Embroiled in email

~ 17 October 2007 ~

I spend at least an hour every day reading, replying to, deleting, purging, sorting, rejoicing, and cursing email. I imagine you do, too.

Seems everyone else does, as well. Intel recently declared Fridays “Zero E-mail Fridays”:

E-mail isn’t forbidden, but everyone is encouraged to phone or meet face-to-face. The goal is more direct, free-flowing communication and better exchange of ideas, Intel principal engineer Nathan Zeldes says in a company blog post.

Tim Ferris, author of The 4-Hour Workweek, recommends checking email twice a day or less:

The fastest method I’ve found for controlling the e-mail impulse is to set up an autoresponder that indicates you will be checking e-mail twice per day or less…. My personal e-mail autoresponder limits me to once per day and indicates ‘I check e-mail once per day, often in the evening. If you need a response before tomorrow, please call me on my cell.’ My business e-mail autoresponder, on the other hand, gives me the option to check email once every 7-10 days.

Mike Davidson recently tried managing email overload by replying to every email using five sentences or less:

Every e-mail I send to anyone, regardless of subject or recipient, will be five sentences or less. Like a cinquain. Ideally, it would be a 160 character count like an SMS message, but since that would require an actual e-mail plug-in (viz. “work”), we’ll go with the much-easier-to-count concept of sentences instead.

Lastly, Keith Robinson, self-proclaimed GTD freak, uses a series of folders and sub-folders to process his inbox:

What I do is have a top level folder for my each of my main alternate addresses. Within these folders I’ve got sub folders broken down various ways, depending on the needs of the address…. I then have two top level folders for things that may need action. A “Waiting-Followup” folder for things I’m waiting on someone else for or things that aren’t urgent, and a “Needs Response or Action” folder for things I need to respond to.

All these approaches sound fine and dandy, but I’ve yet to see any long-term success stories. Is there no end to the email epidemic?

Please chime in. I’m interested in knowing how you manage the ebb and flow of email? Do you have a regimen for checking and replying to email? Do you sort or use a GTD approach? Do you reply to every email or only selectively and delete the rest?



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1   Tim Van Damme ~ 17 October 2007

I’m sorry that I mailed you, but happy you took the time to reply!

I guess that’s the effect of being a rockstar, Cammie…

2   Billy ~ 17 October 2007

I check email pretty often throughout the day (more often than I should, probably), but I deal with it in a very GTD way: Anything that would take less than 2 minutes, I deal with immediately. Everything else gets “starred” and dealt with about once a day.

Don’t know if this would work for anyone else, but it keeps my inbox at zero most of the time.

3   David ~ 17 October 2007

I check my email a few times each day (three at the most). Each time I delete EVERY email on the spot. I respond to most the moment I read them (then I delete), but I never file or organize them into “Need Response” or “Waiting for whatever…”. I also forward my my email to a Gmail account for archive purposes in case I ever need to look something up.

I wasn’t as fortunate as Tim in getting a response from you to my last email… but that’s ok, it would have just ended up in the trash with the rest of them. :)

4   Kyle Kinnaman ~ 17 October 2007

Like it or not, my job requires continual attention to email. I work as part of a geographically distributed group (advertising sales, QA and trafficking) and for sanity I keep those group emails separate from my usual inbox via Outlook filters. Active/unopened tickets stay in the Open folder; anything else (in process, pending, completed) goes into the Completed folder. Pretty simple.

For my Gmail account, I am a major GTD freak. My inbox is the only thing I am neurotic about (except how to arrange what little cash I carry). A generic “Family” folder, a wife-only folder and a folder for my non-profit work is all I need for organization; everything else is archived in the nebulous general category.

My wife is also a notorious one-liner email nut. So to cut down on plodding through that mess we use Google Talk. Anything of historical significance or that you would share with your mother goes in email. Asking what’s for dinner goes in Google Talk. In the end, it’s all concatenated and searchable, but it saves me time and energy to not slog through dozens of one-liners.

Between work, personal, spam and the automatically deleted I get about 1300 emails a day. Very few are spam, about half get deleted before I see them (Outlook rules) and the rest get processed in order. Whaddya mean I’m left brained?

5   jenny ~ 17 October 2007

Timely post. I haven’t been vigilant about organizing my outlook email at work although I am on email continually - it’s pretty much the biggest part of my job as an Acct Manager at an ad agency. I have 6,867 items left to organize and am afraid it will take the rest of the year at the rate I’m going. I have rules set for some emails but for the most part prefer they all go to the main box for ease of checking email on my Q. ACK.

6   Jarad Johnson ~ 17 October 2007

My email is fairly maintained by simply shutting off my client for the majority of the day. Opening it from time to time between tasks and handling all new messages at that time.

I do feel, however, that email will be much more manageable when an innovative mail client application emerges. I currently use Mac Mail, and although this is a great product, there are vast improvements to be made.

7   Cameron Moll ~ 17 October 2007

David, still getting around to your email! No coincidence with the topic of this article. None at all…

8   Tom ~ 17 October 2007

I started using the ‘twice-a-day’ method a little while ago. My productivity and satisfaction with my work sky-rocketed immediately. I was also pleasantly surprised by how many problems fixed themselves when I wasn’t actively pursuing their solutions via email.

I recommend it to all of my friends and strangers that I meet on the street.

9   Justin ~ 17 October 2007

What a concept, I’m very interested to see how it works out. What’s more is to see how their customers respond. It’s one thing not to answer internal email, but what about correspondence from their customers. I’m wondering if they’ll be training their customers to phone in their questions that day or just how this will be handled.

My personal solution is to do a triage of the messages as they come in unless I’m completely involved in a task (coding, designing, etc) . If it’s something I can quickly answer I’ll do it. If not I put it off until later in the evening.

10   Colin Bay ~ 17 October 2007

I’m surprised no one has so far mentioned Mark Hurst of Creative Good. In his previous email guide and new book Bit Literacy he espouses a philosophy of emptying your inbox every day, as several commenters have mentioned. What that requires, besides eternal vigilance :), is having a decent system of handling to-do items (like GTD or gootodo.com or other). An inbox is a poor tool for that, but most of us use it that painful way anyway. The result of victory over the inbox is not just efficiency but peace of mind, which I like.

11   Joshua ~ 17 October 2007

I usually do the check-twice-daily thing for my email. At my workplace it’s not uncommon to receive 100+ emails per day depending upon which distro lists you are a part of (working for Uncle Sam means I have no input as to which distro lists contain my email address) so it’s easier to just check once or twice a day. Otherwise, you’ll be at it all day long.

All emails that do not require a response and are not immediately worth keeping around are deleted permanently. All messages requiring a response are responded to and then categorized (using Outlook’s native categories feature). Once all the messages in my Inbox are dealt with, I move them all in one batch to the _Archive folder I have set up.

If for some reason I need to do some sort of action or follow-up on a particular message, I have a folder for that as well. The message goes in there until it’s taken care of, at which time it’s dropped into the _Archive folder.

I’ve been doing this for almost six months now and it’s probably the best method I’ve found of dealing with email. My inbox is clean and if I need to find something in the future, all I do is sort based on category and I’m golden.

12   Shawn Blanc ~ 17 October 2007

I play by my own version of Merlin Mann’s Inbox Zero.

I have four folders: Reply, Action, Hold and Archive.

Emails that require more than a quick reply which I don’t have time for I put into the reply folder.

Emails that solicit an action on my part go into the action folder, or get turned into ToDo’s on my list.

The Hold folder keeps emails with temporary but important info like hotel or flight reservations.

Archive has all the emails I want to keep. Like hilarious forwards or love letters from my wife.

13   Mike ~ 17 October 2007

While for my personal email I utilize the gmail ‘archive everything’ rule, for work, I leave it open all day. I understand that we get lots of mail but, I still find email better than a phone call or a face to face for most work day communication.

Face to face, phone calls and other such things are complete distractors, they require 100% (or near) of my attention. Not to mention I cannot control when those happen. At least with email, I can choose when I look at it (ie. after I have worked on my design for project a but before I start working on the coding for project b). I don’t have to break my train of thought in the middle of some hairy code and then figure out where I was after the conversation.

14   Ben Bodien ~ 17 October 2007

Here’s the video of Merlin’s Inbox Zero talk delivered at Google. Some great tips in there, I’ve just gotten my inbox to zero down from about 2,500.

15   Kevin ~ 17 October 2007

Call me “old fashioned” but in most instances I prefer an email vs. a phone call, IM or any other form of communication that demands a more real-time response. Email is the TiVO of modern communication. I can respond when it’s convenient for me. And who doesn’t love TiVO?

As for email management, the problem is not with the medium - it’s with the client and the operator. Gmail and OS X Mail are by far the most usable clients available because one does not need to manage email (putting email into folders, etc.) if you can use quick and accurate keyword searches to find what you’re looking for.

Some of the more inferior email clients, including the archaic sludge of Microsoft Outlook, at least offer a non-obtrusive notice in the corner of my screen with a preview of the email I just received. It takes me a second or two to decide if I should interrupt my current task to read - or let it go for later.

It seems that many of you, certainly the author, are merely victims of your own success. Successful people are always in-demand. Maybe it’s time to hire that assistant?

In short, I think a lot of you need some cheese to go with your whine. Email rules!

16   Peter ~ 17 October 2007

My primary work is in web UI development, but I don’t check my email more than once a day, usually once every two days. In a way I’m supposed to do it more often, but then I don’t get my work done, so… I don’t and so I get my work done :) When I do check my email, I reply to what seems important and delete everything else, even email from my boss for example. email is to simple, so people send you stupid stuff :) everyone know that if something is really important they need to come in person. and those kind of things are usually anyway better to be resolved that way.

17   Garth ~ 17 October 2007

Have you not read http://www.43folders.com/izero?

I have just a few folders, including archive and something to the effect of ‘get to later’. I check my email about 2x during the day, and I don’t check it first thing in the morning. Basically, 3 things happen when reading my email: delete, archive, reply (and then delete/archive). Thunderbird and other clients have good enough search to find anything in archive. I spend more time on dealing with content rather than organization. Whenever I open my email, I have the commitment to read all of it and deal with it at that time.

18   Lyndon Lloyd ~ 17 October 2007

I have 10 e-mail account mailboxes in Mac Mail alone (and that’s not even for my day job which is in Outlook/Entourage) and I have absolutely no systems in place to deal with it apart from having both applications open all day (and all evening long) and using the “mark as unread” feature (infuriatingly, Mac Mail doesn’t have a feature whereby they stay marked as unread even after you highlight them in the list).

So, like Cameron, this thread is for me and I’m off to read about GTD and Zero-whatever-it-was and generally feng shui my digital life…

19   Jeremy ~ 17 October 2007

I use flags, and I usually have my email client open all day. If an email comes in needs immediate attention, I’ll reply right away, but if it can wait, I’ll “flag” it. I also flag things that I want to read but don’t have time to (like email newsletters). This way, I’ll never ‘forget’ to respond to an important email as I’ll be reminded of it next time I view my flagged items.

20   ..ak ~ 17 October 2007

I keep my in box empty by:
1) any meeting requests are immediately added to my schedule, email is deleted
2) any email I can respond to gets immediate attention
3) any email for future reference gets turned into a PDF and saved with the relevant project folder on my hard drive
4) any email I need time to respond to, I send an email back to the sender with an estimated time frame, add it to my to-do list with due date, and save the PDF in my relevant folder
5) everything else is deleted

To make sure emails don’t get messy, I will write three separate emails to the same person instead of adding three topics to one.

I only email the person if a) i don’t see them b) they don’t answer the phone c) are not on instant messenger. Email is a last resort unless it’s to send file across country.

21   Blue ~ 18 October 2007

Thanks for the kick up the a$$ Cameron! Been meaning to clear my inbox for days now [weeks?] and just got it done, only 3 left unfiled now, I’m smiling! I organise mine with a whole gamut of mailboxes under the main mailstore, usually named after sites or business ventures of mine, sometimes by name for personal stuff.

Email sucks, phones, suck, web sucks…but damn I need it all, and I do love it. Now if someone could just make email more fun… Cameron? Anybody?

22   Jon ~ 18 October 2007

As with some above, I opt to keep my mail client open during the work day. As a creative director for a commercial real estate company, I have the luxury… of working with people who are constantly in “blitzkrieg” mode, and they often wait until the very last minute to get their marketing collateral together.

I have about a dozen sub-folders to my inbox representing the various important people and divisions of of the company. Everything lands in the inbox.

If it’s something I can accomplish in 2 minutes or less, I do it and file it away. If not, I leave it in the inbox, flag it, and come back to it when appropriate.

23   Sam Hardacre ~ 18 October 2007

One of my jobs is to maintian client’s websites and make alterations when requested. We have one central email address for change requests, this allows everyone in the company access to the email but also keeps it seperate from individual’s email inboxes. When looking through this Inbox, I do as Billy (#2) above. I prioritise and make estimates on the time each job will take, do the quick ones first and schedule the more time consuming jobs for myself or delegate to someone else. Work generally gets sheduled and completed the day it arrives so the emails tend not to pile up so much.

I get very little email to my individual work and personal email addresses so these I just deal with as and when they arrive.

24   Mike Gowen ~ 18 October 2007

I’m on the Bit Literacy approach. My inbox has 0 messages in it. I used to have Google Notifier on, but that turned out to be a total productivity killer.

I try and check my mail as little as possible. Usually once or twice in the morning and the same in the afternoon. And when I do, I answer all of them right away, getting the inbox back to zero.

25   Mike Gowen ~ 18 October 2007

Oh and I too never leave any tasks in my inbox. They are moved immediately to other organizational systems (todo lists, etc.)

26   Nathan Zeldes ~ 18 October 2007

Personally I follow the “never do email in the morning” model, and I hope to then only do it for an hour in the afternoon. I manage the first part fairly well, but the latter hour tends to balloon… but at least I get a morning’s worth of creative time daily.

Of course some people may have different rhythms (I think best in the morning, so push email to the after-lunch slump).

27   Dan Conner ~ 18 October 2007

while there are many practices highlighted so far that are very helpful in managing email inboxes, I think much of the issue is organizational. as in, why are the emails appearing in your inbox in the first place? and can any of them be directed elsewhere?

28   Richard Rutter ~ 18 October 2007

I have a rough system which works acceptably well for me.

The first rule is to never check my email first thing in the morning - my brain’s at it’s best early on so I like to get things done first. I usually wait until about 10.30 before tackling email (my working day starts about 8am).

Thereafter I keep Mail open with it checking for emails once an hour. I won’t necessarily read them every hour if I’m flowing, but otherwise I will. I’ll try to deal (reply, file or delete) with every email there and then.

If I know that I really need to knuckle down and get some work down (a shed load of wireframing for example) I’ll quit Mail completely until my flow has come a suitable end.

I always quit Mail at the end of the day so I’m not tempted to read email first thing in the morning.

So: not exactly thrilling or ground breaking, but it’s a system that allows for extended periods of ‘proper’ work.

29   iain ~ 19 October 2007

my inbox is around 3.2gb in size now… I mark everything i need to action with a red flag and move on. I only delete spam and keep everything else.

Then there’s so many red flags I forget which red flag i was looking for and I’ve forgotten what i was working on just now and start googling ways of organising my inbox.

I reapeat the above almost weekly searching for the holy grail.

30   Shane ~ 19 October 2007

I’m no where near as popular as you, so I really don’t have any problems with e-mails. The majority of emails I recieve are from family, and from my co-workers as we seem to communicate a lot through out the day through e-mail.

31   Steve Woods ~ 26 October 2007

I invariably archive (Unread) everything straight away except for messages with attachments or from specific (important) people. At the end of the day I then trawl through the unread archived stuff and respond or delete accordingly.

That way I get to choose who’s important to me, and never miss their mail :-D

32   bilgi yarışması ~ 06 February 2008

I reapeat the above almost weekly searching for the holy grail.


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