Some Tips on Email Management

22:52 Thu 23 Jul 2009
[, , , , ]

I can be a terrible correspondent. I go through patches, some of them years long, where, unless I respond to an email immediately (which is essentially a function of chance), I might not respond ever. This becomes cumulatively worse very quickly, because I become more and more overwhelmed by the sheer amount of stuff in my inbox, and this makes me less willing to engage with older emails.

Recently, I’ve figured out some methods for dealing with it better.

(To those of you who are owed email from me who are still reading this: you might receive long-overdue replies in the near future, even if they’re to messages that could be classified as “ancient”.)

If you’re someone who already has zero emails in your inbox, these tips aren’t likely to help much. But if, like me, you’ve got tons of stuff in there and you’d like to get through it (or even some of it), these might be useful. Note that I do think that the zero inbox approach is a good one, and that I would like to get there again.

I primarily intend these for personal email management; I think that email for work might have some quirks that require additional consideration. They’d still probably make a good start for work email, however.

I am also assuming that you want to go back through the older emails. If you don’t, you can ignore some of these steps.

  1. Make it appear manageable.

    This is the trick that suddenly made it easy for me to get through emails again. Instead of showing all 2298 messages in my inbox, I made it show just email from the last day or so.

    Looking at this narrowed set of messages leads to thinking “that’s not so many”, whereas looking at the full inbox leads to the desire to look away (or even to run away and hide…).

    This is easy in Thunderbird: View > Messages > Customize, then hit New. Change the first filter to Age in Days and set the others to whatever is going to be most comfortable; I suggest whatever period will result in fewer than 10 visible messages.

  2. Have a place to file every message

    This includes deleting them, if you’re so inclined. But most of us want to keep a lot of the messages somewhere.

    You probably have a folder structure in place already. If you don’t, it’s definitely worth it to create one—it’s a lot easier to make the decisions required all at once rather than per-message, in my opinion. My structure, loosely, is based on people, sites, lists, and projects. Each of these has a subfolder for each thing of its type that’s likely to get more than a certain number of messages, and a miscellaneous folder for the rest.

    Whatever makes sense to you here is how you should set it up, because in order for it to work it needs to be very easy for you to decide where any particular message should be filed.

  3. Add new folders liberally

    If you find yourself being uncertain whether something belongs in a miscellaneous folder or should have its own, create its own folder for it. If particular messages are problematic, figure out a place for them and create it.

  4. Set a time for handling email

    Some people advocate being really strict about this, i.e. only reading or writing email at specific times of day. That works with this method. Replying whenever you want also works. But to make this work, you should schedule periods when you’re going to focus on replying to emails. I tend to do this in the morning, and sometimes I reply at other times, depending on how busy I am.

  5. Use filtering

    Your inbox should be for “real” email, that is, things that you definitely want to read or reply to. Email that might require a quick look over to see if action is required, such as posts from mailing lists or offers from sites you’re involved with, should be filtered into folders without your having to read the messages first. This helps ensure to limit the number of decisions you need to make in order to keep your inbox looking empty.

    In addition, when you’re going back over older emails, use whatever your client has to let you move messages in bulk.

    Filtering should be pretty easy with all modern email clients.

  6. Set a target for how many old emails you tackle each day

    When you finish handling the current email, expand the view back out to all of your messages. Whatever your target is, file, delete, and/or reply to whatever messages are required to hit it.

  7. Gradually increase the time range displayed

    After a couple of days, you’ll need to change your view filter so that it shows messages going further back. Otherwise, you won’t tackle the older messages, and any messages that you dither on (it can happen, and it’s okay) will become invisible to you. There’s a small psychological reward here too, as soon you go from thinking “I’ve dealt with all the email from the last day” to “last week” to “last month” and beyond.

  8. Make decisions quickly

    One of the reasons that messages linger (possibly forever) in my inbox is that I put off making a decision required by an email. This can even apply to small decisions, and it’s almost never a good idea. Just make the decision and write it into the reply. Writing it out will help you decide in any case.

    During the period you’ve set aside for email handling, get yourself into the mindset of making decisions quickly. Remind yourself that the alternative is either endless dithering, putting off replying forever, or spending far longer than you can afford on email.

  9. Quickly identify what’s required

    Most of the time this won’t require conscious thought. But if it does, if the act of replying (or filing) seems like it’s going to require more, identify what that “more” is. Sometimes it’s a decision, and if you can’t follow step 8 and make the decision quickly, at the least make sure you can identify precisely what the decision is. Similarly, if you need to do other things before replying, identify clearly what those things are.

  10. Reply anyway

    By which I mean: if some decision or action is required, and you can’t do it right away, reply anyway to let the person know. Otherwise, if you’re like me, you might put off the action or decision, and then feel bad about not replying, and then want to avoid both replying and the action or decision because you feel bad about the whole thing, and before you know it months have passed.

    Whenever you think there might be a delay in replying, make sure you’ve identified what’s required, identified why there’s going to be a delay, and made quickly the decisions that could be made. Then, with those things in mind, reply to explain the delay.

    Don’t fall into the trap of feeling that it would be awful to tell someone you can’t do X right now—and then instead never reply at all.

One thing about these tips, and one of the reasons that I think they’re worth sharing, is that they can work from scratch. If you try them and they work for a while and then something happens and you return to bad email habits, you can just start them over again. Any work you did the first time around will make them easier to stick to, and the trick of showing only very recent emails in your inbox will help kickstart the process.

In many ways this is just a hack to deliver rapid positive feedback: any progress you make here is made immediately apparent because your inbox appears empty as a result, and “empty” feels a huge amount better than “just 2288 to go”. The other steps are hacks that address the various common stumbling blocks in handling email.

Leave a Reply