A procedure to deal with big amounts of email

The problem

You probably know the problem already: A day with less than 500 emails feels like your internet connection might be lost. The amount of emails you receive can accurately predict the time of day. In my case, I’ll always receive my 300th email each day right before lunch. Imagine that I’ve spent one minute for each message, then I would have done nothing but reading emails yet. And by the time I return from lunch, more emails have found their way into my inbox. My job description is not “email reader”. It actually is one of the lesser prioritized activities of my job. But I keep most answering times low and always know the content of my inbox. You’ll seldom hear “sorry, I haven’t seen your email yet” from me. How I keep the email flood in check is the topic of this blog entry. It’s my personal procedure, so nothing fancy with a big name, but you might recognize some influence from well-known approaches like “Getting Things Done” by David Allen.

The disclaimer

Disclaimer: You might entirely disagree with my approach. That’s totally acceptable. But keep in mind that it works for at least one person for a long time now, even if it doesn’t fit your style. Email processing seems to be a delicate topic, please keep your comments constructive. By the way, I’d love to hear about your approach. I’m always eager to learn and improve.

The analogy

Let me start with a common analogy: Your email inbox is like your mailbox. All letters you receive go through your mailbox. All emails you receive go through your inbox. That’s where this analogy ends and it was never useful to begin with. Your postman won’t show up every five minutes and stuff more commercial mailings, letters, postcards and post-it notes into your mailbox (raising that little flag again that indicates the presence of mail). He also won’t announce himself by ringing your door bell (every five minutes, mind you) and proclaiming the first line of three arbirtrarily chosen letters. Also, I’ve rarely seen mailboxes that contain hundreds if not thousands of letters, some read, some years old, in different states of decay. It’s a common sight for inboxes whose owners gave up on keeping up. I’ve seen high stacks of unanswered correspondence, but never in the mailbox. And this brings me to my new analogy for your email inbox: Your email inbox is like your desk. The stacks of decaying letters and magazines? Always on desks (and around it in extreme cases). The letters you answer directly? You bring them to your desk first. Your desk is usually clear of pending work documents and this should be the case for your inbox, too.

(c) Fotolia Datei: #87397590 | Urheber: thodonal

The rules

My procedure to deal with the continuous flood of e-amils is based on three rules:

  • The inbox is the only queue of emails that needs attention. It is only filled with new emails (which require activity from my side) or emails that require my attention in the foreseeable future. The inbox is therefor only filled with pending work.
  • Email processing is done manually. I look at each email once and hopefully only once. There are no automatic filters that sort emails into different queues before I’ve seen them.
  • For every email, interaction results in an activity or decision on my side. No email gets “left there”.

Let me explain the context of the rules in a bit more detail:

My email account has lots and lots of folders to store all emails until eternity. The folders are organized in a hierarchy, but that doesn’t really matter, because every folder can hold emails. The hierarchy of folders isn’t pre-planned, it emerges from the urge to group emails together. It’s possible that I move specific emails from one folder to another because the hierarchy has changed. I will use automatic filters to process emails I’ve already read. But I will mark every email as read by myself and not move unread emails around automatically. This narrows the place to look for new emails to one place: the inbox. Every other folder is only for archivation, not for processing.

The sweeps

The amount of unread emails in my inbox is the amount of work I need to do to return to the “only pending work” state. Let’s say that I opened my email reader and it shows 50 new messages in the inbox. Now I’ll have to process and archivate these 50 emails to be in the same state as before I had opened it. I usually do three separate processing steps:

  • The first sweep is to filter out any spam messages by immediate tell-tale signs. This is the only automatic filter that I’ll allow: the junk filter. To train it, I mark any remaining junk mail as spam and let the filter deal with it. I’m still not sure if the junk filter really makes it easier for me, because I need to scan through the junk regularly to “rescue” false positives (legitimate mails that were wrongfully sorted out), but the junk filter in combination with my fast spam sweep will lower the message count significally. In our example, we now have 30 mails left.
  • The second sweep picks every email that is for information purpose only. Usually those mails are sent by software tools like issue trackers, wikis, code review tools or others. Machines don’t feel the effort of writing an email, so they’ll write a lot. Most of the time, the message content is only a few lines of text. I grab each of these mails and drag them into their corresponding folder. While I’m dragging, I read (and memorize) the content of the email. The problem with this kind of information is that it’s a lot of very small chunks of data for a lot of different contexts. In order to understand those messages, you have to switch your mental context in a matter of seconds. You can do it, but only if you aren’t interrupted by different mental states. So ignore any email that requires more than a few seconds of focused attention from you. Let them sit into your inbox along with the emails that require an answer. The only activity for mails included in your second sweep is “drag to folder & memorize”. Because machines write often, we now have 10 mails left in our example.
  • The third sweep now attends to each remaining mail independently. Here, the three-minutes rule applies: If it takes less than three minutes to reply to the email right now, then do it right now and archivate the mail in a suitable folder (you might even create a new folder for it). Remember: if you’ve processed an email, it leaves the inbox. If it takes more than three minutes, you need to schedule an attention slot for this particular message on your todo-list. This is the only time the email remains in the inbox, because it’s a signal of pending work. In our example, 7 emails could be answered with short replies, but 3 require deep concentration or some more text for the answer.

After the three sweeps, only emails that indicate pending work remain in the inbox. They only leave the inbox after I’ve dealt with them. I need to schedule a timebox to work on them, but after that, they’ll find themselves out of the inbox and in a folder. As soon as an email is in a folder, I forget about its existence. I need to remember the information that were in it, but not the message itself.

The effects

While dealing with each email manually sounds painfully slow at first, it becomes routine after only a short while. The three sweeps usually take less than five minutes for 50 emails, excluding the three major correspondence tasks that make their way as individual items on my work schedule. Depending on your ratio of spam to information messages to real correspondence, your results may vary.

The big advantage of dealing manually with each email is that I’ve seen each message with my own eyes. Every email that an automatic filter grabs and hides before you can see it should not have been sent in the first place – it’s simulating a pull notification scheme (you decide when to receive it by opening the folder) rather than leveraging the push notification scheme (you need to deal with it right now, not later) that emails are inherently. Things like timelines, activity streams or message boards are pull-oriented presentations of presumably the same information, perhaps that’s what you should replace your automatically hidden emails with.

You’ll have an ever-growing archive with lots of folders for different things (think of a shelf full of document files in real life), but you’ll never look into them as long as you don’t desperately search “that one mail from 3 months ago”. You’ll also have a clean inbox, preferably in “blank slate” condition or at least with only emails that require actions from you. So you’ll have a clear overview of your pending work (the things in your inbox) and the work already done (the things  in your folders).

The epilogue

That’s when you discover that part of your work can be described as “look at each email and move it to a folder” as if you were an official in charge for virtual paper. We virtualized our paperwork, letters, desks, shelves and document files. But the procedures to deal with them is still the same.

Your turn now

How do you process your emails? What are your rules and habits? What are your experiences with folders vs. tags? I would love to hear from you – in a comment, not an email.

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