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.