I was feeling a little panicky today because I was behind on my work email… 32 messages behind. If this sounds heavenly to you, keep reading – I’m about to describe how I do it.
First, credit where credit is due: I learned a lot of things from from reading “Getting Things Done.” (I know, the book you get when you have too much to do to read books? I stopped for about 6 months in the middle but did finish it, so take heart.) I had the advantage of learning to use email with PINE (later on, mutt) and procmail, which both encourage really fast good email management. I also have some kind of eerily fast unconscious parallel text-processing power in addition to being a fast reader, so maybe I’m genetically predisposed to inbox zero and these tips aren’t as helpful as I think.
First, I invested time up front in the following:
- Learning to use stars/flags instead of marking email unread
- Learning to use filters and folders
- Learning shortcut keys
- Splitting up work and personal email accounts
- Setting up alternate source email addresses
- Reading all of “Getting Things Done”
The rest of it was developing and maintaining the habits of:
- Saying no
- Moving stuff onto a separate todo list
- Doing things that take less than 2 minutes immediately
- Creating new filters for non-inbox email immediately
- Scanning and marking unread “luxury” folders regularly
- Reading everything and classifying it immediately
- Setting aside a few hours each week to review flagged/starred email
Do less stuff
Too much email is often a symptom of not having enough time, not the cause. In 2007, I became an hourly consultant and suddenly realized I spending way too much time on things that I couldn’t afford, financially or emotionally. I spent a painful week backing out of every commitment I could, ruthlessly prioritizing by whether it would help me pay rent. Then I taped a note to the wall behind my computer monitor that said “JUST SAY NO.” I had to do it a second time a few months later, but after that I haven’t had to do a mass cancellation again.
One concrete example: The TCP/IP Drinking Game. I realized at one point that the most stubbornly persistent email in my inbox was suggestions for new questions for my version of the TCP/IP Drinking Game. It took a lot of boring work to deal with these: I not only had to SSH into my server and edit an HTML file, but because I had to research the questions to make sure they were correct (which could take hours). As much as I loved having “Maintainer of the TCP/IP Drinking Game” in my bio, I clearly didn’t actually want to do it any more. So I resigned. It didn’t hurt nearly as much as looking at those unanswered emails for more than an entire year.
Guilt is the biggest obstacle to making this change. I have collected all sorts of little tricks for overcoming unreasonable guilt: How long did it take this person to send this email? Does anyone in the world with my email address and 30 seconds have the right to commandeer 10 minutes of my time? Am I really the person who should do this? Am I being overly self-important by thinking my response is so vital? I also learned how to start each “No” reply with a kind word.
Do things that take less than 2 minutes right away
This is a Getting Things Done (GTD) classic: When I am going over my todo list, I just do anything that takes less than 2 minutes right away, because I’ll spend more time than that thinking about not doing it. Same for my email: I respond to or do anything that takes 2 minutes or less when I first read it.
Move things on to a separate to-do list
Another GTD classic: Consolidate your todo lists as much as possible. Most of us use email as a todo list to one degree or another. I didn’t entirely stop doing that, but if it’s anything I’m unlikely to do when I review my outstanding email, I move it to a todo list. Like, send that package, or read that article, or do anything that takes more than a few minutes. If I get that feeling of, “Oh, I had completely forgotten this for the tenth time!” when I read an email, that means I’m never going to do it if it stays in my email and I then move it to a different todo list.
Use flags or stars instead of the unread marker
It took some time and conscious planning, but I taught myself to use flags or stars or some method of marking emails as needing a response other than the unread status. Unread should mean “I have not read this email yet” not “Don’t forget to do something about this email.” If I use the unread flag, I have to spend mental energy figuring out which things I actually did not read, and which I did read but need to respond to.
I admit to abusing this slightly: If I’m reading email on my phone, and it’s hard to respond right then because of lack of time or device size, but it would fall under the 2 minute rule if I were on my laptop, I will mark it unread and deal with it when I next have my laptop. Because I read everything in my inbox in order when I’m on my laptop, I know that if there is a gap in the “read” status in my inbox, I’ve been reading on my phone.
Filter like mad
I am definitely a compulsive new email checker and don’t fight the urge well. But it helps that if there is new email in my inbox, I want it to be juicy, exciting, real email from an actual person. My rule is: If I feel disappointed or annoyed when I get an email because I didn’t want to read it right then, I create a new filter right then to handle it if I have the time to do so (and I usually do, it falls under the 2 minute rule).
I filter all but one mailing list (a work-related list with ~20 people on it) into folders. Most automated mails go into folders. Some filters outright delete mail. I have somewhere around 100 filtering rules for my personal email alone. If it annoys me because I didn’t want to read it right then, I filter it.
Use mass mark-as-read
“Mass mark-as-read” means marking all the unread messages in a folder as read in one fell swoop. I explain what this is in part because most mail readers don’t make this available by default so it must be uncommon. Even Mutt requires a custom macro in your .muttrc. Gmail has a setting you have to turn on, and then it is only available in a separate drop-down menu, and then only works on the emails visible on that page (50 in my case).
This is super useful because I filter emails into folders which I can either ignore or read depending on how much time I have. When I am busy, I periodically review my “luxury” folders and mark all as read after a very quick scan of the subjects to see if there is anything interesting enough to read now (again, the scanning part may be feasible only because of my unearned reading superpowers). I don’t wait until I’m not busy to mark them unread: I might miss something obviously interesting, and as the number builds up, it gets too intimidating to check. I review all my folders at least once a week and either mark them all read or read them. The limitations on the mark-all-unread button in Gmail are actually helpful because they make marking more than 50 emails unread is annoyingly slow, and that gives me an incentive to scan before a folder gets to 50 unread emails.
Use separate work and email accounts and check both
Judging by how many people send work email to my personal account and vice versa, the concept of separating work and personal email is not common. But since I still want to communicate with my friends over email, I try really hard to keep them separate. Otherwise each time I check my email I are playing Work Roulette: Is this horrible bad news, a crushing obligation, or a fun party invitation? Arrrgh, best not to check.
A vital tool for making this work in practice is being able to reply to email with a different address than it was sent with so I can switch a conversation over to the right account quickly. I do this several times a day, and CC myself too so I have a copy of the original in the right inbox. This takes a little configuration but is usually pretty easy in most email clients.
Read everything in your main inbox every email day
I nearly always read everything new in my inbox every time I check my email. If I can’t get through my new email and either filter or respond or star/flag it for future attention in one pass, it’s a very strange day and I start to feel out of control. Leaving unread email in my inbox is a huge mental cost: each time I look at my email, I have a glaring reminder of my failure to handle my email and a continuing source of guilt and fear. I reserve those feelings for reviewing my list of starred/flagged emails.
Use shortcut keys instead of the mouse
It’s basically impossible to read or process a high volume of email using only the mouse. If I’m on something with the volume of the Linux kernel mailing list, I still use mutt (I use the Gmail web interface mainly for the search capabilities or else I’d still be using mutt). I have a lot of complaints about shortcut keys in Gmail but they are overall quite worth it. Once I have (a) email filtered into appropriate folders, (b) a single keypress to go to the next or previous email, I can scan quite a lot of email quickly. Again, you have to edit a setting to get them, and then it takes a month with the key bindings open in another tab, but it’s worth investing the time.
It’s 2012, but judging by mailing list complaints, people are still using unthreaded mail readers, so I’ll mention it. I started using threading the instant it was available and never stopped. If a thread is going nowhere you care about, you can mark the whole thing read (perhaps after a quick scan of authors or subjects or some bodies). Gmail’s subject-based threading is not quite right, but threading systems always have some drawback. It’s worth the cost.
Set aside a block of time to review flagged/starred email
I almost forgot the part where I deal with emails that take longer than 2 minutes to respond to. At least once a week, I work through my flagged/starred emails and respond to what I can. Usually I can get down to 2 – 10 starred emails which are waiting for responses from other people (and which I need to follow-up on if they don’t respond – otherwise I don’t track them).
I think that’s it! If you’re still feeling ambitious, I recommend reading “Getting Things Done” – probably half of my email workflow is based on things I learned from that book.