I don’t feel so bad about my e-mail inbox now (Or: tips for using e-mail well)

One of my favorite podcasts is Get It Done Guy, by Stever Robbins.

He just did a blog post that addresses one of the banes of my existence: e-mail overload. I hate e-mail for the purpose of sharing links, collaboration, coordination, or keeping up with tasks and project. But I can’t seem to wean from e-mail the people I need to connect with on that stuff. Everyone uses different tools and services to manage their own processes, and too often the lowest common denominator is e-mail.

In Inbox Zero and the Critical Mistake That Saps Productivity, Stever writes:

“I believe that an empty inbox just means you’ve ceded control of your thinking and priorities to everyone who emails you. They control the volume, order, and substance of your attention for the time you’re processing your email. It *feels good* to have an empty inbox, but it also feels good to gorge on Oreo ice cream cake. That doesn’t mean that Oreo ice cream cake is good for you, only that it feels good. Inbox Zero has the extra sugary bonus that since *some* email is an essential part of our job, it’s easy to believe (with no evidence at all) that therefore it’s useful to spend some time on *all* email.

“Rather than striving for inbox zero, I advocate learning to identify the truly relevant emails very, very quickly, with an absolute minimum of cognitive load or context switching.

Whew! I don’t feel so bad now about the nearly 1000 items in my Gmail inbox…

I actually do a pretty good job of using gmail labels, filters, and other tools to identify my high-priority e-mails as they come in and handle them. I also do a good job of killing the messages that I just don’t need to deal with.

That leaves a vast pile of messages that either don’t need to be dealt with quickly, or that couldn’t be quickly parsed into tasks or other actionable items of useful buckets.

Some of these are lower-priority messages that I might need or want to review, and some may be higher priority but the sender just forwarded me stuff with little/no thought of how to make the content easy for me to parse.

And frankly, if it lands in my inbox, MY needs and priorities are what matters.

With very few exceptions, I take the approach of just letting hard-to-parse e-mails fall through the cracks. And if people get annoyed that I didn’t respond or do what they wanted, tough. They need to learn to communicate more effectively through e-mail. I can’t keep taking up the slack.

What works:

  1. Craft a clear, intuitive, action/purpose-oriented subject line. Don’t just forward something to me without changing the subject line. If I’m not expecting it and I don’t know why I should care, I probably won’t open it.
  2. Get to the point. Explain in a sentence or two up front why you’re sending it *to me*, what you expect me to do with it, and whether it relates to an existing project or topic we’ve been discussing or something new.
  3. Set the time frame. If you want me to do something in response, indicate by when you want me to take action.
  4. Send ONE e-mail per topic/project, ideally only once per day. If we’re talking about several different projects, topics, etc., don’t make huge switches of topic midway through an e-mail and expect me to read the whole thing. Break it up into one e-mail per project or topic. Similarly, if you have several things to tell me about a project or topic, don’t pelt me with 50 separate e-mails about it – especially if they’re forwarded. Gather all those loose ends together into one e-mail and send me that. If we need to be talking about this project or topic more than once/day, e-mail is probably not the best way to handle that communication. Chat, social media, or phone might work better.

I get anywhere from 100-500 e-mails daily, not counting spam. I have to be a hardass about this. I know it pisses off some people. I’m sorry. It’s the only way I can keep my head above water with e-mail. If I can’t wean you off e-mal,

One thought on “I don’t feel so bad about my e-mail inbox now (Or: tips for using e-mail well)

  1. I never move or delete emails and just rely on search and quick visual scanning. I do have list mail come to separate addresses and sometimes I look at each address’s mailbox separately.

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