I get several hundred emails per day, but I’m in control of my email, and I promised someone I’d share my approach. Maybe you’ll find a hint or two in here that works for you. And as always, your mileage will vary, so if it doesn’t work for you, skip it and find a way that does. (Maybe Chris Penn’s method will work for you instead).
First, Break All The Rules
Like it or not, your email is no longer simply a distraction. It’s a core element to your work, because the more distributed our systems are, the more we rely on it to connect people and dots. So firstly, get your head into the reality that this is how we work now. We don’t have filing cabinets and binders and interoffice memos anymore, we don’t use the phone as much, we have email. Deal with it.
Secondly, you can set aside time to deal with email, or you can adapt to it real-time like I do (oh! The Horror!). The former means you have to be disciplined about your time, and have ruthless filters to find the things that matter in a definitive moment and set the rest aside. That’s fine if you work that way.
The second means you have to be willing to scan, process, and redirect your attention continually, and have a system for parking information for later. It also means making decisions on the fly and putting your head back where it belongs afterwards. Everyone’s different. Either way is fine, no matter what people tell you.
And for crying out loud, mess with the system when it doesn’t work. Hundreds of people will tell me I do it wrong. No such thing if it functions for you. Now, to the tools.
Gmail is by far my preferred email interface. I’ve tried several clients, and none of them improve upon it in any exponential way. I like simple, so I stick with what I know and like.
- I use Mailplane for Mac to manage Gmail, and I have several email addresses there. I can log in or out of them easily. I also manage several from a single inbox.
- I use Priority Inbox. It *dramatically* cuts down on the noise for me, and I can demote or promote an email with a single keyboard shortcut.
- When I’m processing email in a big whack – say, after travel or an extended time away – I start with the oldest first and work backwards. Email is temporal and sometimes time sensitive, so this way I can go back in time and work forward rather than missing something older that needed my attention.
- I use the “Super Stars” function in Gmail Labs. I use a checkmark for actionable items, blue stars for actionable things I’m waiting on for other people, red stars for things that are overdue. Things that are FYI or sources of information get archived immediately using a label. I’ll find them later if I need the information, and if someone adds more to the thread, it’ll resurface.
- Thank heavens for the “Mute” function in Gmail. Buh-bye, abusers of the Reply All function.
- I use the Do, Delegate, Defer, Delete system. If it’s less than a couple of minutes *and* relatively important, I do it now. If it’s for someone else, I forward and delegate, and archive the email. If I need to act on it later but it’s a longer thing (or if I simply don’t have the couple of minutes right now), I use the SuperStars and defer it but leave it in my inbox and add it to my task list. If not any of the above, I delete it. More on that below.
- I process meeting requests in batches to try and avoid conflicts and assess priorities as a group. I use “Create Event” from emails in Gmail liberally, even if it’s just a task or reminder to myself for something that needs to be done at a certain time.
I live in Evernote, and it’s probably my most heavily used application. Here’s a bit about how I use broadly here.
It collides with my email in one simple way: a task list. I’ve tried a zillion different task and to-do list applications, and I don’t care for any of them. Mostly because they don’t work within or aren’t habitual to my existing system, so I don’t adopt them fully, ever. (Too many apps decreases rather than increases productivity for me). All I really need is a simple checklist.
When I have an actionable thing from my email, I go to my to-do list (it’s the same one all the time, just maintained continually) and add a task with a check box. If it’s important, it goes on top, bolded, with a simple **. I know that things on my list that correspond to emails will be in my inbox with a checkmark star so I can find them quickly, and see at a glance how unruly my task list is.
When something’s done, I delete it. Simple.
Get comfortable with the delete button. Some stuff you’re honestly not going to do or answer, yet you hang on to it out of guilt or fear you’ll lose important information you just might need later. Get over it, and delete it or archive it. If it’s really important, it’ll resurface. Remove it NOW so you don’t have the visual clutter in your inbox.
Unsubscribe from the noise. I mean now, right when you get the email that’s clogging up the tubes. Take two seconds, unsub, and reduce the volume of garbage you need to process. Do you really need to know immediately when DSW is having a sale?
Turn off email notifications from your social networks unless you need them as part of your work. They’re going to distract and interrupt you, period. Either get comfortable with that and quit whining that you get too much email, or stop letting Facebook email you cat pictures and go to the site itself when you have time to do so.
Email overload is as much psychological as it is real. That’s why you get the clutter out. We judge the magnitude of our obligations by what we can see in our inbox, and get overwhelmed when we just don’t know what’s in there awaiting us. Get out the clutter, leave behind only the stuff that really needs attention, and you’ll have a much better handle on what’s really waiting for you in there.
Unless your work is a matter of life and death, it’s not. It won’t kill you to miss an email, and if it’s really that damned important, the person reaching out to you needs to employ other mechanisms to track you down.
Now? Breathe and dig in.
* Not a typo. See here if you didn’t catch the geektacular reference.