Email sucks for the most part, but as a society we are stuck with it. Most people are bad at sending, receiving and processing email. So the obvious happens. A few folks get rich writing books on how to deal with email. Many people buy those books. And then nothing changes.

You don’t need any of those books or clickbait articles. Here is how to deal with email.

Timebox

Email is asynchronous. You send an email, but you can not know if or when the recipient will read it. Use that in two ways. When sending email, be prepared to wait. If whatever you need requires a same-day response, call. On the receiving end, timebox your email handling. I do email for 30 minutes in the morning and then not again until late afternoon, again for no more than 30 minutes.

Eisenhower

I use an organization principle called the Eisenhower Method for most stuff that comes my way. It is especially useful for email:

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I assess everything inbound immediately. It goes in one of the four boxes in the diagram above. Two of them are easy. Box 4 (urgent nor important) emails go in the trash right away never to be seen again. Box 1 (urgent and important) I respond to right away.

The harder boxes are 2 and 3. They can be confusing at first. Important but not urgent emails (box 2) could be someone inviting me to speak at a conference. A close friend sending a personal message. An ongoing discussion about an event I am planning with a group of people.

How can something be urgent and not important (box 3)? Mostly these are favors. A request for a sliver of my time spent on something I do not necessarily care about. But the person asking cares about it and I care about them. (Or I may need to ask them for a favor in return in the future.)

The box 2 and 3 emails I flag, and I respond to them later in the day, in my second email session. I tend to deal with box 3 emails before box 2. If I run out of time, the remaining emails stay in my inbox and I deal with them the next day. Or for personal emails, I may wait until the weekend when I can write a thoughtful response.

What does my inbox look like?

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Other tricks I use

  • I do not get any email notifications. My email program only runs while I am dealing with email. My phone has notifications disabled.
  • I remove everything I dealt with from my inbox right away.
  • People are great at making things sound urgent. Email programs support this behavior by letting folks mark messages as ‘important’. This does not affect how I treat that particular email.
  • More than 80% of problems / crisis go away by just letting time pass. Know that a lot of people deal with problems by emailing as many people as they can about it, hoping that one of those people will make it their problem. Do not fall for it.
  • Email programs let you filter email. You can use that to help you sort through email much, much faster. For example, I filter any email with more than 3 addressees, as well as anything where I am in the CC list, to the bottom of the pile.