I get around 250 messages per day, and it’s tough to manage all of that and still get other stuff done. Email, to me, is something that has to be wresled with on a constant basis to keep it from taking over. Here’s what I do to keep it from creeping into the rest of my life:

Ignore as much of it as possible. Look back at last Tuesday’s messages: how many of them were critical, or really needed your response? Lower your threshold for replying to messages, and shorten your replies. If something requires extra communication that can’t be done quickly, there’s an app for that: it’s called “Phone.”

Have a routine for handling each one of your messages. Here’s mine:

  1. Can this be ignored? If so, move on to the next message.
  2. Do I need to do something with this information? If so, flag the message and immediately move on to the next one.
  3. Can I quickly reply to this message, to ask for clarification or to provide some critical information to somebody? If so, do it, but keep it to three sentences.

Now that you’ve cleared out your unread messages, take a look at your flagged messages, and act on them accordingly. Each one of them should be quickly handled by re-entering the info somewhere else, such as:

  • Your to-do list (you have one of these, right?) (And don’t even try to tell me that your inbox is your to-do list)
  • Your calendar
  • Someone else’s inbox (in the case of forwarded messages)
  • Any other program where you file information

As soon as you have re-entered the flagged information somewhere useful, un-flag it.

Close it for a full 60 minutes, and don’t check it again before that 60 minutes is up. Disable any “new message” popups and resist the urge to crack it open “just to check in.” Constantly allowing for interruptions is a sign of procrastination and you will not get anything done. Of all the tips here, this is the one I am worst at, and probably the most important. I’ve written about this before.

Frequently Asked Questions:

Lots of people ask me questions all day and expect immediate repsonses! Whatever shall I do?
They are only doing this because you have trained them this way. You’re going to have to do the opposite: encourage them to rely less on you for quick responses by delaying or just not responding. Allowing a colleague to figure something out on their own is a sign of respect and trust. Your newfound productivity gain will speak for itself.

What if I have to write a long reply?
You probably don’t, but if you do, enter it on your to-do list, where you are already managing all of your other priorities.

Do you ever delete messages?
No. Why should I have to delete messages? Storage is dirt cheap, my time is much, much more expensive. It takes time to delete messages and causes stress whenever I worry about whether or not I deleted something I once thought was unimportant.

Why don’t you use folders?
Folders are poison. It takes much longer to file and categorize things than it does to simply search for them later, when I need them. Your email program has a fast search function, right? Besides, if you’re using your email program as a documentation tool, you’re doing it wrong. Use Evernote or OneNote. My inbox has tens of thousands of messages and I’m OK with that, the only ones I need to act on are the ones I have flagged. You should be able to sort so that the flagged ones are always at the top.

Why don’t you use your inbox as a to-do list?
My inbox is a raw stream if random thoughts that anybody in the world can put in front of my eyes. Using it as a to-do list is a great way to screw up my own priorities by mixing them in with everyone else’s.

I flagged too many messages!
It’s time to process each and every one of them, like you should have been doing all along. If this list gets too long, it becomes daunting and you will be afraid of it, rendering it useless. Remember: your flagged messages are not a to-do list. That’s what your to-do list is for.

Posted Sun 30 January 2011