Rajesh Kumar

Optimizing life, one day after the next

Managing Email

01 Jul 2009

I'm no email guru, but after having used email pretty extensively for the last 2 years, I've gleaned some nice tidbits I'd like to share. Some of these may already be obvious to you, but some may not. A lot of these tips are only useful if you receive a large quantity of non-spam email per day, i.e. over 100.

  1. Type fast: This may sound profoundly silly, but this one technique will shave off a ton of time. It also makes it more likely that you'll compose your reply as soon as you see an email. If necessary, leave out salutations and closings. They don't really add much in the way of formality these days.

  2. Don't do drafts: Only save drafts as a safety mechanism against crashes and if you're going to be leaving your desk soon. Try not to compose an email over several hours. It's an email. It doesn't have to be perfect.

  3. Spell check: Spell check your email only at the end, and not as you're composing your reply.

  4. Batch process email: Instead of checking email every half-an-hour or every hour, check email twice a day. Batching really speeds up the process thanks to economies of scale.

  5. Process continuously: The only reason you shouldn't be batching is if you check and respond to email as they come in, i.e. in real time. This is the system I have adopted. This will require you to keep your email client open all the time and let the client notify you of new email without you having to check every few minutes. This is a very powerful technique which will allow you to respond to your friends within minutes, if not seconds.

  6. Play music: Play some fast music in the background whenever you're processing your email. This is especially important if you're batching.

  7. Master keyboard shortcuts: This goes without saying. If you receive even 50 non-spam emails a day, there is lots to be gained by mastering all the keyboard shortcuts your mail client provides.

  8. Use filters and labels abundantly: But not too abundantly that you're spending more time managing and organizing email than actually reading and responding to them.

  9. Have next actions: Figure out the next action for each email as soon as you're done reading it. If you postpone it, you'll be hung in that state forever. And before you know it, you'll be overwhelmed with the 100+ emails crashing your inbox every day. Take charge. Be in control.

  10. Keep email unread: As a corollary, you should keep your email unread until the next action has been taken. An email does not count as "processed" unless the next action has been successfully executed. You don't have to wait to let David Allen tell you this. It's obvious. And you can and should set up a "saved search" that will show you only your unread email at any time.

  11. Use good clients: Use proven mail clients like thunderbird and gmail for high-volume email. And use clients that have sensible keyboard shortcuts. I've been using Thunderbird for about 7 years now and gmail for about 5 years, and they're both really good if you receive more than 50 emails a day. I currently use a hybird gmail+thunderbird solution which may not work for everyone, but it is working wonders for me.

  12. Prioritize: If you don't process email in real time, process email that comes to you directly (») before email that comes to you through a mailing list or through a Cc/Bcc (>).

  13. Triage ruthlessly: You don't have to read all your email. Sometimes just reading the subject will be enough. Sometimes the subject itself will be the email. And don't feel you have to respond to all email. Most of my email are simply notifications or FYIs. Be smart about which email you choose to read and which you choose to leave out till the weekend when you may have more free time.

  14. Mute emails: As a corollary, if you're no longer interested in a thread, mute it. Gmail has built-in support for muting. Just hit 'm'.

  15. Eliminate spam: Gmail has a pretty good probabilistic spam filter. There's simply no reason to deal with more than a few spam emails everyday these days.

Email, or something that very closely resembles email, is here to stay for at least a few more years. So might as well get good at it now.

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