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Zen and the art of email management

Get in control of your email, before it gets control of you using Folders, Rules and the Getting Things Done methodology

CD sticking out from computer

Last year, I gave a workshop to the Business Club Cambridge  on the subject of “Control your email, before it controls you”. The session was well attended and I thought it was a good opportunity to put down my thoughts on this subject.

Hopefully, by reading how I deal with email, you will get some ideas for how you can get back in control.

Why is email a problem?

Sometimes, it seems that the World runs on email. Even with the advent of Twitter, Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn and all the other social networks, the volume of email pouring into Inboxes all over the world seems to rise inexorably. With this rise comes the inevitable need to deal with the increasing volume of mail: it needs to be managed.

An extra problem these days is that many of us use mobile devices to manage their email. Due to the restricted functionality and screen size of mobile devices, personal productivity can suffer badly if steps aren’t taken to reduce the amount of mail and manage what there is.

Managing your email

Over the years, I have developed a process that helps me keep on top of my email. It comprises the following measures:

  • Stop receiving messages that never get read
  • Use automation to handle low priority messages
  • Handle what is left in a structured fashion

Reducing the volume of email

How much email do you receive on a daily basis that rarely, if ever, gets read properly? If you’re like most people, you probably subscribe to newsletters, blogs and forums. If you are on LinkedIn, you probably get daily digests from groups. Plus, you get unsolicited mail.

Take a good, long look at what you receive and really ask yourself: do I really need to still get this?

If the answer is no, then unsubscribe from the list, group, forum or whatever.

Using automation

Most business class email clients have some way to auto-process incoming email messages. If you are a Microsoft Outlook user, then you have rules at your disposal (though they only give real value if you are connected to a Microsoft Exchange server). If you use GMail or Google Apps for Business, then you can use Gmail filters to achieve the same end.

The objective is to deal with as much low priority email as possible before it reaches your Inbox. This is based on the observation that little email really needs your immediate attention: most of it can be deferred to a time that you choose.

I have a number of folders that exist to contain unread, low priority messages: newsletters, forum posts, blog feeds. I do much of my email management using my iPhone, so I want only the important messages that require my immediate attention to stay in the Inbox. That way, when I do check my email, I see stuff that is relevant at that moment in time. I don’t see messages that might otherwise distract me and can be dealt with at another time.

Create rules/filters that intercept messages when they arrive in your Inbox and file them away in one of these folders. For example, I have a folder called “_Newsletters”. I then have a number of filters (I use Google Apps for Business) that move messages to that folder if they come from a known newsletter source, e.g. LinkedIn group messages. (These special folders start with an underscore so that they sort at the top of the folder list)

Process your mail the GTD way

I am a great fan of David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology and I follow the process for my email.

Each time I check my email (note, check my email, not be interrupted by my email) I go through each message in the Inbox and do the following:

  1. Is this email intended for me? If not, delete it or forward it on.
  2. Is this email informational: e.g. it’s just something to read? If so, file it in “_Read Later”.
  3. Do I need to do something as a result of receiving this email? If not, file it away for future reference.
  4. Can I do whatever it is right now and in less than two minutes? If so, do it and then delete/file the message.
  5. File the message in the “_Action” folder to be dealt with later.

At the end of this process, I have an empty Inbox. Sure, I have some reading to do and I have some actions. They can be scheduled into my daily task list. I also need to allocate time to go through the “_Newsletter” folder. The point is that I spend less time reacting to incoming email messages and more time being productive.

Zen is an empty Inbox

I often see people who have Inboxes with thousands of emails in them. When I ask them about this, they admit that some of them have been there for months, if not years, and that they will probably never get around to dealing with them. My answer is simple: delete them all. If you can’t bring yourself to do this, move them all to a folder called “old stuff” and ignore them. Admit to yourself that you will never do something with them and move on with my approach to managing your email.

The advantage of my process

The real advantage of my process comes when I am on the road and using only my iPhone or my iPad. Screen real estate is limited and so is time. By following the steps I have given above, I can keep on top of what is really important and spend less time distracted by stuff. It has meant that even when I am on holiday, I can still keep on top of my email and deal with important and urgent messages without spending too much time “at work”

Share the good news

Try it yourself and let me know how you get on. If this process works for you, tell others about this post. Feel free to link to it, or share it on your social networks.

If you need further information, please use the comments section.

2 Responses to Zen and the art of email management

  1. Great post Gareth; funny enough what you describe is not dissimilar to what I use myself; two extra things I would add at the end are: 1) ideally, to avoid being interrupted from Emails you should not have an automatic notification of every Email arriving 2) it’s easy to drift back, from time to time, to being interrupted by Emails so it’s a good idea to going back and read this post until it becomes second nature.