Simplify E-mail

Thousands of unread e-mails.  That is what I saw everytime I logged into my inbox. I was thinking about declaring e-mail bankruptcy. I didn't though, but set up my e-mail differently to fix this. Sharing the setup and experience here will hopefully help others.

In getting my e-mail under control has given me a reason to adopt different habits with regard to e-mail processing, which in turn has saves time which can be spent on other, more productive or fun things.

My solution consists of three main parts:

  1. Setup the e-mail program
  2. Remove many (if not all) filters for processing incoming e-mail
  3. Processing the actual e-mails on set times

1. folder setup in your e-mail program

The first step to having (close to) zero unread e-mails in your inbox is to setup a few folders. This setup is based on the Getting Things Done method:

Create three folders under the main inbox:

  • "Action required"
  • "On hold"
  • "Archive"

Feel free to make many more folders under the "archive" folder if you feel the need to create neatly labeled folders for each email group, discussion, or subject. I did not do much of that though, since I do this in Gmail, which has a great search function to find older e-mails.

Finally, remove the "new e-mail" notification. Getting notified is a sure-fire way to get distracted from whatever it was that you where doing and you decided was more important than going through your e-mails.   This may require that some co-workers want an explanation why you do not respond to their e-mails directly. Just refer them to the "Simplify Communications" article.

2. Removing automatic filters and rules

Next thing I did was to remove as many of the automatic filters/rules that process incoming e-mail automatically. I found that some rules had become obsolete, and some were too rigorous, but most importantly: they keep me from reading the actual mail they proces.

I had setup many rules automatically move e-mails to all kinds of folders. Although it looked great at the beginning, all it does is create many more "hidden inbox" folders where unread e-mails pile up over time. Forum notifications, mailings, order confirmations, etc. So, I removed many of those rules. The ones I kept where that archive e-mail automatically in case I do need it later, such as order confirmations and receipts. 

Especially forum notification e-mails were a problem. As soon as I removed those filters, I started seeing those messages in my inbox again.  And since they are about a subject I am, or was, interested in (I subscribed after all), I started clicking more and getting distracted from what I was doing. Had I not seen those e-mails, I would not click, and not get distracted.  Over the course of several weeks, I changed the notifications from forums to not include e-mails anymore. Only those that I am actually currently working on or interested in, I still get e-mail from.

3. Disciplined e-mail processing

The last step to get this to work is to proces the e-mails in a structured way on set times of the day, as opposed to keeping the e-mail client open at all time, notifying you of incoming e-mails.

Plan one or more moments every day to quickly go through your inbox. I plan one as soon as I start my workday, one after lunch, and one before I leave.

"Processing the inbox" means going through all e-mails that are there, very quickly. For each e-mail there is one of 4 possible actions to take:

  1. Delete the e-mail. You read it, no need to keep it? Delete it.  Use this option often!
  2. If an e-mail requires a reply or action of sorts and it can be done quickly, do so. Then delete the e-mail.Or, move it in "On Hold" if you need a reminder to check back with the receiver of the e-maill over time. Or, archive it if you really (really?) need to keep the e-mail.
  3. If the reply or action will takes some time to work on (in my case more than a minute), move it to "Action Required". Do not actually do that action.
  4. Finally, if read and you really need to keep the message, archive it.

They key is to not actually dive into all kinds of actions as a result of the e-mails. That keeps you from doing the work you planned to do. Also, do not be afraid to delete as many e-mails as possible. Think hard if you really need to keep it. Fewer saved e-mails mean fewer space used my keeping old e-mails. Reducing the number of distractions from them.

Finally, plan a recurring moment in your calendar to process the e-mails in "Action Required" and "On Hold". This is up to you to schedule as many times as necessary. Fewer times means more time for more important work, obviously.

And finally, make sure you switch off blanket notifications for incoming e-mails. There may be a good reason to have a notification when a particular person sends you something, but being notified of every e-mail that arrives, is just a way to get nothing done.

Then, turn off the e-mail client, or log out of the webmail for the periods that you are not processing e-mail.  Voila! A lot of time will be saved. I experienced some withdrawal when I noticed I had no e-mails to work through. After a few days however, it was great to have an hour extra here and there to enjoy doing some stuff I never got around to doing before.

Nothing above is rocket science, and i gobbled it together with parts form GTD, blog posts elsewhere and a few tweaks of my own. It is really simple to do, reduced my stress levels (no longer to face my inbox at the end of the day), and gave me more free time.

Image credit: "Peace bridge, Calgary" by Davebloggs007