You will spend 6 full years of your life just doing email.

It’s worth getting good at it.

Here’s the simple maths:

I’ve been working since I was about 22. I’m now 42. That’s 20 years.

There are around 220 working days in each year.

20 x 220 = 4,400 working days so far.

On average I get around 120 emails per day.

4,400 x 120 = 528,000 emails. So far in my working life. If I keep working until I’m 70 (and why would I want to stop when I’m having so much fun?) I have another 765,600 emails to look forward to.

I’m going to guess that it takes on average 1.5 minutes to deal with an email. Some I deal with much quicker (read: delete without opening), some can take much, much longer.

(Quick sense check — with about 120 per day, and 1.5 minutes per email — that means I’m spending around 3 hours per day doing email. That feels about right. Sad maybe, but about right.)

528,000 x 1.5 minutes = 792,000 minutes = 13,200 hours = 550 days.

If I use the 220 working days in the year assumption to calculate the number of working years, this equates to two and half years of my life that I have spent doing email.

And that just deals with the email I receive. It doesn’t factor in the email I inflict on the world. And since all of the content marketing emails from my company, F1F9, are sent out from me, I inflict a lot of email on the world. Sorry world.

Many people that I speak to would automatically say that this is a bad thing. It certainly feels like a lot, but I’m not so sure it’s all bad.

I wonder whether it might be worse to receive no emails per day?

Nobody wanting to hire our company.

Colleagues with nothing they want to collaborate or improve on. Or even no colleagues at all.

Friends completely uninterested in meeting for beers.

Naked Wines not telling me that they’ve dispatched our next case of deliciousness.

Happy clients never telling me that they loved what we did for them. Or even worse, angry clients not telling me how we screwed up.

So I’m not saying that email is always bad. But over the c. 50 years of my working life, according to my simple assumptions I will receive 1,320,000 emails.

By my reckoning I’ll spend over 6 working years doing email. So I had better make damned sure I’m good at it.

What I’ve learned about managing email

Know when email is appropriate, and when it isn’t. And here’s how you know: if you’re trying to resolve a problem or conflict between two or more human beings, don’t email. If you are trying to collaborate, don’t email. If you are just passing information, email is fine.

Batch processing is more effective. Researchers from Loughborough University found that on average workers allow themselves to be interrupted by email every five minutes. That’s madness. Stop it right now. Here’s how:

  1. Unless your job is replying to email (i.e. you are in an inbound customer service role and it’s your job to quickly respond to every inbound email), have set times in a day when you’ll check email. If you’ve been doing email every 5–10 minutes for your whole working life this will be incredibly hard. Stick with it. Close down your email client outside those times. Close it down damn you.
  2. At first do this frequently if you need to. Gradually increase the time in between the email checks. I now process email 3 times per day. First thing in the morning, at lunch time, and an hour or so before I plan to leave in the evening. My real work happens in between those times.
  3. Switch off all email notifications. No sounds, no icons, nothing.

Your inbox is not your to-do list. Nearly everybody I know keeps email in their inbox until they can deal with it, using their inbox as their to do list. This means that every email that comes in has to be viewed, and reviewed multiple times. Each time that happens it increases the amount of time you spend on your email, and it drains mental energy. Instead, you should:

Find a way of turning your email into tasks. There are lots of ways to do this. I use omnifocus which allows me to forward mails into my todo list regardless of where I am accessing my email from — laptop, iphone, ipad, web browser. If a mail has a follow up task, I forward the mail to my omnifocus email address, changing the subject to be an task description, then archive the mail. Every time I batch process my email (several times per day), I process until the mailbox is empty. I then separately work on managing my tasks inside my task manager. I like omnifocus because my tasks stay synced across my devices, and I can read and process tasks offline — which is important for me when I travel.

Make sure that the subject line describes accurately what the email is about. The email should only deal with one topic. The subject line should describe that topic.

Put the thing you are asking at the start of the email. Then give the background / explanation / life story afterwards. Here’s how you do that:

You put the thing you are asking for at the start of the email.

If you don’t do that, you make me read your long boring email to find out what it is that you actually need. Then, once I know what you actually need, I have to go back and re-read the whole email to get the context and background for the thing that you need. That makes me want to hurt you.

When the subject of the email chain changes, change the freakin’ subject line. Email chains start up being about the monthly report. Then somebody suggests that we need to meet up to discuss the numbers. Then the chain morphs into a discussion about when we can meet. (Is there anything worse than trying to arrange a meeting with multiple people using email? Yes, of course there are lots of things that are worse than that. It still sucks though. Try this instead) And then it changes to who should be there. And then where. And then it comes back to who should be there because Andy, who has come late to the conversation (hopefully because he only checks his email 3 times per day) thinks that Rosy from accounts really needs to be involved. The person who changes the subject of the email thread should also edit the subject line of the email.

Remember that everybody is an enemy on email. I’m not sure why this should be true. But it is. Which means you have to try extra hard on email because by default you will come across like a jerk. Probably a pissed off jerk.

When we meet with a person face to face a lifetime of social conditioning kicks in and we do everything possible to get along with that person. Then when we get an email from them all of sudden we are outraged at their lack of understanding. I mean, how could they say that? Honestly, why do you have to put up with such assholes.

Just remember this bias, and remember that it’s a function of us not having evolved to communicate like this. And if you’re offended or upset or confused, never, ever email back. Pick up the phone and start your conversation with “I didn’t really understand what you meant in your email, could you explain X?”. And then listen. And you’ll usually find that it was your interpretation that was at fault. Unless you work with a lot of assholes. In which case you should leave and work somewhere better.

Email isn’t going away. New technologies get used alongside email and don’t replace it. There are lots of social collaboration platforms and they sometimes claim that they will replace email. And they do, for some stuff. And that can be useful. At F1F9 we’ve been experimenting with Jive as our in-house communication and collaboration platform. It has lots to recommend it, but so far we’ve found that it hasn’t replaced email as much as we hoped it would. Researchers at FX Palo Alto Laboratory found that:

Communication channels are not getting replaced; users are just using more of them. Our study found that users are not adopting new technologies in place of existing technologies; rather, new technologies are being used alongside older ones.

We live in hope.

Kenny Whitelaw-Jones is Managing Director at F1F9 where he sends out lots of emails about financial modelling.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Kenny Whitelaw-Jones’s story.