Email in 4 Principles and 28 (Mostly) Small Moves

A new colleague asked me a simple question recently: do you have any advice about how to keep up with all the email around here? I’ve answered this question several times before, in a variety of contexts and ways, so I figured I would write down my current best answers in an easily shareable format.

To check, refine, and extend my thinking, I consulted Reshan Richards and Eric Hudson, getting the Small Online Kindness band back together for a quick reunion tour. The results are below, attributable to all three of us.


4 Principles

  1. As with many ill posed problems, email requires a current, best strategy. Strategies may vary from user to user, but what’s important is to actually have a plan so as to avoid becoming part of someone else’s. Have a consistent set of moves that you run through every time you open your inbox.  Too many people open their email mindlessly, just diving into the fray. Often they open it when they have some time to kill . . . or because they don’t know exactly what they should do next in their day . . . or because they’re looking for some quick energy. None of these approaches make you a bad employee or person. But they are the email equivalent of clicking on Netflix when you don’t know what you want to watch. Thirty minutes later, you might still be scrolling. Sixty minutes later, you might wonder why you’re watching a show about sharks or barbecue grills. (TL/DR: Have an email strategy that allows you to open your email, each time, with an intended outcome.)  
  2. When you’re actually in your inbox, be willing to spend time in order to save time. Fire off an angry email and you’ll probably have a multi-email (and possibly multi-meeting) mess to clean up. Allow newsletter subscriptions to multiply weekly or daily in your inbox without pruning, and you’ll soon have difficulty separating email signal from email noise. Fall into the habit of reading emails without acting on them in some way and your inbox will become dangerous rapids rather than a gentle gurgling brook. (For more on this topic, see this RW non-classic.)
  3. Try to be as cool as Cal. (Cal Newport, that is.) His writing is calm, clean, thoughtful, and practical — possibly because he actually sticks to his own sane and sound rules. Here’s one of our favorites: the fixed schedule. Put your email addiction on one.
  4. Get the tech all the way right — it’s worth the up front investment of time to set up a messaging app, other than email, that centralizes internal communication and an appointment or calendar app that reduces the need to email about logistics.

28 (Mostly) Small Moves

  1. Set aside a short though sacred block of time (~30 minutes) each morning and use it to clear your inbox.
  2. If you can’t address something in email quickly at the start of your work day, leave it in your inbox but carve out the time — on your calendar — to give it attention at some other point. If you don’t carve out the time, then you won’t ultimately eliminate the email (or the thing that caused it in the first place).
  3. If a message doesn’t require a response, and you’re not postponing it to later, read it, acknowledge it (preferably not by replying all), and then archive it.
  4. If you read a message and know you will never need to recall or call up any of the information in it, trash it.
  5. If you don’t think you’ll be able to give an email attention in 24 hours (or it doesn’t need to be within 24 hours), send a note to the sender with acknowledgment of receipt and an ETA for a response.
  6. If you’re in a rush during your first email session of the day, scan your inbox and snooze as many messages as possible, with one caveat: don’t snooze recklessly. Snooze to the precise day and time when you will be in a position to respond to an email or when you will need the email. (For example, if someone sends you a meeting agenda for a meeting that will happen in 14 days, you might snooze the email until 12 or 13 days so that you can review it at a time when you will want the information to be fresh in your mind.)
  7. If someone emails you to set up a meeting, send them your appointment or Calendly link. (This assumes that you / your organization followed Principle # 4 above.)
  8. If someone emails you internally, Slack them back to try and kill the email back and forth. (This assumes that you / your organization followed Principle # 4 above.)
  9. When possible, find people in-person to close a loop (harder these days), set up a quick call, or do a video call through Slack.
  10. Monitor redundancy in emails and seek more communal communication to address FAQ’s. How might a listserv or Google group or other online forum create a shared thread where responses can be crowdsourced?
  11. Archive emails that you might need again, especially if you use an email application that has a good search feature.
  12. During off hours and on the weekends, remain email aware (this is mainly advice for senior leaders), but have a plan for which emails would merit a response (hopefully just a few) and which would not (hopefully most). You can get back to it during the work week. Also, the more you email colleagues over the weekend, the more you normalize such behavior.
  13. If you feel you must email over the weekend, and if it’s not an emergency, schedule the message to go out on Monday or Tuesday so that you don’t set off an email back and forth over the weekend. (Plus, emailing on the weekend is a good way to ruin someone’s weekend, depending on the content of your message.)
  14. Before you trash an email, consider how it arrived in your inbox.  If it arrived by subscription, take the extra time to consider unsubscribing from that subscription.  If, on the other hand, someone is emailing you without implied permission, ask them to stop or tell them that you prefer that they email you on another account. Then, give them another email address that you check less frequently.
  15. Know if you can trust the search feature in your email application.  If you can, then by all means, use it to relax your approach to email.  Read and respond or just read, then archive and search as needed. 
  16. Send short, “I’ll reply by this date” emails to buy yourself some time and also reduce the need for others to send you another email to follow-up on a previous email.
  17. Use the timed send feature (available in some email programs) to space out certain email conversations. If you bounce an email back right away, you may receive more emails. If you send back an email in a few hours or a day or two, you will allow a situation to breath and possibly resolve itself. (We sometimes wonder — what would happen to the volume of email in the world if every email was sent on a 12 or 24-hour time delay?)
  18. Don’t be the bottleneck. This tip flies in the face of the advice offered in # 17 (or, rather, suggests that you apply that advice with discretion). If you’re sitting on emails that are holding up projects of people, then you need to get out of the way by answering the emails.
  19. Remember that every email response shapes the temporal expectation between two people. If you email right away a few times, any deviation from that will be noted. If you take weeks to respond, people may question your commitment to them or to a project. In the domain of email communication, build a reputation that is not impossible to maintain and yet reflects the level of respect you intend to convey in other areas of your daily life.
  20. Use Gmail categories.
  21. Write boilerplate responses and save them in your draft folders or in a text file. When appropriate, copy and paste them into a new email and edit lightly before sending.
  22. Move people to bcc when possible. It’s a fan favorite for a reason, and it also reduces additional email clutter.
  23. Ask to be removed from threads that no longer require or need your input.
  24. Craft response-proof emails. This style of emailing is worth the extra time — up front — to prevent ongoing back and forth.
  25. If an email is a request of you, try to nail down that transaction in one exchange.
  26. Aim for inbox zero every day, but allow yourself the leeway to hit this target by the end of every week. We know that’s a laughable goal for many people, but we have found that the effort to stay in really good email shape each week pays off in a more relaxing weekend and lower stress overall.
  27. If you answer the same question again and again via email, write a blog post/doc and share the link/doc the next time someone asks.
  28. And remember the email tortoise, who won the race the way all tortoises do.

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