How I Do Email (Sanely)

At the risk of throwing my hat into an already incredibly crowded ring, I want to write about email. Email seems to be a frustrating aspect of many people's work. I've always followed the discussion around email with interest but never felt like I had much to add because, frankly, email is very rarely something that frustrates me. Since I seem to have an approach that allows me to stay sane I thought it might be helpful for me to share my strategies for dealing with email and maybe you'll be able to glean some insights as to how you can improve your own system. 

To set the stage, I should describe the nature of my work and the type of email I get. I am a Ph.D student taking a full load of classes that I attend in-person. My advisor and many of my collaborators are collocated with me. While the option to meet in person is almost always available, everybody is extremely busy and I'd say 75% of all my collaborative work is done via email. My coaching andconsulting businesses are conducted almost exclusively via email because almost none of my clients are located in Southern California. I probably get about 50-60 actionable emails in a day. For some of you, that's obviously a paltry amount. I'm lucky that the nature of my work means that I can get out of my inbox fairly quickly and get back to focusing on the project at hand. This may not be the case for you. It's doubtful my entire system will work for you but that doesn't mean you can't take bits and pieces to try.

The Basics

I use the Gmail web interface (usually in Safari) when I'm on my laptop. On my iPhone and iPad I use the Gmail app. I have all notifications turned off on all of my devices and I think this is step 0 of almost any sane email system. It's nearly impossible to do great work and really dig into the task at hand when you're either being notified, or at the risk of being notified, of every incoming email. A long time ago I read or heard something Merlin Mann said about email and it really stuck with me. He essentially made the point that anybody in the world can email you at any time and if you allow yourself to be distracted every time you get a new one you're essentially ceding the fact that what you're working on is less important than what anybody in the world has to say to you at that moment. I think leaving your email notifications on represents a complete lack of respect for the work you're doing at the moment (except if the nature of your job requires you to leave it open, such as customer support).

Conceptualizing Email

The second important point consists of how you conceptualize email. For some people it is an ever evolving (i.e. expanding) to-do list. For others it functions as a kind of instant messaging program. I like to conceptualize it as a traditional mailbox. A couple times a day it brings in new information that allows me to better complete the work I've already delineated for myself or it provides opportunities for new projects. Each email is simply a vehicle for new information. It's not a place to store reminders of my work or important information I'll have to reference later. My job is to extract the information, put that information in the correct location so I can use it later, and then immediately archive the email. 

The Options

Every email has a finite set of choices around it. Over time I have gotten excellent at quickly discerning the "type" of email it is and taking the correct next action quickly. Here are the only options I consider when looking at a new email: 1) there is information in it I need for an ongoing project which means I need to extract the relevant information into Evernote (my holding pen for all reference material), 2) there is a new project within the email that I need to start which means I need to start a new project in Things (where all my tasks live) and give myself a next action, 3) the email has no useful or actionable information so I archive it, 4) someone needs my response and I can do so very quickly therefore I respond and then archive the email, 5) someone needs my response but it will take longer than 2 minutes therefore I add a next action in the corresponding project in Things (such as, "Respond to Syd re: budget questions" and archive the email (or if I'm super busy I'll star the email and come back to it later -- see below), 6) a meeting or appointment is being scheduled which means I need to extract the relevant information to add to my calendar and then archive the email.

Every email either has actionable information or inactionable information. Very simply, I think of my email as a hub that corrals incoming information and holds it until I decide what to do with it. My job is to come into the hub, make quick decisions about what's in there, and then get back to the task at hand. The key to treating email this way is to be able to quickly identify the type of email I'm dealing with and knowing where that kind of information "lives" in my system. It takes practice and refinement but eventually it becomes automatic. What becomes very clear once you've gotten proficient at using a system where emails are simply vehicles of actionable or inactionable information is that keeping them in your inbox is the worst choice. 

The Nitty Gritty

I've shared my overall philosophy on email and some of the basic logistics for how I deal with it, so let's get into some very actionable behaviors about how I deal with my email:

  • Notifications off and only check a handful of times each day: I try to only check my email a few times each day. If things are going well, that means I'll check it for the first time around 7 or 8 AM after I've gotten an hour or two of good work completed. I'll check it again around lunch time and again near the end of the work day. I wish I could say that is the last time I check it but I'll be honest and say it usually gets a quick look later in the evening before I go to bed as well. 
  • Filter mailing lists out of your inbox: I have many, many filters set up that grab mailing list emails and direct them around my inbox to a label called "Mailing Lists." I only check this label once a day and can usually deal with everything in it in a matter of seconds. You may be surprised how much of the email you deal with on a daily basis is simply a mailing list you could quickly browse and move on with your life. Moving all of them to a single label and keeping them out of my inbox allows me to focus on the email that actually needs my attention. I know if something lands in my inbox it probably has relevance to my work. To set this up, start making filters every time you get an email in your inbox that is from a mailing list. In Gmail you can select an email and say "filter messages like this" and it will catch every future email from that mailing list and apply the filter. In the beginning you'll have to do this a lot but as you catch the main offenders you'll be doing this less and less. Nowadays I have to make a filter maybe once every couple weeks.
  • Unsubscribe: Try searching for "unsubscribe" in your email client and see what comes up. Chances are you can unsubscribe from the majority of those email lists and never miss them. Get rid of all the crap emails you get on a regular basis and your overall email system will become lighter and easier to handle. I do this once a quarter nowadays.
  • Learn keyboard shortcuts: One of the main reasons I use Gmail is because I love the keyboard shortcuts that allow me to fly through processing my email. I can read, reply, archive, and move on to the next email without ever lifting my fingers off the keyboard to use a mouse. This makes going through my email so much more efficient. Treat it like a game -- see how quickly you can go into your Inbox and process all your email or challenge yourself to never use a mouse when your dealing with email.
  • I "star" emails to come back to later -- but clear them out regularly: Sometimes when I'm on the go I'll receive an email that requires more thought than I can give it in the moment. This is when I'll use the "star" functionality to essentially bookmark the email. One of my last tasks each day is to go through my starred emails and extract the relevant information. While it's best to make action decisions immediately upon reading an email sometimes I can't do that. I just have to be careful that starring emails doesn't result in just giving me essentially two inboxes of varying importance. As long as I work through my backlog every evening (or at most, every couple days) I can be sure nothing is falling through the cracks and I'm moving all my projects forward.
  • Filing emails is almost never necessary: Other than the filter I use to get mailing lists out of my inbox I don't use any other filters or folders. Every email is archived once I've extracted the needed information. If I need it again later for some reason I can almost always find it by searching. I can't think of a time where I was ever not able to find an email I had archived without filing it away in a complex system of folders. I'm not saying that you definitely don't need a filing system either, but I would encourage you to think about what you're gaining from the time you spend filing emails.


This system has been working very well for me for many years. It allows me to process a ton of email very quickly and not feel like I'm working from a to-do list inundated with redundant or superfluous information (if you think about it, a typical email has a lot of information obfuscating the actual important information within it which makes it a pretty terrible to-do list). However, I also didn't institute this system over night. It's the result of a slow evolution of how I handle my work overall. To get started improving your system I recommend picking one suggestion from above and installing it into your typical email routine. As you gain proficiency you can start adding additional changes and figuring out what works best for you. Undoubtedly you will stumble across some things that work for you but don't work for me and in the grand scheme of things that's all that matters. The key takeaway point is that very rarely does truly influential and important work come out of responding to emails so anything you can do to make the process less stressful and less time intensive is worth the initial effort. 

When it comes to email I think we need to get in, grab the information we need to do incredible work, get out, and get back to what matters.

Photo by giuseppesavo