Inbox

The Washington Post recently had an article on email bankruptcy that discussed a number of people who are giving up on email (or just deleting all their old messages) after being buried under the pile of messages. Merlin Mann responded by saying that even bankruptcy isn’t enough to save him:

A one-time erasure of communication debt would give temporary relief, but the basic challenge remains; the net number of requests for my attention exceed my ability to provide that attention by at least an order of magnitude. And the disparity around my ability to thoughtfully respond to my pile may be ten or more times worse still. The scale is insanely out of whack.

If you’re one of those people who is drowning in deluge of email, you have options. You don’t need to go as far as declaring email bankruptcy — and declaring yourself incompetent in dealing with the world of technology and business today.

We’re going to look at an approach that applies rules to your email processing to help you get out from under the pile, and to help you stay out, no matter how many messages you get a day. But first, let’s look at three principles that will guide us in this approach:


Principle 1: You don’t need to respond to every email. If you get more than 50 a day (or even hundreds), you can’t possibly.

Principle 2: Prioritize. If you can’t respond to every email, you must realize that you’ll have to prioritize in order to respond to the important ones. The rest will have to be prioritized too, and the lowest priority will just be given a glance.

Principle 3: You can’t do email all day. Admit this to yourself. You have other things to do, more important than email. So only do it at certain times of the day. One of the problems noted in the Post article is that people no longer feel like they’re done working for the day. Well, the only way to feel done for the day is to set a time limit, and when the limit is reached, you’re done. The rest you’ll have to get to tomorrow. Even in the rest of our work lives, we never finish every single task on our to-do list. We work until the 5 o’clock whistle blows, and we go home.

Using those principles, let’s look at a system of rules to help deal with massive amounts of email:

Rule 1: Separate the wheat from the chaff. We all know that there are certain emails that must be dealt with today, and others that can languish in a folder for a week and it wouldn’t kill us. So let’s set up some filters to deal with them (I’m using Gmail as an example, but most mail programs have similar filters or rules):

  • Important. Create a filter with all of your important contacts (coworkers, colleagues, advertisers, business associates, mom, etc.) in the “from” field. Label these “important”. You could also have a keyword, such as “batgirl”, that you put in your filter for the “important” label. Then put that keyword in your signature, and anyone who responds to one of your emails gets labeled “important”. These will remain in your inbox, and you can check them 2-3 times a day.
  • Reports. This will vary from person to person, but I have a lot of “information” type emails that are not urgent but that I don’t want clogging up my inbox. Create a filter with the email addresses of all these types of emails (amazon.com, your blog stats services, your calendar notices, etc.) and label these “reports” and have them automatically archived. Now these won’t be in your inbox. You can check these once a day.
  • Others. This is all the rest. Create a filter with “important” and “reports” in the “doesn’t have” field, and have these emails labeled “other” and automatically archived. This will prevent your emails with the “important” or “reports” labels from being put into this “others” folder. Now your inbox should only have the “important” emails in it.

Rule 2: All old emails go into “others“. This is the only way to get your inbox clear in the beginning — after this point, you’ll keep it clear. Even if you have emails from your important contacts, you need to get your head above water. Dump them all in the “others” folder and archive them out of your inbox. Your inbox should now be empty. Let’s keep it that way with the following rules.

Rule 3: Set regular times to process email. You shouldn’t have your email notifier on all the time. Learn to hold yourself back from checking email 20 times a day. Do it in 2-3 sessions a day, at set times. Let’s say 10 a.m., 1 p.m. and 4 p.m., if you get a lot of email, or 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. if you don’t. Even better: only once a day. Whenever you feel the pull to check email, stop yourself. Take a deep breath. Now get back to the task at hand.

Rule 4: Scan through “others” and prioritize. The Others emails is really what makes you feel overwhelmed. Most of us can deal with the Important emails just fine, and scan through the Reports emails. But for the Others, we feel that we should be responding to them all, or we are incompetent or that people will feel we’re arrogant. Well, we need to own up to the fact that we cannot respond to them all (Principle 1). We have to live with the fact that some people are going to think we’re arrogant. Here’s how to deal with Others:

  • Scan. In your first email processing session of the day, quickly go through the Others emails, and decide if they should be deleted or responded to. In Gmail, I do this quickly by using the keyboard shortcuts: “#” to delete, “y” to archive, “o” to open. So I go through each email, read it, and either delete it or mark it for a response.
  • Prioritize. Which ones do your mark for a response? The ones that will have the most benefit for you. Sometimes an email could lead to a job offer, or advertising, or a collaboration that could pay off big time. Those are the ones you need to respond to. Sometimes it’s just a really interesting email that you’d like to respond to. If that’s the case, go ahead an mark it. But for many, you will simply have to read them and move on.
  • Canned response. If you feel you need to respond to most emails, you can set up a few canned responses using a text expansion program such as AutoHotKey. I would recommend you set up 5-10 different canned responses, instead of just one. One response to thank them for their positive feedback, another to turn down a request, etc. If you notice you give the same response a lot, enter it in AHK and set up a key combination. Then, by pressing just a few keys, you can have your canned responses out in a hurry, perhaps customizing them with a few personal words.
  • Mark for later. The ones that you decide are a higher priority, that need to be responded to, you should label “Respond”, and remove the “Others” label. This just takes a second. Then move on. Then in your later email processing session, go through the “Respond” folder and do a quick response.

Rule 5: Set a timer, process quickly, and be done. You should set a timer for 15-30 minutes (depending on the volume of your email), so that you don’t end up doing it for more than an hour. Remember, when you’re done with your email session, you’re done. You can breathe easy and get to the rest tomorrow. Here’s how to process quickly and empty your inbox:

  • Process the important emails (the ones in your inbox) first, to empty. Respond quickly, or delete, or forward, or archive (for later reference), or write down any tasks that need to be done later on your to-do list. Don’t ever read an email and then leave it sitting in your inbox. If an email requires a longer response than you can do right now, mark it “Respond” and get to it later.
  • Scan through Reports and Others. Most of the Reports and Others emails don’t need a response or action. Just read them and either delete, forward or archive. Mark the ones that need a response “Respond” and get to it later.
  • Respond. Once you’ve gone through the Important emails in the Inbox, and scanned and marked the Reports and Others, all you should have left is Respond. For these, you might not get done today. That’s OK. Do as many as you can, quickly, and leave the rest for tomorrow. There’s no need to empty this folder. When the timer goes off, get out and be done.
  • Keyboard shortcuts. You really should memorize the important shortcuts. For Gmail, they are “r” for reply, “f” for forward, “#” for delete, “y” for archive, “o” for open. And really, those are the only actions you need. Once you get good with the keyboard shortcuts, processing should be a breeze.

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