4 Feb 2008

[productivity] dread of email

Submitted by matthias

I switched jobs about 6 months ago. At my old job (really at every job I've ever had) email was one of the primary modes of communication. However at this last job, my email got out of hand. It got to the point where I was spending 1-2 hours each day trying to keep my inbox volume below 2000 messages. Even worse, I would keep browsing and searching through this volume trying to eliminate things to ease the notion that I was maybe missing something.

When I had decided to leave that job, emptying my inbox become much easier. Undone things were forwarded, others were deleted and things I'd left in my inbox for follow-up reasons or out of interest just became less of a weight on my mind. It was a profound sense of liberation.

Fast forward about 2 months. At the new job, my inbox started with a single 'welcome' email and was quite empty for a while. Then it started growing. All of a sudden i was back at pushing over 100 emails and I already was dreading the volume. Clearly not what I wanted.

About the same time I came across the audio version of a google tech talk by Merlin Mann of 37folders entitled Inbox Zero. That talk basically boils down to this: There is only a finite number of things to do with any given email, so do it. He even identifies the things that can be done with email:

  1. delete / archiving - (archive if you’ll need it later). Archive is one folder.
  2. delegate - Convert into actions
  3. respond - “Learning to blow out a two line reply is such a ninja move”
  4. defer - To respond folder, which is then whittled down. The inbox should be for stuff you have not read yet.
  5. do - put meetings into your calender, don't keep things in your inbox, but them in a todo list

So, I've been following those. I try to only check email, when I can actually handle the stuff that might be there. A couple of them I have adapted. For example the single archive folder I don't like. I group my YYYY-MM. That has worked well so far and since I can still search recursively it's not hard to find things. I also sometimes leave an email in my inbox for a short period as a reminder. To me adding a todo item that tells me to remember something seems like an unnecessary extra step. With that said, I exercise a lot of restraint in not just leaving a bunch of stuff. I keep things I expect to hear back on within a short period, perhaps a couple of days. Any longer and I do convert it to a todo item ....

I'll have to keep this up a little longer to decide how well this will work for me, but so far (it's been about a month), it's been amazing and my head has been feeling far less cluttered than during the days of the 2000 message email bulge battle.

Oh, and I try hard to apply the same principle to my personal email as well.