March 14, 2021

Never Ending Email

I don’t like to spend a ton of time in my email inbox. I don’t keep email open all day long. I turned off mail notifications years ago.

Email is clearly a valuable business communication tool, but it also distracting. I have been trying to strike the perfect balance between quickly acting on what is important while not getting lost in the sea of messages for years. I have failed. I am willing to admit that I am “bad at email”.

What does it even mean to be “bad at email”? A better term might be inefficient. I felt like I was spending a lot of time dealing with email, but I still felt unorganized and behind.

I would commonly leave things unread in my inbox and allow things to stack up. I found myself skimming through a huge list of unread email to make sure there wasn’t anything critical there while keeping a ton of emails that I just needed to come back and read later sitting there to distract me another day.

There is this term “inbox zero” out there that was coined years ago by Merlin Mann. People commonly think that literally means a state with zero messages in your inbox. I think that is wrong. I was achieving that from time-to-time after much effort, but it could only ever last for a few minutes. Email was always coming, now matter how much I tried to keep it at bay.

Over the last couple of weeks I have tried to get a point where I am spending as little time in my inbox as possible, but I am able to process through all of my messages and get caught up. This is a process commonly known as triaging your inbox. This is a simple concept, but thus far it has proved extremely valuable to me.

Checking Email

I have split apart the concepts of checking email and actually dealing with email. Checking email is quickly processing through my inbox and making decisions about each message. There can be 1 of 4 actions…

  1. Delete/Archive - I’m not going to differentiate these 2. Both of them result in an email disappearing directly from the inbox likely to never be seen again. I will delete if I know it is worthless. I will archive if there is a chance I might need to refer back to it again.
  2. Action - I have a folder that I call “Action”. I will move an email here if I need to respond to that email, or it contains a task that I need to complete. I will not do anything with it at that moment other than file it into my action folder to be dealt with later. Even if I think I might need to respond I will throw it into my action folder. If it turns out I don’t… great.
  3. Waiting - This is another folder that I use for items that don’t require me to do anything right now, but they are of interest to me and I want to make sure and follow up with them later if nothing else happens in the thread. I have considered calling this folder “Attention” because they are items that I want to pay attention to.
  4. Reference - There are items that I need to read later and want to make sure and keep them around. Again, I won’t read the message while I am merely processing through my inbox. I will keep it unread and move it to my reference folder.

Dealing With Email

I typically get over 100 emails a day. I pop into my inbox 3–4 times a day and try to weed through my list of unread as quickly as possible. I will take one of those 4 actions until my inbox is clear, then I will get out of email again.

Dealing with email is something I strive to do 2–3 times per day. I try to keep this as short as possible, but I still end up allocating around 30 minutes per day at a bare minimum. Sometimes it end up being much longer than that.

I will open my Action folder and respond to messages in the order I have received them. Once I have responded I will archive the message so it is no longer visible in my action folder.

I will look at the waiting folder and reference how long messages have been sitting here. If a thread has gone quiet for a period of time I may send a message asking for an update.

I will read through a few of the emails in my reference folder and decide what needs to happen to them. Typically I will archive them from that folder so I can search for and reference them if something comes up.


Thus far I am spending more time in email than I was before. However, it feels more focused. I have a system that will keep me from missing important emails. It is embarrassing how simple it is. I feel like I have tried systems like this before, but for some reason they didn’t stick. Hopefully this time I have found something sustainable.

I am two weeks into my experiment at this point and I feel like my email is staying under control. We will see what happens if things get extremely busy and I fall behind. I am going to do my best to allocate a little extra time each day to email so that doesn’t happen.

Filed Under: ,