Recently, a friend asked: “How do you deal with email? I get more than I can handle. Maybe I don’t invest enough time, focus or attention?”
First of all, I don’t have a final solution. It’s a work in progress, as for most of you.
Let’s use the principle of Inversion.
How can we make our email problem worse? We can subscribe to a ton of stuff. We can CC everybody by default. We can write a lot of emails. We can be unclear in our writing.
To improve our email problem, we can simply avoid these things.
How about applying The Regret Minimization Framework?
When you’re 80, will you wish that you’ve spend more time in your inbox? Will you regret responding a few days later? Will you regret having done creative work, instead of being on the email treadmill?
So is the email problem a real problem, or are we making it so? Remember, there are still plenty of people that don’t even use email. They live well. They are successful. They are happy.
Here is what I know: I prefer deep work. I prefer having control over my day. I prefer choosing where I spend my limited attention.
So, I’m learning to be ok with having a messy inbox. I currently have 81 pending emails. Sometimes I take a month to respond.
Here is what I do:
- Every morning, I start with a blank piece of paper, and write down my most important tasks of the day.
- Sometimes, one of these tasks is answering an email. Most days, it’s not.
- I work on my tasks, starting with the most important or most tedious.
- Once my high-quality attention/energy is depleted, I open my inbox and try to clear it as well as possible.
- I’m a power-user of the unsubscribe and filter functions. Unwanted emails I can’t unsubscribe I create a filter for.
- Some emails I simply ignore and archive. The more emails you write, the more you get back. Choose wisely.
- I use “If… else” statements whenever possible to avoid back and forths: “If option A doesn’t work, try B or C.”
- I buried the email app on my phone deep into a folder. Out of sight, out of mind. (In the last 7 days, I’ve spent 2h 25m in the email app. Still too much and I’m working to reduce it even further.)
- When I’m drowning in email, I have to triage and cherry-pick the ones I need to do first. I don’t like the psychology of it. It feels messy.
- I prefer the FIFO method: first in, first out. That means starting from the last one, and plowing through one by one. You start in the basement, and work yourself up. It’s satisfying and clean.
- I use a “@WAITING-FOR” tag for emails where a follow-up might be needed or where I’m waiting for a shipment. This works beautifully and I rarely drop a ball. I review my Waiting-For’s every few days.
Another solution is to hire a (remote) assistant. Someone you trust. Someone who understands you. Once well trained, this could alleviate a lot of email pain. This assistant could also help you with purchases, travel planning and similar tasks. Hiring an assistant has been on my mind ever since reading the The 4-Hour Workweek. I’ve not done it yet, but I’m starting to think about it more seriously.
How to you solve the email problem? Let me know on Twitter.