” and “Focus” items forward – just pull them out of the items in “Intelligent Neglect.”