Battling the Email Monster

Sometimes when people ask what I do for a living, I tell them I write and answer email.  It certainly is a big part of my day!

That said, I have a pretty good relationship with email. I have a well-managed inbox and occasionally even hit inbox zero, despite getting a lot of emails every day and juggling a lot of responsibilities.

There are a lot of guides out there about how to do this, including this nice Harvard Business Review article on how to have an efficient email session, the “touch it once” philosophy that apparently got its start in the pre-email days, and the original “inbox zero” philosophy that leverages a lot of Gmail features.  My own philosophy borrows a lot from all of these, especially the idea that when you encounter an email you should dispose of it quickly in a way that either gets it off of your desk or puts it where it needs to be for you to act on it.

I know many people with tens of thousands of unread emails, and it’s probably not practical for them to go through and dispose of them all.  For them, I might recommend email bankruptcy: file everything away, start from an empty inbox, and this time don’t let it build up.

I got to this state by building up a lot of good email habits including, counterintuitively, sending myself lots of emails.  Here they are, in case you’d like to try it:

  1. Get GMail. It has good filtering, enough storage space for all of your email, a snooze feature, and (and this is key): such good search capabilities that you don’t have to file anything. It has good support for mobile devices, you can configure it for offline use, and the cloud storage means you don’t have to worry too much about backups.
  2. Use hotkeys. They save a second per email which really adds up. Have one for archiving, one for spam, one for responding, and one for responding to all.
  3. Think of your inbox as your to-do list.  If it’s in your inbox, it’s a short- to medium-term action item. Every email is an item. If you’re not going to do something with it soon, it should not be in your inbox. Keep your list of big and/or long-term projects you’re working on somewhere else.
  4. Archive emails immediately after dealing with them. This is how you cross the item off of your to-do list. GMail is also spooky good at giving “nudges” about emails you sent that never got answered, helping you to not lose track of important threads when they leave your inbox.
  5. Use snooze a lot. If you don’t need to work on it soon, snooze it until you do need to work on it. That final report due in December? Snooze until late November.  That speaker you need to arrange visits for? Snooze the “yes I can host” email you sent until the week before they arrive. That thing you’re going to buy this weekend? Snooze until Friday afternoon. Don’t have things in your inbox that aren’t potential action items today or very soon.
  6. Battle the email monster often and efficiently. I “weed” my inbox many times per day. It’s a constant triage, with every email getting one of three dispositions every time I see it:

    1) deal with it and archive it forever,
    snooze it for later, or
    decide you’ll deal with it very soon.
    It’s a good way to spend those odd bits of time between meetings or on a bus where you don’t have time to dig into a big project.

  7. Send yourself emails. If you have an ongoing thing that you need to have on your to-do list (i.e. in your inbox) and there is no associated email for the next short-term task, make one by sending yourself an email with the task as the subject.
  8. Get used to saying “send me an email”. If I’m in a conversation and we generate an action item for me, I make sure there is an email to go with it. You might send it to yourself, you might summarize the conversation at the end in an email to them and you, or (if appropriate) just ask them to send you an email asking for that thing. Now it’s on your to-do list.
  9. Expect that you will archive everything. Plan that every single email will eventually get stored away, the sooner the better. It’s not gone; you’ll find it again because you have Google search. If it’s not on your to-do list, archive it.
    [If you really really can’t not file things because you need that level of organization in your mail: use a label+archive hotkey.  Choose a small number of labels (they’re like folders) and file the emails you’re worried you’ll lose appropriately as you archive them. But: you don’t have to label everything.]
  10. Learn to use the GMail search bar. You can find emails very quickly if you know how to search on sender, dates, and other nifty keywords. This is key: you need to always be able to find any email without spending a lot of time filing them.
  11. Unsubscribe aggressively.  Spam is not to be immediately deleted! Each one is an action item: unsubscribe (if it’s true spam and not just normal marketing you can hit GMail’s “spam” button and better train the AI to keep these out of your inbox in the first place).  Between unsubscribing aggressively and GMail’s spam filter I get very little unwanted mail, which is essential for a well-managed inbox.
  12. Filter out the noise. There are emails you need to have and maybe want to read in batches but don’t really need to read every time they arrive. You can filter them to archive and get a label before they ever hit your inbox. When you want to catch up, go to the label and read them at your leisure, but don’t waste a tiny part of each day acting on them. If you’re worried you’ll never get around to reading them if they’re out of sight, send yourself an email to read them! Now they’re just a single line in your inbox, not many.
  13. Keep it on the first page. If your inbox exceeds your first page (50 or so) you need to sit down and deal with it. This will make you more productive and help with the feeling of doom that comes from having too many emails. Find what is not important to do this week and snooze it. Archive the stuff you just aren’t ever going to get to (maybe send a “sorry I won’t get to this” email first).  Be realistic about what you’re going to do. Don’t guilt pack emails in your inbox!

That’s how it works for me. I know it’s not for everybody, but hopefully there are some nuggets in there you can use.

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