I was listening to an episode of the Becoming Better podcast last week and they were talking about email, which got me thinking about my own email habits so I thought I’d share some of them here, in case anything I do might be useful to any of you. I’m going to break this down into three sections – something I’ve been doing for awhile, something I’m just starting to do, and something I need to start doing.
Something I’ve Been Doing
I’ve mentioned that I keep my email inbox empty most of the time. When I receive an email I decide what needs to be done with it. Do I need to reply? Do I need to do something before I reply (e.g. ask someone else for information first)? Do I need to hold the message for reference during a meeting? Can I delete it?
Depending on the answers to those questions, I may file it in an appropriate folder – Agendas (for upcoming meeting), To Act (I need to do something), Waiting, or Saved (more on that shortly) – reply to it and then file it, or just delete it. This is how I keep my inbox empty. This is mostly based on the GTD method created by David Allen, which I’ve also talked about in the past.
Something I’m Just Starting To Do
During that episode of the Becoming Better podcast on email they mentioned using a single “saved” folder instead of folders for various subjects. This is workable because search engines in email clients have gotten so much better than they once were. I’ve long had many many folders for each of my email accounts, which is frankly ridiculous. It takes too much of my time filing any message I’m keeping and I end up using the search engine to find messages most of the time.
Starting with my work email, I’ve started pulling all messages from the past five years from their various folders and putting them all in a folder called Saved. Any message more than five years old I took the risk that I’ll never need it again and deleted it. In just the few days since then, filing emails has gotten much faster and less tedious. Next up will be my Gmail account.
Something I Should Be Doing
Finally, I should be blocking time for when I’ll deal with email. Unless I’m doing some deep work, I read and deal with email throughout my day, which is bad for productivity and sanity. Lots of research has shown that there is no such thing as multitasking, just quickly switching between things, none of which you’re giving your full attention to. You get more done, and done better, when you don’t try to do the whole switching between a bunch of things.
This will take some practice, and some communication with others, but ultimately I’ll be better at my job, my relationships, and probably my mental well-being if I make this a new habit.
Do you have any email tips to add?
To me, the most important thing to remember when handling E-mail is that you should deal with messages only when you are ready. Someone sent you a message on their time, and you should deal with it on your own time. Neither of you need to be communicating at the same time. If something is truly urgent, deal with it via a phone call.
Heather and I are in two different time zones. Depending on the time of the year, she is either two zones earlier than I am (winter) or one zone earlier (summer). On top of that, Heather is an “early bird”, going to bed early in the evening and waking early in the morning. I am retired and am a “late bird”, going to bed near midnight and waking mid-morning (quite some time after Heather is already at work). I might send Heather an E-mail message just before I go to bed, and she can reply before I wake the next morning.
Similarly, I might send an E-mail message to the contractor who is putting a new roof on my house, on a Saturday when the contractor’s office is closed. The contractor will not receive it until the office opens on Monday and might not reply until Thursday. That is okay.
Communicating via E-mail means that the participants do not have to be present at the same time.