Tuesday, June 12, 2012

What Is Your Email Strategy?

If you're like me, you probably have a number of habits for dealing with email in your life. Some practices are intentional - tricks you've learned to keep up with the deluge of messages. Other habits, perhaps less than ideal, are formed as a result of just trying to get through the day. For most of us, email is a primary mode of communication, essential to our work and livelihood. Yet, how many of us have taken the time to think about and plan a strategy for managing email so it doesn't manage us?  As my life grows more hectic I decided it's time for me to test an intentional, strategic approach.

Emotional Inbox

Before planning a new email strategy, it's important to uncover and acknowledge the emotions surrounding our current inbox habits. My inbox evokes both excitement and guilt. I love the thrill of a new message - it gives me a small rush of adrenaline. I have a Pavlovian response to my phone's vibration and my laptop's notification popup. Many have become addicted to this titillating sequence, this instant gratification. My inbox also houses a large amount of guilt. I hold tight to the notion that I must reply to every single email, and then feel guilty when this proves impossible. When I procrastinate responding to certain emails, they linger in my inbox for months and anguish arises whenever I see them. Neither of these emotions are ideal. In fact, while the content of messages can arouse certain feelings, it seems almost silly that the tool itself affects me so deeply. Weakening the emotional hold my inbox has on me is an important goal of any new strategy I employ.

The Great Distraction

Besides eliciting unhealthy emotions, email also serves as one of the best procrastination devices in my life. Whenever I want to postpone difficult work or don't feel like focusing I can always turn to email. Checking email gives me a rush; responding to and clearing a message reduces my guilt. It's such an effective technique because I can always justify its importance. Replying to email is integral to my business and life. However, responding instantaneously is not really as crucial, but I often choose to overlook this distinction. Of course the problem is that most meaningful work requires periods of focus, as Leo Babauta so succinctly notes in his new eBook focus. So while email is important, constantly interrupting my other work is largely counterproductive. I need a better system.

Mail Processing Center

There is already a great deal of advice for strategically managing your email, and I read a number of articles to help figure out a better approach for my life. One prevalent technique which I plan to test over the next few weeks is to set specific periods for checking and dealing with email during the day, and to ignore it at all other times. While closing down email seems particularly formidable, hopefully it will help break my automatic excitement when a new message pops in, and allow me to focus on more challenging work.

Along with set email times, I have decided to not check email on my phone. When I'm away from my desk it's better that I focus on what's going on around me and the people I'm with. Logically, this new habit makes sense as well. I already have a rule that I don't respond to work emails on my phone because it's so inefficient (typing on my iPhone is slow, and I almost always need to include links and screenshots). So if I'm not going to reply, it's gratuitous to read the message once, and then mark it unread so I can read it again later on my laptop when I'm ready to deal with it.

Lastly, I plan to practice improving my decision-making skills, so I can process my inbox more efficiently. This means dealing with an email in my inbox only once. I read it and either respond or create a task if it requires more time/work later. The key is that after I've read it once, it gets cleared from my inbox, so I don't keep re-reading the same messages and feeling guilty about not responding.

I'm not really sure how this two-week testing will go, but since email is such an integral part of my life I know it's worth trying to find some better ways to manage it. What is your email strategy?


  1. I think all of this is great - however to me, the key thing about reading my inbox once, is that some items are time sensitive. e.g. someone writes "I'll get you this back in a week". Then what? GQ has completely saved me here, thanks to some code that Cameron cooked up for me. I hit control L, in Chrome (which chooses the address bar), I type GQ (my shortcut) then "review report in 1 week" then enter. Automagically the link to that email is put into GQ, dated for a week, then it is picked up by my calendar, and put in my calendar with an alert. Then I hit archive and I'm on to the next message. I use this 30 times a day - literally I would lose hours a day without it. GQ makes my email possible, and for that its worth it, irrespective of the list making ability.

    1. Hi, I don't understand your method from "I type GQ" - what is this shortcut and how does it work?



  2. Good summary of the e-mail dilemma Cameron.

    The guilt part is the worst, seeing those e-mails that you shoulda woulda coulda answered.....but.

    I struggled big time with most of what you described, but making a decision to act and solve the problem has helped me. As you describe, read it and clear it. But you have to follow some version of the 4 Ds - Do it, Delegate it, Defer it or Delete it.

    What helped me was the combination of a few things (well software actually):
    1) Active Inbox for Gmail - what a lifesaver. Organise, sort, defer, assign to projects and oh so much more. This brought e-mail back to the realms of the manageable.

    2) GQueues - tasks straight from Gmail, assigned & shared tasks and a nice simple interface - especially when printing. Great.

    3) Evernote - just for dumping stuff.

    Good luck on your search for the holy grail of inbox zero!

    1. I use the exact same setup - Active Inbox to get to inbox zero, Gqueues for task management, and Evernote for reference material etc. If many others use Active Inbox and/or Evernote alongside of Gqueues, I wonder what types of integrations (such as shared labels) would help?

  3. Sorry for this, but one of my pet peeves is when I see a chess board set up incorrectly -- the white square always goes in the right corner. Not a good look if credibility is what you are after.

    Otherwise, good article.

    1. Thanks for pointing this out, Drewski! I'm certainly not a chess aficionado - perhaps I should have picked a different stock image that I was more knowledgeable about. I'm glad you found the post helpful otherwise.