« Reading gone wild! How to read five books a week (or why Scott Ginsberg is my hero) | Main | What the heck *is* productivity all about? »

Got the email blues? Only three things you can do: Get fewer, Get faster, Get control

Email is a huge problem for most of us, and there are tons of ideas for dealing with it. As I continue to work with clients, I've come to believe there are really only three things you can do to master email:
  • Get Fewer,
  • Get Faster, and
  • Get Control
Let's break them down:

Get Fewer

First, manage your incoming volume. A few suggestions:
  • Send less - not every message requires a response (yes, this means not sending thank-you-only).
  • Ask others to send less, including reducing CC, Forward, and "Reply All" messages.
  • Educate (kindly) frequent senders on best practices.
  • Get off low-value distribution lists, and move email-based subscriptions to RSS (see Move email-based subscriptions to RSS).
  • Use other forms of communication when relevant (see When To Use Email & When Not To).

Get Faster

Second, get more efficient at your processing. And I do mean processing, not "checking." I give clients a chainsaw analogy: Your program is a powerful, but somewhat dangerous tool, and - like a chainsaw - you shouldn't fire it up just to "check" the trees. You're doing work here, not testing ones and zeros.

My main recommendation is to learn and apply a methodology like Getting Things Done. I've found these types of approaches are the most effective way to rapidly process your inbox. You learn to be decisive, spend two minutes or less per message (that means getting briefer), manage action and delegation, and get every message out of "IN" once you've dealt with it. It ain't easy, but it's crucial.

In addition take steps like learning your program's keystrokes and shortcuts (esp. Delete and Move to Folder), keeping your SPAM filter up-to-date, and setting up templates for common responses.

Get Control

Finally, you must break the habit of near-continuous checking. Most of us check email far more often than necessary, and this impacts our focus. A study by Microsoft (see Slow Down, Brave Multitasker - paper here) examined the habits of employees over two weeks, and found it took people more than nine minutes, on average, to return to primary tasks after being diverted. And they spent 10-15 minutes before returning!

Some tips to move from reactive to proactive:
  • Turn off the new mail alarm. Otherwise, it’ll rip your attention away every time.
  • Reduce the "get new mail" setting to ~once/hour.
  • Block out specific time for processing. Depending on your job, you might be able to limit it to a few times a day (10 am, 1 pm, and 4 pm?)
  • Consider not checking it first thing in the morning.

What do you think? Do these three cover it? And do you have any favorite tips that fit into this (or not)?


Reader Comments (14)

Get Smarter

Learn to use the rules and filtering systems of your email to pre-process your mail before you have to look at it. For example, direct all messages from the HR department to a separate folder or tag that you only read weekly.

The Total Workday Control system or Getting Things Done have instructions on how to use Outlook smarter and the same principles apply to other software.

October 22, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterGrant

Truer words were seldom written, Matt. We sow the seeds of our own destruction by living in email -- we elicit more email, we burden others with email, and (most importantly), we keep busy with activities that are generally ancillary to our real work.

I encourage people to pick up the phone if there's more than two back-and-forth exchanges. A 2 minute phone call can clarify a host of problems.

October 22, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterDan Markovitz

Hey Grant, thanks for the tips. I generally think filtering is a red flag - if it's coming into your inbox, you should be looking at it. If not, then why are you getting it? The auto-file Read/Review makes sense, though...

The Total Workday Control system or Getting Things Done have instructions on how to use Outlook smarter and the same principles apply to other software.

I agree. Here's a link to the former: [ Total Workday Control Using Microsoft Outlook: The Eight Best Practices of Task and E-Mail Management | http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0974930415?ie=UTF8&tag=masidbl-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=0974930415 ].

Dan, thanks for the comments and the phone tip. I agree. You know, there are a couple of phone-related ideas I've seen, which are a bit contradictory. First, asyou say, it's often faster to call someone that to compose an email reply. (Plus, it's nice to hear someone's voice.) However, there are also times you want to leave calls to the answering machine so you can focus.

Good stuff!

October 23, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

I adore MailWasher for processing my mail - I'm able to eliminate everything (including spam) that is "informational" in nature and only download/process those emails that require action. It's cut quite a bit out of my email time each day. I'm still in the 30-day trial, but will upgrade when the time comes.

October 23, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMichelle

Hi, Michelle. Thanks for the pointer. It looks like [ MailWasher | http://www.mailwasher.net/ ] is a Windows program with a free version available, and a paid pro version with all features enabled.

October 23, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

I FINALLY forced myself to learn the gmail keyboard shortcuts, and it has made a huge difference in my ability to keep my inbox empty.

I especially like gmail's "mute conversation" (m key) feature, for automatically ignoring future messages in a conversation thread.

October 23, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterGavin Andresen

Hey Gavin,

I FINALLY forced myself to learn the gmail keyboard shortcuts

Thanks for the reminder. For some reason, I'm having trouble memorizing them. I wish they were more mnemonic (e.g., D for Delete, not #, etc.) Official docs here: [ What are the keyboard shortcuts? | http://mail.google.com/support/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=6594 ]

I especially like gmail's "mute conversation" feature

I don't use it (all my subscriptions are in RSS), but more here FYI: [ How can I mute (ignore) a conversation? | http://mail.google.com/support/bin/answer.py?answer=47787 ]

Thanks for your comment, Gavin. I esp. like your profile: a 250 year old astrology debunker :-)

October 23, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

I complement my Outlook with [ Wrike | http://www.wrike.com ]. Helps a lot! You should try it

October 27, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterLans

Thanks for the pointer, Lans - looks neat. I'd like to hear from anyone who's using it for team projects, and how they've integrated the program into their GTD practice, either personally or within their group.

October 27, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

I've seen your conversation with Lans and decided to join. We use Wrike on a dalily basis and it really saves a lot of time (I've never counted how much, but I can really feel it). [ The great thing | http://www.wrike.com/blog/9/4/2007/Getting_things_done_with_Wrike_saves_us_hours ] about GTD in Wrike is that you don't have to review your "next actions" and "waiting for" lists. And it works for the whole team!

November 7, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterRiston

Hi Riston. Thanks for seconding Wrike . It clearly deserves a detailed look.

> you don't have to review your "next actions" and "waiting for" lists

Hmmm. Unless every single person in your life is using it, I don't see you can avoid W/F. Also, you have to decide up front when you want to be reminded. This is akin to the tickler file, but doesn't account for items that I can be more flexible with.

Regarding action, same arguments apply.


November 7, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Re: spending two minutes or less per message...

I have tried to stick to that but I find some issues when doing that. With GTD, the two minute rule applies to the next action associated with the e-mail you just processed, right? In that respect, I can do fine in applying the two-minute suggestion to the next action.

What I find is that the actual processing of the mail may take longer than two minutes. Processing includes reading the actual text of the e-mail and then determining what the next action should be. Sometimes what the next action is is not clear.

Perhaps, then, if the next action is not clear, then the next action should be to ask someone for advice/clarification and/or brainstorm on the issue?

February 29, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterGary

Gary - You're correct that even *processing* a message could take longer than a couple of minutes. As you point out, this is often due to messages being poorly composed [1]. Tons of old text, a topic change, or multiple different actions required can get in the way. So just figuring out what the message *is* can take time [2].

If this is the case, the "pure" GTD way is to make processing the message an action. This is hard to do - it adds one more action to your list. Alternatively, you can cheat by temporarily extending the rule to 3 or 5 minutes. This isn't always possible - long documens to read, for example. But beware getting sucked into it and not processing the rest of the messages to empty. I've fallen into this trap before.

[1] "The Hamster Revolution" has a nice model for messages: A stands for Action. Briefly state the action needed. B stands for background. Use this section to present key points, ideally in bulleted form, since people tend to scan emails not read them. Finally, C stands for close. Close by clarifying any next step(s) needed. The goal should be clear, concise, actionable emails.

[ Sally McGhee | http://www.matthewcornell.org/blog/2007/11/conversation-with-sally-mcghee.html ] is good on this too.

[2] This might be an opportunity for some gentle coaching with the sender. Again, the Hamster book has a nice section on this.

Thanks for your comment!

March 2, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell


August 12, 2009 | Unregistered Commentersklep rowerowy

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
All HTML will be escaped. Hyperlinks will be created for URLs automatically.