How I Handle Email (Right Now)

Missle CommandIf I allowed it to happen, I would do nothing but read and write emails all day. I have had days where this has happened. And I have had vacations days or family events where I spent all of my time reading and writing email. And, while I have improved at it, I am pretty sure that I am still fairly bad at email. I’ve tried more email apps for the phone that you could imagine. And I’ve tried every system you can think of to try to tackle email.

I took the best general idea for what to do with email in a talk by Merlin Mann in 2007 on the topic of Inbox Zero. His general idea is that your email inbox is a terrible to do list. It is a poor texting service. And if you aren’t careful, you’ll just collect emails that number in the thousands. It’s true because I have been there. If you reply to emails, then you are just going to generate more email particularly if the email exchange is with more than two people and you are trying to make arrangements for some sort of meeting or event. For Mann, the goal every day should be to reduce emails down to zero.

Opinions differ on whether you should try to respond to every email. With that said, here is an overview of my system for dealing with email. Again, I suspect I’m not good at email. But I’m trying to build a better system to handle it.

  • I batch my email with an aim to only process it at selected point of time during the day. Email is at its most evil when you see them while you are standing in line, while you are in a conversation with someone, while you are hanging out with your family, or when you are stopped at a red light. The worst is the angry email from someone that is hard to let go of. It’s best to get all emails in a batch at pre-set times per day. Right now, my service for handling all of that is Batched Inbox. Batched inbox holds your emails and delivers them all at once at times you select. If I open up any of my mail apps, I don’t see incoming emails until they all push through at once.
  • The Scheduling Can Be The Hard Part. I’ve tried every combination imaginable. I’ve tried three times a week, once an hour, twice a day and three times a day. Before I made a recent change, I had them all come in at 11 and at 4. It turns out that this these times did not work so well. 4 is when I’m thinking about winding down the day and getting some ready for when I get home. At 11, I might be engaged in a meeting or court. Then I end up trying to process to zero as quickly as possible. Also, the emails I responded to managed to yield a response or 5 before I leave the office. There’s also a flaw in Batched Inbox. All of the emails go to a folder called “BatchedInbox” that you can actually open. And when you go there and start looking, then Batched Inbox just becomes another inbox. When I respond to something twice during the work day, I sometimes get curious about what the replies might be. Then I’m sucked in.
  • The Other Trick is To Schedule Delivery. Another part of the system is to batch the outgoing emails so that they go at a time that I schedule. Boomerang does several things. But the best thing is that it allows you to schedule when you want the email to go out. Instead of pressing send, you press another button that schedules the email to go out.
  • If Something in the Email is an Action Item, Then Take it out of Email. Email is a bad inbox. It’s a poor substitute for memory. If you need to make some issue in an email into an action item, then write it down elsewhere and archive the email. If something needs to be scheduled, then put it on the calendar. Email is a terrible calendar.

With all of that said, here is what I am now doing. All emails are scheduled to come in at 3:00 a.m. Most emails that I send in response go out at 10:00 p.m. With this system, none of my outgoing emails are reaching a recipient during the work day. Which means that they cannot reply during the work day. And all of the incoming emails come in while I am asleep. There is some conventional wisdom against checking email in the morning. But I think that this wisdom can be defied if you know that this is the one time that you will process email and what you send out will not return until this time tomorrow. Also, I am not looking at it when the rest of the world is awake. Then I leave my house knowing that I don’t have to think about email until tomorrow and knowing that I have a bunch of emails cued up to launch after I’ve gone to bed tonight.

You may read this thinking that this system is rude or that I’m not being responsive. I find that quite the opposite is true. When I do process through email, I am focused on it. I am not swatting it away or playing missle command with it. And when I answer an email, I am calm. I am not being short with people because I just read an email from an angry person.

Again, I don’t think I’m good at email because I am not so sure that it’s possible to be good at it. It’s kind of a messed up thing. But I am always trying to systematize it and make that system better.

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