‘And none will hear the postman’s knock
Without a quickening of the heart.
For who can bear to feel himself forgotten?’ ~W.H. Auden
Email can be a great tool, and email can be a tool for procrastination or overwhelm.
It’s not email itself that decides, it’s how you use it.
There was a time when I declared email bankruptcy, but these days I do it 2-3 times daily and power through it quickly and minimally.
I’ve developed a set of habits that work for me, helping me to keep email minimal and productive and still be able to focus on more important work. I can honestly say that at least once a day, my inbox is empty, and that’s a nice feeling.
I offer them here not to say that these are the email habits you should follow, but to show one person’s way of doing things.
My Essential Email Habits
The email habits that work for me:
Limited email processing times. I don’t keep email open all day, nor do I open it frequently. I have come to peace with the idea that I can let email pile up to 20-30 messages and my world won’t collapse, nor will it be difficult to process to empty. Note that I call it “email processing time”, not “email reading time” — I open my email and process to empty, instead of just reading things and leaving them in the inbox.
Take action. When I open an email, I make a quick decision: delete/archive, act now (if it takes a minute or two) and then reply/archive, send a quick reply (and then archive), add to my todo list to do later (and star and then archive). In none of those cases is the email left sitting in the inbox.
Immediately add things to the calendar. One of my best habits is to open up my calendar immediately whenever there’s a date from an email that I need to remember. If someone wants to meet or Skype or do a workout, it goes on the calendar. If I need to follow up on something next week, it goes on the calendar. It’s automatic now, and so I rarely ever forget anything.
Keyboard shortcuts. I use Gmail, which has a great set of shortcuts for processing email. I spent a few minutes learning them, and if you consciously use them, soon they become muscle memory. The key ones for me: ‘gi’ to go back to the inbox, ‘a’ for archive, Shift-3 to delete, ‘c’ for compose, ‘r’ for reply, ‘f’ for forward, ‘a’ to reply to all, ‘gs’ to go to my starred messages, Tab Return when I’m composing a message to send and archive it. I also have it set to go to the next message in the inbox after I delete or archive a message, rather than going back to the inbox, so I quickly process from top to bottom.
Keep emails short. I usually reply with 1-3 sentences. It’s rare that I will send a message longer than 5 sentences, and if I do, I have to really justify it to myself. If something needs to be written in longer form, I’d prefer to open a new Google Doc, write it up, and share it with the person (docs are better for sharing, collaborating, editing, reading). Keeping emails short means it’s quick to reply, and the other person doesn’t have to wade through an essay to get the key information.
Quick todo list adding. An email inbox isn’t a great todo list, because 1) your todos are mixed in with all kinds of other things, making it hard to figure out what needs to be done; 2) the subject lines of emails don’t often contain the actual action needed, so you have to remember what needs to be done when you scan your subject lines; and most importantly, 3) as you are checking your todo list (your inbox), other messages come in to demand your attention, and so you’re always distracted. Better is to keep a simple text document. I use Launchbar to append text to my todo list, so adding a todo item is a matter of a few keystrokes. That makes it effortless, which means I can quickly form a nice list without the distractions of an inbox.
Keep only unread emails in inbox. This one is for advanced users only, but I have hacked my Gmail inbox so that only unread emails are in my inbox. What this means is that if I read an email and don’t act on it, it disappears from my inbox. That forces me to act now, or I will lose the email to the ether. This is built-in motivation to actually process the email, and in practice this helps you keep your inbox empty. (hat-tip to dbuntix)
Bookmark or read later. Often someone will send me something to read (something they’ve written or an article they like). I will open the link, then bookmark it to read later, or add to Instapaper to read later. That way I don’t spend a ton of time in email because I have a lot of reading to do.
Filter ruthlessly. When an email appears in my inbox that I don’t need to see, and it’s likely that it will happen again, I will hit “unsubscribe”, or immediately create a filter so it won’t come into my inbox again. This drastically reduces my emails. I’m ruthless about it, and will even apply it to people who bother me.
Close email when done. When I’ve processed my email as much as I can, I close it. I don’t need to open it again until hours later, if at all.
If your inbox is really full, here’s how to clear it out quickly: for to-dos that are in your inbox, star them, put them on a to-do list, and archive. Archive and delete others, make some quick replies, put everything else in a “to-read” or “to-process” folder if you need to. Now you have an empty inbox that you can keep empty with the habits in this article.
Having good email habits is important simply because if you trust yourself to process email effectively, you won’t worry about it. You can let it pile up as you do more important work, with the peace of mind that comes from knowing you’ll get it to empty when you decide to get to it.