How to stay on top of email?


6 min read

A lot of people hate email. Email is capable of giving a negative placebo effect on productivity. You'll feel productive by checking email without actually doing any productive work. It is not uncommon to see people with an unread email count of 1000+. I was in a similar place. I missed a few important emails and started focusing on managing email better.

Three years ago, I read about Inbox Zero and it inspired me. I spent around a month to clean up all my emails and started inbox zero. That effort paid out really well in the upcoming years.

How Inbox Zero can help you?

  • It makes it easier to deal with emails as they arrive.
  • Your save energy and time because there is no clutter.
  • You'll never miss or reply late for an important email.
  • You can quickly spot and stop unwanted emails.

Why this is important?

If you start your day by checking email with 300 unread messages, you have to go through all of them. It will take considerable time and mental energy from you. Our mental energy is a scarce resource. It is better to spend it on something important.

Inbox zero in practice

I started following Inbox Zero from 2017, back when I was a Junior developer. As my career progress, I started dealing with a lot more emails at both work and personal accounts. But now I'm spending less time and energy on email than I used to.

I receive around 40 to 60 emails at work every day. I spend 20 to 30 minutes per day on them. On personal email, I get 10-20 and I'm not even opening that every day. I'm spending around 30-45 minutes per week on personal email. I am using toggl app to measure how I spend my time, you can't improrve things you don't measure.

Let's discuss my method of working with emails. I follow a strategy I call DDA - Do/Delegate/Archive. It is a simple decision framework that helps to triage the emails in my inbox.

  • For things you can do, add it to your todo, and archive that email.
  • If an email needs some work to reply, add it as a task in your list and snooze that mail.
  • For things you can't or shouldn't do, delegate them and archive that email.

This initial stage of triaging emails is important. It reduces the unimportant ones and you can focus on the important ones later. Some things that you should

  • Once you read an email archive it. This keeps the inbox clean.
  • Your inbox is not your todo list, don't treat it like one. Move action items you get in the email to your todo app or project management tool.
  • For some mails, you can't decide the action immediatley. If your email client supports, snooze that email to a later part of the day and decide about it later.

How to get started with Inbox Zero?

Recently I discussed with someone in Twitter about inbox zero. Their problem is there are already thousands of unread emails in their account. They don't know how to clear the clutter. I was in the same place and I can tell you how I did it.

Step 1: Check the first two pageo of your inbox and identify a repeated sender.

Step 2: Search by their email address and find all emails from them.

Step 3: Glance over the subject or open a few emails to see what their emails or about.

Step 4: If those emails are not important, fix the source. If possible, unsubscribe, or turn off the notifications from the service.

Step 5: Any automated email without the option to stop them is SPAM. If there is no unsubscribe option, report it as spam.

Step 6: After dealing with the source, Select all mails from them and archive.

Step 5: Repeat for each sender that sent more than a few emails.

Now you reduced your messages count to a manageable level. For the rest of the emails, you can start archiving them based on their subject line. You can also glance over the content and decide. If you're afraid of missing an important email, you can do this in a slower phase. It is not helpful either if you have 10K emails and can't find the important ones.

Once you're done with the unread mails, archive all the read emails in your inbox. The inbox zero wants you to keep your inbox with 0 mails. Make it a habit of archiving an email once you read them.

After you got a clean inbox, you have to start an email diet. Be mindful of where you're giving your email. If you receive an email from a new sender and you don't want, deal with it. Remember to fix the source as well. Don't give your email address in every form you encounter on the web. Use a disposable email service for non-sensitive forms and services.

Mindful email

What's next? You need to adjust a few habits around email.

  • Don't start your day by checking email, unless your work depends on it. You should be doing your most important task as the first thing of the day.
  • Don't use the Tabbed interface in Gmail. The one place the corporations don't meddle with their prioritizing algorithms is email. Let's keep it that way. If you use tabs, you'll only deal with the primary and the other tabs will accumulate over time.
  • Email is an asynchronous mode of communication. People who email you are not (should not) expecting you to reply immediately.
  • Don't treat email as instant messaging. you don't have to deal with all messages you get immediately. They can wait a for hours or even days.
  • Start scheduling your email reading and reply time. Once every morning after your first task and before closing for the day should be enough.
  • If needed, You can increase the frequency to 3,4 times per day. The important thing is to schedule the email times and sticking to it.
  • Don't keep checking your email and don't keep it open. Close the tab or your mail client after your scheduled time.
  • Remove the email app from your phone or turn notifications for them. The notifications are evil, they create FOMO and will warrant your immediate action. Take control, get rid of notifications.
  • Learn keyboard shortcuts for your email client. This will save you a lot of time in the long run.
  • If you must use email on your phone, select a good email client. I recommend Spark, I used a lot of clients and this one is really good.

Thanks for reading this far, I shared what I am doing now and I understand this may not work for everyone. These ideas are gathered from my reading and trial and error with emails. I am curating what I learned over the years and I don't recall a lot of sources. If you have a different method of dealing with emails, write about that and shoot me the link. I want to learn how others do it. Feel free to drop a comment or a DM in Twitter.