How I Handle Email

I do my best to spend the least time possible in my email app. However, on a good day, I receive around 150 messages and send somewhere between 40 and 80. While I’m sure some people handle much more traffic, I think my numbers are still ridiculously high. Note that I’m actually processing that email mentally and getting to “inbox zero” most days. I also unsubscribe from pretty much every newsletter as soon as I can.

I’ve been using email as my main method of Internet communication since 1998. Usenet and IRC came and went, but email has always been around. I’ve tested dozens upon dozens of email clients and other apps (called “programs” back then) to ease the pain of the traffic. But it turned out — as with many other things we geeks deal with — that software is only a part (and an amazingly small one at that) of the solution.

I’m sure there are hundreds of posts all over the Internet on how to process email efficiently: “5 Ways of Writing Productive Emails,” “7 Amazing Tricks for Your Inbox,” and so forth. What’s much more important than a perfect setup of your Gmail, Thunderbird or is the way you approach the everyday flurry of messages. Over the years I’ve developed a couple of tactics that stuck and saved me from email insanity. I wanted to share them here, as I see more and more people doing all they can not to drown. I hope that I can help some of them to crawl back to shore.

What Email Is and What It’s Not

We have a great number of ways to communicate at our disposal. We can arrange an in-person meeting, have a spontaneous chit-chat in the hallway, call somebody on the phone, text them, email them, or send a message on Facebook or Twitter. Each of these methods is slightly different in terms of when, how and with whom you’d use it.

So what sets email apart? Contrary to popular belief, email is NOT instant.

We now live in the age of instant everything. The time it takes for your Facebook message or text to reach the other side is measured in milliseconds. You press Enter and await your answer, because you know (or expect) the other side to be looking at their phone at the same time. If not, they will be a couple of seconds from now, after they hear the beep and pull it out of their pocket.

This feeling of urgency is probably the single biggest reason why email makes us feel like slaves. The moment we give in to this sense of immediacy, we give up our freedom and agree to be ruled by the constant influx of email. Worse yet, we are overcome with anxiety about messages that might not even have arrived.

We need to free ourselves from this notion of email being an instant medium of communication. It’s not. While it may be possible for your message to reach the other person just as quickly as your text, you shouldn’t assume that it does. Separate email from its technical aspect (that little “e” in front), and it’s just MAIL. Remember? The postal carrier brings it to your mailbox, but you’re not waiting on the couch all day for him or her to arrive so you can sprint out immediately when it comes in. Furthermore, you probably take a breather before taking a clean sheet of paper and a pen to write an answer.

While I hate email because of the sheer number of messages I get every day, I like it at the same time — because I’M in control, not the other party. It’s ME who decides when I’m going to click the Get New Mail button, and no one can expect me to do it every five minutes all day. We’d be doing nothing but refreshing our mailboxes if that were the general expectation.

I think everybody should calm down a little bit about email, because it’s inherently limited in its level of urgency. I’ve never heard of anyone emailing 911 because of a heart attack or a robbery and then clicking Get New Mail furiously to find out if help is coming. Yet somehow, a lot of people are very anxious about not getting an answer within minutes of sending their stuff.

This works the other way around, too. I hear of people getting mad at those who send them emails in the middle of the night or work-related stuff over the weekend. So what? If I happen to be working at 3 a.m. (or simply in a different timezone) and send a message requiring someone’s attention, it’s because I am working, not because I expect THEM to respond as soon as possible.

Fortunately our phones still have the ability to initiate a phone call or send a text message, and if something is really urgent, we can use them. But even then, we should make sure to ask the person on the other side if that’s a good time for them to talk (with the exception of the 911 operator). If you think about it, there’s a reason we don’t do that in email.

My Email Setup

So even though I do my best to answer every email within 24 to 48 hours (and I usually do so much more quickly), I have turned off auto-downloading of new messages on all my devices. I actually only start up my email program when I know I have time to spend on replies. Even if a new message comes in, it rarely (as in “never”) does so when I have nothing better to do than answer it immediately.

That being said, I try as much as possible to avoid even looking at my email when it’s not the time to answer it. What I do is this:

  1. I have a separate “vacation” email address that I use when I’m not working. I’m on vacation at the moment, so I’ve set up a different Gmail account that nobody knows about. I use it for things related to travel, like booking tickets, hotels and such. Since nobody knows about this address, I’m safe from the usual grind here. Also, I use a different email app, so I didn’t have to alter my standard setup; I just dragged new the icon to the place where I normally have Mail.
  2. I bury the Mail icon on my phone in my Not Used folder for weekends and some evenings, so I don’t get pulled into it “accidentally.” Out of sight, out of mind.
  3. Sometimes, when I’m working, I need my Mail application to send email or search for something, but that doesn’t mean I want to read any incoming messages. For that purpose I have set up a smart mailbox called “EMPTY” on my Mac, which is always … empty. I open it every time I don’t want to look at my inbox, to avoid jumping right into answering mode or getting stressed about something I took a glimpse of there. So I start Mail, switch to “EMPTY” with Alt-1 immediately, and keep doing what I was about to do instead of spending 45 minutes answering things like Pavlov’s damned dog.

Smart mailboxes are really neat, especially if you put them on your toolbar. I see them as saved searches or a set of filters I can apply to my email, so I see only what I want with a single keystroke (or mouse click). Here’s what I have on my toolbar:

  1. EMPTY: Explained above already.
  2. Inbox: Just a classic inbox. Please keep in mind, however, that it’s an “inbox zero” going on here. More on that later.
  3. EXTERNAL: Another smart mailbox. It shows only emails in my inbox, coming from outside the domain. Everyone in the company has my phone number and can reach out to me on Slack, etc. If anything blows up and I’m slow to respond, they know where to find me. It’s different with people outside, whom I want to get back to first for a number of reasons related to what I do.
  4. Today: Today’s stuff. All the messages that arrived today and are sitting in the inbox. It’s useful when I want a quick look at what happened recently and if there’s anything super-important for me to take care of instead of just going through “YESTERDAY.”
  5. YESTERDAY: All mail from yesterday and before. This is where the action happens when I’m busy. My goal isn’t to respond immediately to each and every email, but rather to reply in roughly 24 to 48 hours and not get stressed about it. I’ve learned this technique from Tony Hsieh’s “yesterbox” approach to email. I hate to go through my inbox only to realize that for every two emails I’ve processed, five new ones have just arrived. So the key benefit of having a YESTERDAY smart mailbox is that this list of messages never grows, and you can actually get to the bottom of it. Instead of losing your mind while the list grows, you actually get a sense of progress from its getting shorter and shorter.

Going Through Messages

When I get down to email, I start with “EXTERNAL” first, scanning it for urgent messages that I WANT to reply quickly to. Then I move to “YESTERDAY” as soon as possible and work my way from the oldest messages to the most recent ones. I sometimes delete newsletters and other spam while I’m at it (after all, it takes only one press of a button) before reading the rest. In general, one of four things happen to each email I receive:

  1. It gets deleted (spam).
  2. I forward it to the right person (often with the sender in Cc: so they know who to contact from then on).
  3. I respond. On average, if a message takes just a minute or two to answer, I do it right away. If it seems like writing a reply will take any longer, I tend to file it first.
  4. It gets filed. I make an entry in my task management system of choice, either manually or by forwarding an email to it for future processing. If I know someone expects an answer sooner than I can do it, I simply let them know that I will get back to them a bit later.

After one of the above happens, I archive the message (unless it was deleted already), so it disappears from my inbox.

I consider it a success to go through everything in “YESTERDAY” and empty it, and I can happily continue my day without worrying about what happens with my inbox today. I will go through that tomorrow, and if anything urgent happens, someone will let me know for sure by means other than email.

Amazingly enough, it turns out that all oh-so-urgent things are rarely so urgent that they can’t wait until tomorrow. My system for handling email might not guarantee a same-day response, but at the same time, I’m pretty sure to respond to every email the next day. I bet with no system in place, that time would be much more likely measured in weeks in some cases.