Email & Time Management

I get several hundred emails a day, some absolutely vital and needing prompt action and some about the closest thing to corporate spam. I know I’m not alone. I’ve developed my own systems on managing the traffic load and, on different days, have varying degrees of success in sticking to my systems. In my view, it’s important not to confuse “processing email” with what we actually get paid to do. Email is often the delivery vehicle for work needing to be done and work that has been done, but email isn’t what we “do”.

We all need to find ways of coping with all the email while still getting real work done and having a shot at a life outside of work. My approach is fairly simple:

· Don’t process email in real time or it’ll become your job. When I’m super busy, I process email twice a day: early in the morning and again in the evening. When I’m less heavily booked, I’ll try to process email in micro bursts rather than in real time. It’s more efficient and allows more time to focus on other things.

· Shut off email arrival sounds and the “new mail” toast or you’ll end up with 100 interruptions an hour and get nothing done but email.

· I get up early and try to get my email down to under 10 each morning. I typically fail but get close. And I hold firm on that number once a week. Each weekend I do get down to less than 10 messages. If I enter the weekend with hundreds of email items, I get to work all weekend. This is a great motivator to not take a huge number of unprocessed email messages into the weekend.

· Do everything you can to process a message fully in one touch. I work hard to process email once. As I work through it, I delete or respond to everything I can quickly. Those that really do require more work I divide into two groups: 1) those I will do today or, at the very latest by end of week, I flag with a priority and leave in my inbox for processing later in the day (many argue these should be moved to a separate folder and they may be right). The longer-lived items go into my todo list and I remove them from my inbox. Because I get my email down to under 10 each week and spend as much of my weekend as needed to do this, I’m VERY motivated to not have many emails hanging around waiting to be processed. Consequently most email is handled up front as I see them and the big things are moved to the todo list. Very few are prioritized for handling later in the day.

· I chose not to use rules to auto-file email. Primarily I found that if I sent email directly to another folder, I almost never looked at it. So I let everything come into my inbox and I deal with them very quickly and, for the vast majority, they will only be touched once. If I really don’t even want to see them once, I just don’t subscribe or ask not to get them.

· Set your draft folder to be your inbox. With email systems that use a separate folder for unsent mail, there is risk that you’ll get a message 90% written and ready to be sent, get interrupted and then forget to send it. I set my draft folder to be my inbox so I don’t lose unsent email. Since my email is worked down to under 10 daily, I’ll find it there for sure before end of day.

· Don’t bother with complicated folder hierarchies—they are time-consuming to manage. If you want to save something, save it in a single folder or simple folder hierarchy and let desktop search find it when you need it. Don’t waste time filing in complex ways.

· Finally, be realistic: if you can’t process at the incoming rate, it’ll just keep backing up indefinitely. If you aren’t REALLY going to read it, then delete it or file it on the first touch. Filing it has some value in that, should you start to care more in the future, you can find it via full text search and read it then.

Jeff Johnson of MSN pointed out this excellent talk on email management called “Inbox Zero” by Merlin Mann: Merlin’s advice is good and he presents well.


James Hamilton, Windows Live Platform Services
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2 comments on “Email & Time Management
  1. Raffaele Santopaolo says:

    This (great great) post has 14 years !
    Amazingly it’s still valuable and useful, probably even more given the traffic load we have to manage. I also process my email in “planned time blocks” vs real-time, with no notifications whatsoever, and (try to) maintain it close to zero (not even close to 10 in reality) moving mail to to-dos (Trello in my case) for later processing.
    I’m curious if your “principles” stay the same after fourteen years, have changed or updated a bit. Why not releasing a second version of this post ?

    Greetings from Napoli, Italy
    Ciao !

    ( why you never touched the Mediterrean with Dirona, any particular reason ?)

    • I read through the posting again and it’s still how I operate. Not much has changed.

      On why Dirona didn’t visit the Med, it’s a great question. We were heading there just as the first wave of COVID-19 swept Europe. Our thinking was the Mediterrean is best visited at a time when you can go to restaurants, museums, and other busy places so we changed our plans and spent time in Scotland and Norway. We love Europe and plan to be back and, when we do, we will certainly spend time in the Med.

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