I’m always struck by the number of people who complain about the amount of email they receive and how much they despise their inbox—not because their complaints aren’t valid but because my own view couldn’t be more different.
I look forward to hearing your best ideas and hacks for managing email in the comments below.
1. If you want to receive less email, send less email
As ridiculously simple as it sounds for such a pervasive problem, I’ve found this to be the golden rule of email management: Send less of it.
This rule first occurred to me during my experience at a previous company where two of the people I worked most closely with ended up leaving the organization within the span of several weeks. They were both highly effective communicators, worked long hours, and as it turned out, sent a lot of email. While they were at the company, our email cadence seemed absolutely normal. It wasn’t until after they left that I realized my inbox traffic had been reduced by roughly 20-30%.
Turns out, it wasn’t just their emails that were generating all of that inbox activity—it was my responses to their emails, the responses of the people who were added to those threads, the responses of the people those people subsequently copied, and so on.
After recognizing this dynamic, I decided to conduct an experiment where I wouldn’t write an email unless absolutely necessary. End result: Materially fewer emails and a far more navigable inbox. I’ve tried to stick to the same rule ever since.
2. Mark as unread
When hovering over any individual email in your Outlook inbox, a simple right mouse click results in a series of subsequent options you can take. One of those, “Mark as Unread,” has fundamentally changed the way I work.
Having the ability to mark an email unread enables me to quickly glance through my inbox, respond to things that are most time pressing, delete the things that are irrelevant, and mark unread those items I’d like to return to once I have the time. This alleviates the pressure of feeling I have to do everything right now for fear if that one important email falls “below the fold” of my screen, it will be lost forever under the looming avalanche of prospective incoming messages. It also essentially serves as a to-do list of items to be addressed later.
I try to end each day with as few items marked unread as possible, with the goal of having none. If I’m unable to get to everything that night, I’ll start the next morning by addressing the unread emails received the prior day.
3. Establish a routine
Over the last several years, I’ve settled into a very specific daily routine during the work week: Wake between 5 am and 5:30 am; spend roughly an hour on my inbox; catch up on the day’s news; have breakfast and play with the kids; workout; go to the office; carve out roughly two hours for buffers each workday; come home; put the girls to bed; have dinner with my wife; and then decompress, typically while watching TV (sporadically cleaning up my inbox via mobile during commercials and the boring parts of whatever we’re watching.)
Turns out, my inbox is very manageable when I stick to this schedule. However, every time I’ve tried experimenting with even the slightest change to this routine, travel for more than a few days at a time, or have a particularly hectic couple of days back-to-back, it never ceases to amaze me how quickly clearing my inbox ends up feeling like this.
In this case, it’s the compounding effect that’s particularly troublesome, i.e. the rate with which unread emails from the previous day start to mount and the accompanying pressure that generates. It gets so bad for some that they actually go as far as declaring email bankruptcy.
The most compelling way I’ve found to avoid this state is creating a routine and closely sticking to it. If it worked for Benjamin Franklin, it can work for you.
4. Be precise with your words
Remember the telephone game you played in elementary school where the teacher got the class in a circle, turned to the student sitting next to them, whispered a line like “Do you want to play kickball at lunchtime?” and then asked each subsequent student to whisper what they heard to the child sitting next to them? By the time it came back around to the teacher, it would inevitably be revealed as something akin to “I want to eat a kickball for lunch.” While this was laugh out loud funny in third grade, in business it’s anything but.
Words matter. Choose them carefully in email to avoid ambiguity and misinterpretation. The more precise you are upfront, the less likely you’ll see subsequent emails generating confusion and asking follow up questions seeking additional clarity—and the more you and your team will be able to focus on the work at hand.
5. Give some thought To: the recipients
It seems like for many people, the To: and Cc: fields in email have become largely synonymous. They’re not. Use them to draw a clear distinction between who the email is being sent to and from whom you expect a response from (the To: field); and who is being copied so they have the appropriate context (Cc:).
One of the fastest ways to have an email thread blow up in terms of downstream volume is to be less than clear about who you expect to respond. Six people in the To: line will oftentimes have the unintended consequence of generating six different email responses (and up to six different new threads) when one person’s response is all you needed.
6. Acknowledge receipt
Here’s an easy one: If the email sender has taken the time to address you in the To: line (and it really was intended for you vs. what should have been a Cc:), take the time to acknowledge you received it. The response doesn’t need to be a diatribe. To the contrary, the fewer words the better, e.g. “Thanks,” “Got it,” “Makes sense,” etc. This lets the sender know you received the message, don’t need any additional information or context, and thus they can check it off their list.
If you don’t respond, they’ll have no idea whether or not they’ve been heard. Not only will this create worry about whether or not you received it, it is likely to generate another email with fundamentally the same content, but this time a number of additional people in the To: line in the hopes they’ll respond given you didn’t. The more people addressed, the more crowded your inbox is likely to become.
7. Take the combustible stuff offline
Email can be a valuable productivity tool when used properly. It can also be equally destructive when it’s not. One of the most egregious examples of the latter is using email to communicate highly nuanced, sensitive subjects that are bound to generate controversy if not a flat out aggressive response.
It never ceases to amaze me what people will convey in an email when they get triggered by something—words they would never choose to use when in the presence of the same audience. One former colleague of mine described this dynamic as “going strong to the keyboard.”
If you find yourself in the throes of what is clearly becoming an antagonistic discussion online, do yourself a favor: Stop. Then either pick up the phone or head over to the person’s office to have the discussion in person. Face-to-face interaction will reintroduce all of the important sub-text that will be completely lost in email and help prevent unnecessary arguments or douse heated flame wars before they begin.
These are some of the most valuable inbox practices I’ve learned and incorporated over the years. Anytime I veer too far from these habits, I inevitably find myself running faster and faster just to feel like I’m standing still. However, when implemented regularly, these rules have resulted in email playing an essential role in my daily work routine.