How To Conquer Email With The R.A.P. Framework
I’ll never forget the day I took back control over my inbox. I don’t recall the date, but I’ll always remember the feeling. It was like switching on noise-cancelling headphones.
Liberated from the mindless base task of checking email, I was finally free to look at my schedule and ask:
What’s really important today?
What a gift for productivity. A gift I’d like to pass on to you. Today, you and I will build those noise-cancelling headphones.
Here’s why you urgently need a pair.
The Science Inside Your Inbox
Right now, 269 billion emails are sent every single day. That’s 35 emails in every human’s inbox. Except half the world isn’t even online yet, so you can double that number. Depending on how densely they arrive throughout your day, this comes down to 3–8 emails an hour.
Given it takes about 20 minutes to properly resume an interrupted task, that’s more than enough to make sure you get nothing done, not even counting all the other distractions that arrive every 3 minutes.
- You lose up to 10 IQ points when you give in to inbox checking.
- Due to constant multitasking, you never get into flow, where time passes fast, you have a handle on things and work is fun.
- You repair your mood in the short term, but suffer regret, frustration and unhappiness later, because you lose time for the important things in life that don’t have a deadline, like starting a business or finding a life partner.
Processing emails is pseudo-productive, because the barrier to entry is low, you can check lots of imaginary boxes, and dopamine frequency is high. This makes it feel like the signal, when it’s actually just noise.
To address this issue, it helps to reexamine how you see email altogether.
An efficient tool from cognitive behavior therapy is reappraisal. In essence, you change the context of an event or idea in order to alter the meaning you see behind it.
- When you interpret your friend not calling you back as them being busy instead of not liking you, you go from pessimist to optimist.
- If you tell yourself your anxiousness before giving a talk is excitement, you do better.
- Telling people climate change is a public health issue creates more awareness than dubbing it an environmental problem.
In that sense, email is only a necessary must-do, not a sufficient to-do. Here’s how I see it:
Your inbox is a crowdsourced to-do list, full of tasks created by other people.
Your inbox isn’t the stage where the music plays, it’s where the crowd hangs out, making a racket. Requests, questions, administrative tasks, very few emails force you to do important, reflective work.
So let’s turn the volume down.
Start With A Clean Slate
Right now, your inbox is a house party. You have a few unread emails, a lot you only skimmed, and some you’ve been putting off forever. This means getting to an initial inbox zero will be painful, but necessary.
Like sweeping the floor, the first time sucks, but if you do it every day after that, it’s a short, restorative experience. Instead of spending as much time in your inbox as you need to start feeling good about it, you’ll spend as little as possible and feel good afterwards.
Sticking with the theme of music, there’s no one better to learn cleaning your email closet from than one of the greatest rappers of all time: Eminem. After over 20 years in the business, he still sweeps the floor with his enemies.
The reason Em is so successful is that he takes all the verbal bullets fired at him before they’re even shot. Similarly, a 3-part RAP framework is perfect for processing your email.
The acronym stands for Reply-Acknowledge-Postpone and describes the order of options you can run through to deal with each one of your emails.
Here’s how it works:
Whatever criticism Eminem can address, he responds to, usually by finding similar flaws in his opponent. However, he never gets hung up on a single point. In the same vein, when you open an email, a great binary way of deciding whether to reply comes from David Allen’s Getting Things Done:
If it takes less than two minutes to respond, do it now.
Here’s an example from my inbox:
I was hoping to quote you on our gym Instagram page but I don't know your Instagram to tag you.
Could you let me know?
That’s a ten second answer. Even if half your emails require a response (they don’t) and they all take you a minute to answer (they don’t), that’s still only 30 minutes a day to inbox zero.
In this system, there are only two potential reasons not to reply:
- You don’t need to.
- It takes longer than two minutes.
Notice the reason why isn’t important. Maybe you have to get the information first, aren’t the right person to talk to, or it’s a long answer. It doesn’t matter which one it is, because if you don’t respond, the next step remains the same.
Even Eminem can’t refute all the criticism people throw at him, but he can acknowledge it. So when he admits he’s ‘a white bum living in a trailer with his mom,’ what he really does is take the wind out of his enemy’s sails.
For 99% of all emails, the people sending them to you deserve one thing: your respect. If you’re not going to answer, the least you can do is acknowledge their request. And if you are going to answer, just not right now, acknowleding sends a note to your subconscious. It’ll make your job easier later.
I rarely totally ignore personal or reader emails. I might postpone them, but tend to respond eventually. Therefore, most examples of emails I only acknowledge are:
- Notifications of new messages on certain platforms.
- Status updates, bills, sales and payment reports.
- Email newsletters.
- Really long emails of people rambling and it’s impossible for me to figure out if they’re asking for something important.
Here’s an example of Mailchimp notifying me about the result of an A/B test:
Your A/B Testing campaign winner has been sent.The A/B Testing campaign “Advent Calendar 2017 Announcement” is complete. The winning combination had an open rate of 8.9% and has been sent to the remaining subscribers in your list.
The only emails remaining after this step are those I can’t answer, either right now, or altogether. The latter ones I forward to whoever can answer them.
The rest I throw away like a boomerang, so they may come back later.
It takes time to come with a good answer, even for a freestyle god like Eminem, so sometimes, he chokes. That means he’s not ready. He has to retreat and think.
For a small percentage of our emails, the same is true. Here’s one of mine:
Nik,I sent you a message. I assume it got through to this email. Mainly thanking you first. Secondly, how to organize all of the articles and book summaries so I can efficiently share them with prospects and clients. I need a way to have my top thoughts on major subjects. Often, they weave together. Anyways, I would appreciate any help. All the best,
The answer to this email took me about 10 minutes to write, so initially, I postponed it. The tool I use is called Boomerang, an extension for Gmail. It allows you to float an email back to the top of your inbox later.
You can also use it to schedule emails, track opens and clicks and it even has an AI to judge the likelihood of getting a response. However, the most important part in postponing emails is deciding when you’ll deal with them.
For everything you postpone, choose a fixed time when you’ll answer all remaining emails, say each Friday, 2 PM after lunch.
The RAP framework allows you to deal with emails quickly, but if you use it all day, you haven’t gained a thing. Therefore, without what comes next, your initial achievement of inbox zero is useless.
The Key To Great Inbox Management
Eminem’s rap framework is genius, but what turns it from good to great is only partially in his control: the environment. Marshall raps very differently on SNL than he does at a concert or in a music video. So beyond how you process email, when and where also matters.
If you work in an environment with unrestricted email access, you’ll access it unrestrictedly. Therefore, I suggest going into your inbox just once a day. You can also use Boomerang to do this, which adds a blue ‘Pause’ button to Gmail.
You can even set an autoresponder, make exceptions for certain addresses or move your emails in on a schedule, say three times a day, if you need to. Alternative tools with more features are Inbox When Ready and Freedom.
Next, disable all email notifications on your phone and set the fetching mechanism to run only manually. Move the app away from your home screen on to the second or third page and into a nested folder. Nir Eyal calls this burying the triggers. Remove what prompts you to check and make it harder to do so.
Lastly, set a daily appointment with your inbox. I go in at 11 AM at the earliest, when I could process email and then go to lunch, and usually check at 1 PM at the latest, which is after lunch when I’m a bit slower anyway.
Your inbox management is only as good as the structure in which you practice it. This one works for me and I encourage you to tweak it and make your own.
However, noise-cancelling headphones only work when their battery is charged and sometimes, you just run out.
The Perfect System Does Not Exist
Do I stick to this system all the time? No. Often, I let my reader emails accumulate for too long and have to do them in bigger batches. Sometimes, I check my email multiple times a day, when I’m waiting for urgent replies.
The point of this system, any system, is not to obsess over how well-oiled each cog in the machine is, but to eliminate a good chunk of the chaotic alternative.
Build a foundation, have a process, stick to it as best as you can.
As long as you slowly gain more time, more control over your inbox, it doesn’t matter if you slip sometimes. The two of you will keep clashing, but you’ll win more battles.
There, Eminem would be proud. A brand new, shiny pair of noise-cancelling headphones. You’ve earned them.
Now switch ’em on. You’ve got work to do.