Email overload is a big problem these days. Additionally, email is not just communication, it also largely dictates your to-do list. Plus, the constant notifications can be a distraction. We all need a way to tame email.
Tricks to prevent an overflowing inbox are the order of the day. Who better to talk about it than a man who has been looking to tame Gmail from 2006? Andy Mitchell is the founder of ActiveInbox, an app to organize your Gmail inbox.
Email in the morning: Is it a must-do, or should you just sort it out for later? What’s the best strategy to deal with email when you wake up?
Andy: I’ve wrestled with this for years.
- If you do email first thing, you get sucked in and lose an entire morning (a bit like watching a video on YouTube then following Related ones down the rabbit hole).
- But if you postpone it, you’ll likely miss something critical, or get stuck into something else and never come back to it.
The answer is to do both! Albeit in two easy bites.
First, achieve Inbox Zero using David Allen’s approach, for each email:
- Is it junk? Delete it.
- Can you reply in 2 minutes? Then do so & delete it.
- Otherwise, action it for later. Gmail (with ActiveInbox) or Outlook will let you specify a priority status. (You might want to reply to all critical emails straight away)
Why go for Inbox Zero? In the words of Merlin Mann…
“That ‘zero?’ It’s not how many messages are in your inbox—it’s how much of your own brain is in that inbox. Especially when you don’t want it to be.”
It gives you a clean start to get on with your day.
Action Item: Pick several low energy points later in the day to get the emails done. I advocate the sleepy half hour after lunch, and just before the end of the day. Drop into your actioned emails list, and zoom through them.
Should email be something you check all the time or periodically?
Andy: I think that, if you follow the Inbox Zero approach above, you can check every hour or so to stay aware of urgent things, but defer anything that takes time into more periodic blocks.
Of course, if you work in sales or customer support you have no choice—email is your life!
How do you categorize emails between tasks, important information, and other work?
Andy: First, there’s only two big categories that matter: Is it a task, or is it reference material? Every other email simply gets deleted.
Then tasks can be grouped by status. E.g. high priority, low priority, and “Waiting For”.
The “Waiting For” list is the most powerful one, for everything that is blocked while you wait for someone else to do something. These emails are normally the ones that sink into the depths of our email client, and we completely forget to follow up.
Action Item: In Gmail, keep a label; or in Outlook keep a flag; and when you send an email that you definitely need a response to, mark it. Then once a week, you can drop into your Waiting For list and chase up everyone who hasn’t replied.
Should email be used as a to-do list?
If tasks are already coming into your inbox, what’s the alternative? You’d have to copy & paste them from your email into another system.
This is a huge source of time wasting and confusion, with tasks being duplicated in different systems. For this reason, David Allen advocates “hard edges” (an item should appear in only one list) to keep your brain uncluttered and stress free.
Of course, the main drawback with regular email clients is that they aren’t good at handling those email tasks. Hence, ActiveInbox’s original idea was that emails are tasks. There’s no separation or duplication.
Action Item: [Editor’s Note] You can turn Gmail into a Trello-like task board with Sortd, giving you the comfort of your regular inbox and adding a to-do list skin in the process.
What are some effective ways of using email to jot tasks?
Andy: If you want to add a task that didn’t start as an email, just send an email to yourself! Then you need to mark it as a task.
With ActiveInbox, you can replace the email’s subject with a task name, set a status & due date, add a checklist & notes, and make it part of a project. It turns Gmail into a full task manager.
Does our inbox as a task-list become just another system competing for attention?
Andy: It sure is a system competing for our attention, but our inbox is already doing that. So it is not another one. The fact that your inbox is a task-list already, without you particularly wanting it to be, is precisely why you should make it your central task list.
It’s always easier to swim with the current. You could try to maintain a task list elsewhere, but if the majority of your tasks are coming from email, do you want to keep fighting it, copy & pasting emails into your other task manager and shouting at colleagues who keep emailing you? Don’t fight it! Make email the core of your task list.
Is email efficiency a collaborative or individual responsibility? What is the etiquette we all should follow?
Andy: When it comes to etiquette, the answer is definitely, definitely collaborative. As with everything else in society, it’s about respecting others as much as yourself. [Editor’s note: Similarly, there are some emails guaranteed to offend, anger or annoy recipients]
Despite being seemingly polite, I think emails that just say “thanks!” or “ok!” are a total waste of time, and thus evil.
However when it comes to collaborative tools, that’s a different matter. Email is an inherently solo experience. At least to coordinate a team’s schedule, you still need your project manager, CRM and IM tool.
Action Item: I’m a fan of 3Sentences. Brevity saves everyone time—even you when you have to rescan the email in the future. Whereas waffling emails are lazy and rude.
Ask Andy Your Email-Related Questions!
Andy Mitchell will be reading the comments and will answer any questions you have about how to deal with your email. Now’s your chance to get that pesky problem solved!