A 10-Step Plan for Productive Email

This is the second in a series of blog posts that I intend to write about my productivity practices. The first described my general approach to email, tasks, and scheduling. In this post I will focus on email.

I used to deal with a lot of email. It got me down. It was a constant pressure and it made me feel unproductive. I still deal with a lot of email. But now I am in charge. I am more productive because I get more done in less time and I feel much better for it. Here’s my 10-step plan.

Step 1 – Consolidate your email addresses.
I have 4 (soon to be 5) different email addresses. Two of them are especially active. The rest not so much. But I do need to keep abreast of them all if I am to keep on top of my email. Maintaining so many separate accounts has always been a pain. It means configuring all of my mail clients to use multiple accounts, managing passwords and settings, and it means that I need to make sure to check these accounts on a regular basis. That’s messy. So now I use one primary email address and all of the other accounts are set to auto-forward their messages to my primary account. My email clients are only configured to work with this primary email account and I effectively ignore the other 3. It worlds like a charm.

Step 2. Find an efficient email client to complement your email workflow.
I’ve come to rely more and more on my mobile devices (iPhone and iPad) as my main email devices. A big part of the reason for this is the Mailbox mail app, mostly because of its gesture-based interface. This means that I can process many of my emails with one or two gestures which makes my email processing throughput extremely high.

Step 3. Unsubscribe from everything mailing list that is not absolutely necessary.
In my experience mailing lists are not a good way to keep up with what is going on. Why? They don’t scale. Mailing list subscriptions propagate and accumulate over time and very quickly you will end up with dozens of mailing list emails in your inbox every day. That’s far too many to attend to and as a result you will simply stop paying attention to them. Ergo, mailing lists are not a good way to keep up with what is going on. So get into the habit of unsubscribing yourself by default as and when their messages appear in your inbox.

Or use a service like unroll.me if that helps. For example, even after a lot of active mailing list management on my part, unroll.me still found almost 400 mailing lists in my inbox; 10 minutes later I am unsubscribed from 90% of these. Just get off those mailing lists!

Step 4. Schedule your email processing.
Many people swear by a strict email processing schedule. Some counsel completely avoiding email first thing in the morning while others suggest checking email only once or twice a day. A fixed  email processing schedule is a good idea for two reasons. First it minimises the time you need to process emails and maximises the time you have for real work; remember email has a tendency to consume as much attention as is given over to it. It is all to easy to fall into the trap of constantly checking or inbox.

The second reason that a schedule is a good idea is less obvious. Our tendency to constantly check email throughout the day leads to a tendency to respond to messages on demand. This has led to unhealthy habits and expectations. We have become accustomed to receiving swift, if not instant, replies to our messages. This in turn encourages the sender to  check their email frequently (looking for the reply that they are expecting) leading to a  negative feedback cycle: they check regularly so they see the constant stream of emails which they tend to respond to in return. We need to break this cycle, by retraining our contacts  to not expect instant responses to messages. The best way to do this is to establish a more predictable and deliberate schedule to our emails and responses. 

I generally process my emails for one hour at the start and at the end of the day. These two one-hour blocks are usually sufficient for all of my email needs and the associated task management. Of course I do dip in and out of email during the day, but usually only during some “transition time” (while standing in line waiting for coffee or while waiting for a meeting to kick-off etc), and then   only to check for emergencies or to archive/action emails for later, rarely to reply.

5. Avoid premature replies.
There is a third reason why establishing an email schedule is a good thing: it discourages premature participation in ongoing email conversations. If you are like me the you are CC’d on a lot of developing conversations. If I dip into my email too frequently then I become drawn into these conversations and I feel compelled to respond. Sometimes this is helpful. Sometimes it is not. Rarely is it  necessary, at least not at that point in time. By refraining there is a reasonable chance that the conversation will have concluded by the time I get around to my own email processing. And if the conversation does require my input then it will be just as useful for me to respond during my scheduled email time. In fact waiting to see how the conversation plays out generally improves the input that can be made. In other words, by sticking to my email schedule and refraining from premature participation I can often save myself significant time and help produce a better outcome.

6. Process each email once.
Emails have a habit of loitering in inboxes, often for days and sometimes for weeks. We read them and think about them but often we don’t take action and leave them where they are only to return to them later for some further procrastination. I used to move stubborn emails into a “todo”  folder but then forget to check the folder. Sometimes I’d flag them but that didn’t help either. I was a victim of my own in consist procrastination.

The one message that comes through loud and clear from the email productivity approaches that I have read is that you need to develop a system that processes each email once and only once. Let’s be clear about what “processing” means in this context. It does not mean completing the task related to the email; although sometimes this may be possible with a simple reply, more often than not, further work will be necessary and this needs to be separately scheduled and managed. Processing in this context means picking an appropriate next action for the email. It means assigning this next action and getting the email out of your mail client and the next action into your task management system.

Too many productivity systems rely on overly elaborate next-action frameworks and filing systems. This type of complexity can sabotage productivity as you just end up spending all of your time trying to fit an email into some complex hybrid email-task management framework. Simpler is better. I like to separate email management from task management so the key focus at email processing time should be to either respond to an email there and then or transfer it into your task manager. Three next-actions are sufficient for this: archiveanswer, or action messages.

7. Archive emails that do not need to be answered.
The vast majority of emails do not need any further action. Sometimes they don’t even need to be read; happy days! These emails can be immediately archived. I don’t worry about classifying and categorising them. I rarely even delete emails. Modern email clients have search functionality that far outstrips my ability to consistently categorise, tag, or otherwise label my emails so I rely on search if and when I need to relocate an old message.

8. Respond to emails that can be answered directly within the current processing session.
Some emails can be responded to quickly so just do it. As a rule of thumb, if I can reply to an email with a couple of sentences then I  do it and archive the message. Otherwise I will action it for further attention.

9. Action emails that cannot be responded to immediately.
The key point here is that email and task management do not mix. Email clients are not designed to do task management  and trying to hack your poor email app into a task management app using a complex set of folders and/or labels is far from optimal. The purpose of this step is to make sure that we get those emails that need further action out of our inbox and into our task management system.

I use Evernote to manage my tasks and projects. The good folks at Evernote make it easy to get emails into Evernote by providing a unique email address that I can use for forwarding those emails that need action. For those who use Gmail in the browser Evernote also provide Gmail clipping functionality in their web clipper browser app.

In fact I have further optimised this step in an interesting way. As mentioned above I am a fan of the gesture-based interface of Mailbox because it makes processing email a dream on mobile devices. Archiving an email, for example, is a single swipe. It  occurred to me that it would be great to be able to action emails with a simple gesture, as opposed to having to manually forward the email to my Evernote address. This turns out to be possible using a combination of Mailbox lists, Gmail labels, and a simple auto-forwarding script. But more of that in a future post.

For now the key point is that when you come across an email that requires further action you need to get it out of your inbox and into the (single) place where you manage your tasks.

Step 10 – Get some real work done!
The previous 9 steps have laid out my email management system. It is all about establishing good email habits, influencing the expectations and behaviours of others, and converting passive emails into actionable tasks.

The good news is that if you follow these 9 steps a positive relationship with email will be restored! You will start the day with a lighter inbox and end the day with an empty one. Important messages will be waiting for you in your task management system and you will no longer feel that late-night nagging dread that you have missed something important.

Now it’s time to get some real work done. So, now that you have completed your email processing,  step 10 is to move from your email client and into your task management app where you can start to manage the new tasks that have arrived. Enjoy!

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One thought on “A 10-Step Plan for Productive Email

  1. Pingback: Gestures, Filters, and Scripts for Efficient iOS Email Processing with Gmail and Mailbox | Barry Smyth

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