Reducing Email Volume

It’s unfashionable to admit these days, but 14 years after getting my first account, I still like email. Of course, the volume is crushing, and so lately, I’ve been experimenting with email reduction. I’m getting good results with two key concepts that hardly anyone talks about and that focus on your sending habits rather than your inbox management.

First, send less email. These days, everyone knows not to pass along jokes and chain letters (in fact, I don’t remember the last time I received either). But we’re still struggling to figure out the form overall, and in the absence of social norms that work with the medium, it’s endlessly tempting to treat email like a conversation. Which turns out to be its death knell.

Email just generates more email. So although sending less is surprisingly awkward at first, it not only cuts down on your volume, but it has positive network effects, to boot.

Second, worry less about what the people on the other end will think if you reply slowly or not at all. This is a biggie. If you’re still treating email like in-person communication, then you’re probably assuming that most people are waiting for swift responses to their messages. But since they’re getting notes from dozens, if not hundreds, of other people, they’re often aware of your particular thread only when it’s popping up in front of them.

I don’t mean to suggest you should blow off communication because you can, but rather that you probably have more time to respond than you feel you do. A productive way to use this extra time? By not sending email that says, “I’ll look into that and get back to you.” Just get back to them after you’ve done the looking. Even better, genuinely consider whether email is the most efficient way to get the issue resolved. If it’s not, make the conscious choice to communicate in person, by IM or phone instead. This takes discipline, but it’s effective.

Of course, the inbox is still ground zero and requires management. Read on for tips that work well for me.

* Unsubscribe from everything, really (if you’re on the fence about something, unsign up from it; see if you miss it). The time it takes to process unwanted email, not to mention the inbox clutter it generates, is soul-sucking. Take it seriously.

* Mailing lists must go directly into folders. Otherwise, they’re your whole life.

* Turn off the notifications that you’ve got new mail. Those pop ups are like cyanide for concentration.

* Keep folders to a minimum. Sorting takes forever, and search works most of the time.

* If a long message has been sitting in your inbox for a few days because you want to read it but haven’t made the time, either do so or file it in a To Read folder.

* Archive everything–even thousands of messages–to get to a clean-slate inbox right now. See the rule above about worrying less.

* If you get down to zero (or close) every day, it’s OK to use your inbox for to dos. As long as you love deleting email, deep-sixing a message can be just as satisfying as crossing an item off a list. (This idea goes against the counsel of many productivity enthusiasts, including the smart and useful zero-inbox expert Merlin Mann. But it works for me.)

Finally, I’ll throw in one trend I’m trying to start: send and receive long, chatty, personal catchup notes with no expectation of response at all. Just write or read them for the one-way pleasure, and if a response appears, consider it a wonderful bonus.

  • PEK

    I disagree with many of these observations. Filtering and moreover priortization of attention is what is necessary to preserve focus, personal and professional goals. Blackberry, outlook and most interfaces or email systems allow sender or subject level alerts, folders and other organizational and prioritization systems. An immediate response to certain emails is sometimes of critical importance. Acknowledgement emails also have an important role in relationships. The key is to have a system to help you manage in context, rather than a list of rules to be applied to unilaterally.

  • kdrofwdc

    Here’s one solution my boss just posted (not for everybody, I’m sure…). Seems this issue is on a lot of people’s minds, lately.

    Email is ruining my company…

    “It is WASTING YOUR TIME. It is DESTROYING your accountability and STRIPPING your employees of ownership. Welcome to what I call the “CC disease” or “CC your a$$”. It’s a virus I tell you – spreading seeds of inefficiency through your company at the speed-of-packet. “Link

  • Communication is the a key factor in getting things done correctly. Without it failure is imminent. Maybe it’s a problem that I just don’t see, but I honestly don’t see anything negative resulting from email communication.

    Of course talking face to face or over the phone is better, but it’s not always an option. People are busy and busy people can’t be on the phone all day. Email provides a great option to communicating when convenient for both parties.

  • Ewan Gunn

    I agree with PEK – most of the problem is the unprofessionalism of the user, rather than an overwhelming threat to global stability. Prioritisation is the key. Keep alerts on, so you can take that and prioritise it as it comes in – that way if it is mission critical you can take the time out to reply to it, otherwise you know it’s there for when you schedule time for your email. If time is scheduled properly, and email is part of the schedule, then there shouldn’t be a problem at all – especially if it’s work email. And I am part of the group of people that think work email should be just for that – work, and nothing else.

    You do have to think of the recipient, especially if you are representing a company, and the recipient is a client. As an example, this article shows how much people hate long delays in responses to email – and I agree. I’ve been battling back and forth with a company over email for a number of months now, and despite what they see as ‘prompt replies’, it stretches to a week at a time between communications, which is entirely unacceptable. Providing these ‘hints’ is just going to perpetuate that.

    If you take out the fact that this is referring to email, what makes it any different to any other task you have to complete in your working day? It’s a business task, which needs to be prioritised just as if it was signing a contract, visiting a client, or ordering stock.

    For work purposes, it comes down to poor self-discipline and time management, poor training, and poor management, ultimately.

    (Obviously I’m using the royal ‘you’ :) )

  • The most productive and efficient email strategy that we have ever instituted was to have a separate, no-nonsense email address that was only given to prioritized correspondents – who were forewarned that it was to be used for only IMPORTANT matters or archival material.

    So far everyone has cooperated, and every visit to that special email address is productive and informative.

  • I think some of you are missing the point. The point is that much of the email that jams our inbox each day is unimportant and an utter waste of time. I have seen email threads go on for days while problems go unresolved. Sometimes it’s better to get out of your chair and get the dang issue resolved. I have a rule that once an email thread reaches a count of three, it’s time to shut it down and get a conversation going.

    Many of the communications that email is being used for should move to blogs, wikis, and social networking tools. That allows people to subscribe to what they want to read as opposed to wasting half of their day rummaging through their inbox looking for the few emails that are actually important.

  • Jon Mountjoy

    See Inbox Zero over at 43 Folders for definitive tutorials on much of this stuff.

  • I suffer from the same email overload, but my solutions are different. For one, I reply to emails as soon as I read them. This allows me to read them only once, i.e., the first time.

    But there is one point of commonality in our method — be it an email client like OE or a web based email box, I do not open mail until I am at a point of replying to it. Most mail does not deserve an instantaneous response. But, I like the mail to show up as unread, so that I know what I have still to read.

  • Anonymous

    For us, so far, the only way is to have a human scanning at emails and sorting them… Yeah, it is crazy, but no other automated solution can come close to the human factor.

  • For us, so far, the only way is to have a human scanning at emails and sorting them… Yeah, it is crazy, but no other automated solution can come close to the human factor.

  • “* Unsubscribe from everything, really (if you’re on the fence about something, unsign up from it; see if you miss it).”

    You should handle this with care – a lot of spam “newsletters” use the unsubscribe link to validate email addresses. Once you click the link, they know that your address is valid and they will send you even more spam mails.

  • michelle

    I’ve found that Stumbleupon has a nice link/pages waiting instant messaging system. I can send a link to my friends’ email addresses or directly to those on SU and still keep it tidy

  • Thanks for the great tips! You kicked of a lot of thinking on this end. A few points:

    o Don’t send simple “Thank you” emails – and ask others to do the same.

    o ‘reply slowly or not at all’ – Slowly is OK, as long as they have correct expectations. I tell people I have a 24 hour response time (I actually pre-dated Ferriss, if you can believe it!) Not at all: OK if they understand when you don’t reply. For example, if it’s clearly an “FYI” message. (I use FYI and EOM in subjects – the former is very handy for reducing volume.)

    o ‘By not sending email that says, “I’ll look into that and get back to you.”‘ Great one! Well put.

    o ‘Unsubscribe from everything’ – I have clients move email-based subscriptions to Bloglines – it supports creating anonymous emails for just this purpose. More here, FYI: Move email-based subscriptions to RSS –

    o ‘Mailing lists must go directly into folders’ – I think that having automatic triggers/filters is a red flag. If you agree you must put eyes on everything that comes in, then if something doesn’t require your eyes, you shouldn’t be getting it!

    o ‘If a long message has been sitting in your inbox for a few days’ – this is a good one. I wouldn’t let it hang around, though. When you first open it, decide if you can take care of it right then. If not, it becomes an action.

    o ‘Archive everything … to get to a clean-slate inbox right now.’ A good tip, but this is actually a very big, important, and exhausting process for most people. I spent an entire day with a client who had 3000+ messages. That we cleared it was a testament to her focus and energy. What a *ton* of work!

    Thanks again!