Monday, December 22, 2014

Getting Things Done: Dealing With Email


This topic is a departure from my usual posts about information technology.  Instead of talking specific software packages or troubleshooting I am going to share a quick, simple method of dealing with email.  Email is something we deal with in great quantities: promotions, bill notifications, wedding announcements, work etc.  Email presents us with a flood of information and we usually deal with it poorly.

We are lost staring at thousands of messages.  Some of us use email as a to-do list only to have it turn into a graveyard of forgotten ideas and tasks.  The rest of us are constantly distracted by the audible and vibratory notification of our device for every email we receive.  Stop the madness, get organized and get focused with the following quick steps to managing your Inbox.


Staring at 2000+ messages in my inbox I was lost and not sure what was important.  I use Gmail and over the years Google has introduced features to help the important messages bubble up to increase visibility.  Importance tags, the "Promotion", "Social" tags all helped but I was still missing something.  I found it impossible to wade through a list of 2000+ messages and decide what is important.  The psychological weight of those messages was dragging me down.

Repeat after me: Email is not a to-do list

Problem number one was using my inbox as a to-do list.  When I needed to act on an email at some point in the future I left it in my inbox as a reminder.  This only increased the number of emails and to-do's in my Inbox.  Wading through things to read and reminders was not working.  More often than not items I needed to act on were forgotten.

You Are Distracted

Problem number two was the frequency I checked my email.  Some people like to have their phone bling, vibrate and buzz every time they receive a new message.  "I might miss something important", comes the cry.  The constant interruption is distracting and science has shown productive people who are uninterrupted do better on tasks.  Those productive people not doing more but doing it better by eliminating distractions and focusing on the task at hand.  Not checking your email allows you to focus and work smarter.

Inbox Zero

Enter Inbox Zero, the strategy and idea of an empty inbox.  Your inbox will never be empty.  As you are reading this messages are queueing at the steady pace of modern life.  There is a way to manage your inbox, to clear out all messages and then return to work.

First set a specific number of times per day to check email.  Mark those times in your calendar if you need a reminder.  I prefer four times a day: morning, noon, late afternoon and evening.  Check it when you get into work, check it before lunch and then when you leave for the day.  You might want to check it sometime before bed to deal with personal stuff.  Define your schedule and set a specific number of times to check email that works for you.

You will need to communicate to your co-workers that email is not an appropriate medium for discussing emergency or urgent situations.  When they complain you did not immediately respond to their urgent missive regarding the production server down for an hour, kindly suggest they call your cell phone next time.  They will learn and adjust their behavior accordingly.

Second, turn off notifications: Desktop notifications, phone, tablet, whatever device.  Turn off all the email notifications.  Turn off the LEDs notifications too!  Science has shown we get distracted by blinky things.  Someone will call you if it is an emergency.  You will experience a wave of peace and calm as the devices go silent and dark.

Thousands Of Emails

There is no efficient way to deal with the thousands of emails already in your Inbox, not unless you want to spend a few weeks of "drag and drop".  But before we can effectively manage our Inbox we need to clear it.  The thousands of email Inbox is psychological dead weight preventing focus.

First create a folder called Archive that will hold all messages we act on.  Sort the messages in the Inbox chronologically and go back two weeks.  If there are any emails you need to act on then go back another week.  Keep going back until there are no more actionable items.  Chances are anything that is a month old is past due and cannot be acted on.  Select all the messages from that point and move them into your Archive.

You should be left with a few hundred emails that need to be read or acted on.

Managing The Flood

Now you have a hundred messages or less to deal with three or four times a day.  If you are savvy and implemented filters those messages are cataloged in a few different folders.

What follows is a personal method, adapted from Getting Things Done (GTD) and The Secret Weapon.

  1. Create a view or search option to see all Unread messages all at once.  I like to see and act on everything.  Folders give email context but I want to deal with all Unread messages.
  2. Scan the message subjects and senders.  The subject and sender will indicate if you need to read the email.
  3. Select all the ones you are not interested in reading.
  4. Mark them as read and move them to the Archive folder.
  5. Read the remaining messages and decide immediately:
    1. Is this a 5 minute reply?  Yes, reply right now.
    2. Does this require an action on my part?  Schedule it in your calendar right now.
    3. Does this require a well thought out response?  Forward to Evernote or to-do list for follow up.
    4. No action required? Read and move to Archive.  These emails provide "situational awareness" but do not trigger any action on your part.
Note on Step 5.4: GTD has a "Cabinet" or "Digital Library" concept, a place for articles, reference, and supporting material for projects.  I receive email containing information for active projects such as: instructions, stakeholder contacts, and meeting notes.  I forward those emails to Evernote and associate with the project for easy retrieval.


Do not allow your Inbox to become psychological dead weight, dragging you down every day. Turn off those notifications to maintain focus and you will be more productive.  Manage the information in an intelligent manner and act on all email at specific intervals throughout the day.  Reply quickly if it will take less than five minutes, send to Evernote to do later, read messages for situational awareness, and make calendar appointments for commitments.  Archive all email for retrieval later.

This will provide you with greater focus and, in turn, productivity.  It is one of many steps on the path to GTD.  Good luck.