How I do email
It’s not information overload, it’s filter failure. — Clay Shirky
Nobody tells you how to handle email in a large modern organization. You learn through pain, osmosis and experimentation and end up with your own unique snowflake of subscriptions, filters and settings. Picking an email platform and setup is like voting—there’s no candidate or party that exactly matches your views, but you just pick the one that least offends your humanity and decency.
Working on the assumption that what I’ve ended up with might be useful to others, here’s how I do email. I’m only dealing with incoming messages here. There are many other fine articles on the web delving into the art of crafting an elegant, effective electronic message. Also, this is for work email. Personal email is much easier.
First of all, don’t even call all your email “email.” The term has hidden connotations and expectations of responsivity. The truth is that only a tiny fraction of the messages in your inbox are “email” in the traditional (1990s) sense.
The golden rule
Before we get to nuts and bolts we have to lay down the overarching principle. And that is: your inbox and how you deal with it must reflect your professional goals and priorities. Which is to say that you have to categorize your email by where it falls in your professional pecking order. Usually, it goes something like this, from most important to least:
- messages where I am explicitly on the “To:” line. This means it impacts my day-to-day work, helps me make progress on what I’m doing right now, or I’m expected to respond in some way. The response could be simply chiming in with an opinion that others will take into consideration, or a straight answer to a straight question, a clear decision, or… something else. If it’s something else, then email might help you get to the bottom of it, but you will usually need something stronger, like IM, video chat, or even a face-to-face to truly resolve it.
- messages to my team’s mailing list. The hub of most modern teams’ day-to-day heartbeat is their mailing list. I’m not going to be explicitly on the “To:” line here, but the expectation is that every team member peruses this at least a couple of times a day to stay abreast of what’s going on in their immediate professional environment. Is the build broken? Did someone send out a new design for review? Look at this massive change coming down the pipe!
- messages to the mailing lists of teams that my team interacts with. These might be teams whose work you build upon, or those who build on yours, company-wide infrastructure, ops etc. Occasional perusal (a couple of times a week) is all you need here.
- everything else. This is just organizational atmosphere. Usually not even technical. And if something really big happens, you’ll probably hear about it before reading the email.
Rules of the road
There are a couple of other ground rules if you are to stay sane while dealing with the hose of modern email:
- email is a terrible place for a todo list. I really don’t get how one can tack on GTD to email. An email is not actionable. Once you read it and understand it, you might end up with a clear action, but your inbox is not the place to shove it.
- email is not the place where other people get to create work for you to do. I suspect this is the primary reason everyone is so stressed out by email. If every message is a chunk of work falling on you, no wonder it drives you mad. It took me a long time to realize this. The work you are supposed to do is discussed, clarified and assigned via other channels, usually chats with your manager. Email is for carrying out those predetermined responsibilities. Random people do not get to put tasks on your todo-list by simply sending you an email. You must hold a steady stance with this. If they do, you have to push back, politely, and clarify the situation through other channels. (I suppose an exception is if you are in some sort of customer-support/CRM role.)
I use GMail, so everything below is going to be in terms of that. It’s pretty simple really. I have filters for each of the organizational circles described above. It’s important to be fluent with GMail’s handy keyboard shortcuts so that you can switch between views quickly.
For example, everything to “firstname.lastname@example.org” gets labeled “myteam”. I can quickly switch to that view by pressing “gl” followed by the first few letters of “myteam.”
The unread counts mean nothing to me. Everything is a stream. Some messages go by unread because I get what I need from the subject line. The only exception is below.
The view I use for the innermost circle (i.e. messages explicitly to me) is the one where I spend the majority of my inbox time. The filter is use for that is “to:me is:unread newer_than:7d”, which gives me all messages explicitly to me sent in the last week that are unread. If I want blinders to just zoom in, I can drill down to just “newer_than:1d” for just today’s messages. Or I can use a larger number of days to zoom out.
Go do email. Don’t stress.