I receive a lot of email. A LOT, across at least five (5) personal email accounts and one (1) internal work email account. I see something along the lines of 300-500 emails every single day, of which about 80% require my personal attention or response.
Without the ability to aggressively manage the volume of incoming email, I’d be drowning in a very full email Inboxes across all of my accounts in a few days.
I’m going to attempt how to describe how I’ve been managing my email for a long as I’ve been writing it using a keyboard instead of an inked nib pen (~20 years now). This may be redundant for some, but extremely useful for many. I’ve been asked to write this blog post from people who wonder how I am able to stay so responsive to emails and day-to-day changes that happen without getting overwhelmed.
Some of these concepts are very basic, general concepts.. which you’ll see rehashed in many other productivity and management systems. I’m a proponent of the GTD System by David Allen, so some of these have been modified over the years to help me utilize that system.
There are 5 paths where email should go, always. No more, no less. They are:
The most-important thing is that a single email should never be read more than once, unless it is archived away for research purposes. Read it once, process it, and never worry about it again.
Let’s go through the steps in detail, one by one.
- Option 1: Do: Process emails as quickly/efficiently as you can
- When you read through your email, you want to work on it top-down for the most part, touching the most-recent emails first, unless you can see by scanning your Inbox that there are other “freestanding” emails you can knock out quickly.
Why top-down first? Because if you have it sorted correctly, the most-recent emails in a thread of emails will be right at the top. If you’re in an active discussion, those emails will have the latest replies in them. If you start from the oldest to newest and begin replying, you may duplicate entries or be posting information that is already covered in more-recent replies.
This is the same technique that Microsoft Office uses in the Outlook 2010 and later revisions with the “Conversation Clean Up” functionality.
Once you respond to the email sitting in your Inbox, delete it. You no longer need the original email, and you certainly don’t need it sitting with a “Read” status in your Inbox. You’ve answered it, a copy is now in your Sent folder for archive purposes, get rid of the original.
Most emails only take 1-2 minutes to respond to; just do it. Just reply, send, delete the original. Done. Now move onto the next one. In 30 minutes, you’ve probably knocked out a good 20-30 emails, if you’re efficient and can type fast. That’s pretty productive already!
- Option 2: Delegate: If it belongs in someone else’s Inbox, put it there
- Not every email that hits your personal (or work) Inbox requires your own personal attention. If you know that someone else on your team, or outside your team or another friend or colleague would be best to answer or respond to that particular email or group of emails, delegate it to them, and let them handle it.
Once you’ve delegated that email to someone, delete it from your Inbox (as in 1.) above).
You may also wish to set a reminder in your Calendar or tickler file to follow-up with the person you’ve delegated the email(s) to, if you need further information or to ensure that they’ve actually responded to them. Nothing is worse than delegating work to someone else only to find that they’re not doing it at all.
The important thing here is that you’ve cleared those emails from your own Inbox, and delegated the work to someone else who is better-equipped (or resourced) to handle those responses. You no longer have to worry about them.
- Option 3: Defer: Can you do it later? Then do it later.
- Do you have all of the necessary information at-hand to respond to that email right then and and there? Can you knock out that reply in under 2 minutes? If not, defer it, and tackle it later.
Maybe you need to have a meeting, or assemble some support materials or make a few phone calls before you can respond. For these cases, deferring the email is the right answer.
However, this does not mean leave it with a “Read” status in your Inbox and come back to it later. Noooooo, avoid that habit! You want to make a notation of the email somewhere, and then delete the original.
This notation can be as simple as a Post-It note on your desk that says “Send John the proposal for next week’s meeting”, or as complex as assembling a large number of sources into an email, paper file folder or other materials. In the latter case, that would be what David Allen calls a “Project”, and should be broken up into smaller steps, but that’s not important here.
In some cases, you may need to keep the original email around for context, or to interleave your reply comments inline. In this case, move (do not copy) the email to a “To Do” or “Actions” folder that exists directly beneath your Inbox folder and get it out of your Inbox.
Later when you have the processing time and resources to properly respond to those longer, deferred emails, go into the “Actions” folder, and respond to those emails there, one by one. Once you’ve completed them, delete them.
Are you sensing a theme here? I hope so, because the next option is where everything always ends up.
- Option 4: Delete: ALL email eventually ends up here
- Every single email you read and respond to, with the exception of reference/archive emails, should get deleted. Always. Not sometimes, not maybe, always!
In many cases, emails do not require a response at all (“Sally’s Going Away Party in the Break Room at 4:30pm!!!”), or are SPAM emails or simply informational, promotional emails. Delete those. Just throw them right in the trash. Done, gone, out of your Inbox.
If you’ve already replied to any important actionable emails, performed any necessary actions or steps needed, or purged the mail of any possible responsibilities on your part, why are you keeping that email around, especially in your Inbox where it provides no value other than visual clutter? Delete it!.
There are a few quick tips to making it easier to delete emails from your Inbox, and I usually start here first, so I can cut down the size of the Inbox right away, and read only what is important.
- Sort your Inbox by the “From:” field in your emails. Some services like Google Gmail do not support this kind of sorting, but many other email clients do. Sort by “From:” and delete the emails from people you don’t need to respond to, such as auto-generated emails, mails from “Sally” in accounting, or anything else from people or systems you don’t need to respond to.
- Sort your Inbox by the “To:” field in your email (again, not supported by Gmail, but works in most other mail apps). If your name is not directly named in the “To:” column (such as those emails sent from a mailing list), then you can probably delete or archive those right off the top.
- Sort your Inbox by size. This is often skipped when talking about cleaning up your emails, but sorting by size is very valuable. You can quickly see the largest emails (usually with many attachments), as well as the smallest emails (no attachments, only a few words in the body of the email).
Both sides of this spectrum can be handled differently. Generally larger emails with attachments can be archived off in the “Archive” folder, because you may wish to refer to those attachments later.
Likewise the smallest emails tend to be fire-and-forget informational emails without much content. Read, notate anything important, delete. Done.
- Option 5: Archive: Emails you will refer to more than once
- This is the last of the options, and the only one that makes sense to keep emails after you’ve read them: Archive (or “Reference” material).
These emails can contain any number of things you’ll refer to on a regular basis, like tax information (which could just be printed and put into your Tax file folder in your filing cabinet too), or company policies or a contact list of names and addresses or any other information that you’ll want to keep, so you can refer to it later on.
Remember too, not everything that comes across email is something that needs to stay in your email. You can print out emails and file them in a paper, non-digital filing system (and then delete the original email from your Archive folder), or in the case of a Contacts list, you can add those entries to your Address Book or Rolodex (and delete the original email from your Archive folder), or many other things.
Ideally, you want your Inbox to stay as clean, clear and empty as possible, so each day you look at it, you’re dealing with that day’s email, and not email from yesterday or last week or last month or even older.
The longer you let that email pile up in your Inbox, the less motivate you’re going to be to process and empty it. If you’ve got 20 messages sitting “above the fold” in your Inbox, you’re going to be more motivated to get that to 0 than if you have 1,470 emails sitting your Inbox, aren’t you?
Once you incorporate this methodology into your day-to-day processes and practices, cranking through hundreds or even thousands of emails is very simple and straightforward, and most of all, stress free!