A lot of people think email is broken. They get too much email, most of it is rubbish, and they dread looking at it. Often they feel that email is more harmful than helpful to their productivity. Opening email is a chore.
Email alternatives are plentiful today. Slack, Microsoft Teams, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger… there's lots of non-email methods of communicating. Sometimes they're an improvement, other times not. You can become overwhelmed by Slack messages as easily as you can email messages. Bad communication habits are bad habits, no matter which app or medium they're applied to.
Email isn't broken for everyone, but it might be broken for you. I'm not a raving fan of email myself. My job is not to read emails. Reading more email doesn't earn me more money. With few exceptions, reading email doesn't bring me more joy. The more time I spend on email, the less time I am spending on my business, and the less time I spend on things that make me happy.
Email is a necessary function. But it only provides me with personal or business value when used correctly. To me that means:
- Getting fewer emails
- Spending as little time dealing with email as possible
The Freedom of Less Email
We recently moved our business to a new office. As anyone who has moved offices will tell you, there's a thousand little things to do for an office move. Our move took months of planning, culminating in a furious week of packing up the office. Moving day started with a 4am wakeup for me. And although we managed to get the new office opening and functional by lunchtime, it still took part of the weekend to finish setting things up.
I barely touched a computer in that final week of the move, and only triaged email on my phone for a few minutes each day. Usually when you take someone away from their computer and their normal duties, they return to a huge pile of unread email.
Not me. It took me less than 30 minutes to “catch up”. Then I got back to work.
I'm not writing this to brag. Rather, I want to share with you how I got to the point where a week of disruption didn't leave me with a mountain of unread email to deal with. My days are not spent dealing with my inbox. Email is a task that takes up less than an hour of my time each day, in total. And that's on a busy day.
It didn't happen overnight. In fact it took me about a year of steady progress to get to this point.
Here's how I did it.
Remove Unwanted Email
The most obvious solution to reduce the time you spend on email is to receive less of it. To receive fewer emails, we must:
- Answer questions before they're asked – Give your users self-service options for repetitive requests. Give your support staff documentation so they don't need to reach out to you. Put an FAQ on your website. Not everyone will use it, but you'll cut down the number of emails you receive by a lot.
- Unsubscribe what you aren't consuming – Get rid of those newsletters that you aren't reading. If you haven't read one in a few months, it's obviously not that important to you. If you do need to keep up with industry news, subscribe to just one or two high quality, curated emails instead of dozens of individual sources. The most important information will bubble to the surface anyway. Everything else you can seek on Google or by asking peers when you actually need it.
- Switch off what you don't need – Email alerts and notifications are often a waste of time. Working in support and operations roles, I didn't need to know that a priority 2 or 3 ticket had been assigned to me. I will see it when I go to my ticket queue for my next task. The associated email notification is unnecessary. Even priority 1 tickets don't need an email since they were also alerted by SMS/txt and a phone call. The same goes for other notifications, such as social networks. I check LinkedIn for a few minutes a couple of days per week. I check Facebook in the evenings or during short breaks during the day. I'll see the notifications in the app. So there's no value in receiving notifications in my inbox all day as well.
- Feed work straight into work queues – Most businesses have a customer service email, or a sales form on a website, or something that generates email. Send those items straight into the workflows that they belong in, and cut out the manual handling.
- Kill long email chains – If your email conversation is bouncing back and forth without a conclusion, pick up the phone and solve it that way. Or schedule a short meeting with the right people to come to an agreement.
- Separate work from fun – This may seem like common sense, but keep your personal life out of your work mailbox. A personal email address with Gmail or Outlook.com is free, has good security with 2FA, and has decent spam filtering.
- Send fewer emails – Yes, you're part of the problem too.
What's left over should be mostly email that is necessary. There might still be a lot of it. That means it's important to be able to process email efficiently, which I'll cover next.
Improve Email Processing Efficiency
It's often said that email is a great way for other people to inject their priorities into your day. This is true, and one of the main reasons is that we tend to sort our email in order of newest to oldest. Whoever has emailed us most recently becomes the top item in the inbox. Hence why annoying marketers send frequent follow up emails. They want to reclaim the top position in your inbox.
First In, First Out
Because we're conditioned to think that all email is important and deserving of a prompt and thoughtful reply, we allow ourselves to give the most visible emails all our attention.
The problem then becomes that the oldest tasks are pushed so far down your inbox by the new emails that keep arriving, that they lose any chance of being actioned. Out of sight, out of mind.
This is why my first piece of advice for improving your email processing efficiency is to sort your inbox the other way around – in order of oldest to newest. Unless some other signal tells you that a more recent email is more important, deal with your oldest items first.
If that creates an unacceptable delay in you getting through all the email you're receiving, you're still receiving too much email. Either go back to my earlier advice about reducing the amount of email you receive, or keep reading and try and process your email more efficiently.
Put Tasks Where They Belong
Sorting email from oldest to newest solves the issue of older items being overlooked. But it doesn't make your inbox any better at being a todo list. In fact, your inbox is the worst place to store your outstanding tasks. There's no sense of priority, urgency, due dates, time spent, status, or anything else that goes along with task management.
Don't leave tasks sitting in your mailbox, waiting for you to “get back to it later”. Especially tasks that you can't complete immediately. If something is a quick reply or two minute job, go ahead and do it right away. You've already interrupted some other work to check your email, so you may as well finish actioning the quick messages immediately.
If something needs a longer reply or will take longer to work on, get it out of your mailbox and into your task management system. I use Todoist (referral link) for both personal and business tasks. Don't hang on to that email for Bob's reporting request that you need to start working on next week. Add it to your tasks/todo system so that it pops up on your list on the appropriate time and day. Then archive the email away where it won't distract you any further.
That might sound strange, but it's also how I handle emails that need some time to consider and reply. After reading the email once I will create a todo item such as “Respond to Julie's email about database updates”, and set it to pop up on my task list for an appropriate time in the future. I'll either attach the email message to it (if the task system supports it), or just archive it away and search for it again when the time comes. No stress of needing to remember to get back to that email.
Very little of my email arrives into my inbox. Most of it is filtered by a series of rules that moves messages into folders. For example:
- Customer service requests from my website go to a specific folder
- Sales enquiries go to another folder
- Automatic notifications for things like backup jobs completing go into a separate folder (failures stay in my inbox)
- Newsletters go into one of two folders (one for business newsletters, one for technical newsletters)
- Emails that I am CC'ed on go to their own folder
- Emails that I have received as a member of a distribution list go to their own folder (a few DLs have earned their own dedicated folder, but most get pooled together)
I am not one who likes a complex mailbox folder system. Aside from the messages that I filter above, all my other email goes to my inbox. When I process it, I archive it. Outlook has an “Archive” button that just moves messages to an “Archive” folder. Gmail has a similar archive function that has the same effect.
No need to think about where the email needs to go. Just archive it. If I need it later, I can search for the person's name or a few keywords and find it in seconds.
Minimizing your email volume reduces your overall workload. Aggressive filtering then sets you up for my next tip, which is batch processing.
Each morning when I sit at my computer I process the emails that have arrived overnight. I start with the emails that have been filtered into folders. Customer service and sales emails are a priority, so they go first. After that I spend a few minutes checking system notifications for anything unusual.
Then I look at my inbox. Inevitably something unwanted will have arrived, which I either delete if it's the first time I've seen it, or unsubscribe if it's a recurring nuisance. You've got to nip these things in the bud.
If I still have a few minutes left I deal with other messages, but when my allocated batch processing time is up, my calendar will remind me that it's time to get down to the real work for that morning.
I don't look at my email again until shortly before lunchtime, and then one more time near the end of the day. Often those batch sessions are just quick triage of other email that doesn't need a response, such as flicking through my distribution list emails on my phone while waiting for my coffee.
Handle Email Once
In his blog post about dealing with email overload, Wes Bos wrote:
…you likely don’t have an email problem, but a decision problem. It’s human nature to avoid having to make decisions or to defer to a better time – a time when you think you can make a better choice, a time when you are less busy, any time but now.
Decision overload is a problem in modern life. The mental burden of decision making wears us down a little bit at a time. I remove the burden of deciding what's for dinner by meal planning the entire week in advance. I remove the burden of deciding when to exercise by having specific days and times for workouts. I remove many other decision making burdens from my life in similar ways.
When I batch process my email I want to deal with it then and there. The last thing I want to do is rush through all my email and mentally load myself up with a bunch of decisions that I need to remember for later. Quick emails get actioned immediately, and the rest goes into my task list. When time runs out, the rest waits for my next batch window.
Again, if that leaves too many emails untouched until tomorrow, or too many tasks in your queue than you can deal with in a week, then the problem might be that too much work is coming in to begin with. There's only so much optimization you can do before it's time to hire more people to handle the workload.
What About Productivity Systems?
If you've read this far you might have picked up on elements of different productivity systems in my way of doing things. In the past I've given a surface look at GTD (Getting Things Done), Inbox Zero, personal Kanban, and various others that escape me right now. Some are general productivity systems, while others are targeted at email.
Whatever I've taken from those systems and made my own is mostly subconscious, and in some cases probably just a coincidence. To me that's the best way to approach productivity. Take a little bit from here and a little bit from there, and merge them together into a system that works for you.
That's why I don't recommend one specific system. What makes sense for you will be different to what makes sense to others.
Easy For You To Say
Some of you might be reading this blog post and thinking that my advice doesn't apply to you. Perhaps you feel that it's unrealistic for you to reduce email, or process it differently.
I no longer work a typical IT job. I am self employed, but I still answer to others. I have customers, staff, other businesses I've partnered with, suppliers, and more. People email me wanting things, and I have to deal with those emails just like you do.
The advice works for many situations if you are consistent in applying it. For example, if people are emailing you requests directly, don't respond to them. If you respond, you create an expectation that you are responsive to emails. That invites more emails. Instead, carry on with your high value work, and leave the email until your next batch processing window. If it's a quick answer, deal with it once. If it's a more complicated request, add it to your task list and let it wait its turn (first in, first out).
The Uncomfortable Space that Less Email Creates
A strange thing happens when you rid yourself of the majority of the emails that were coming your way. Suddenly you have time in the day where you aren't sure what to actually do next.
Email gives you something to react to. When you are receiving too much email, there's always something there in your inbox to spend time on. You can check your email in much the same way someone checks Facebook or Twitter – to distract you from the sense of needing to do something else. Email becomes the ultimate procrastination tool. It sucks up idle time and relieves you of the need to deal with things that actually need your attention.
Without email to react to, you need to make harder decisions like “what should I work on next?” The good news is, you can focus your attention on deep work. It takes some getting used to, but the habit becomes easier once you've created the space for real work to take place. Instead of sitting down and opening email to see what your next task is, you can sit down and plan out a productive day. Then once your morning email processing is complete, spend time on high value work that moves you, your job, or your business forward.