Fighting the e-mail monster… (round 1)


After having been on leave for four weeks, and for at least 2 of those weeks having very minimal e-mail access I came to the conclusion that e-mail is suffocating me and that I need to break loose… Actually I came to this conclusion after every holiday, but decided to fight it after last Christmas break…

I am concentrating on fighting the e-mail monster… The fight begun…. Review ROUND 1
What did I learn?  A very, very small percentage of my e-mail actually require more than 2 minutes to address. In fact, a huge number of e-mails require no attention, some require a couple of seconds to become aware of something, the vast majority fall into the category of two minutes or less. So GTD thinking would require me to maintain a zero inbox.

This I have tried in the last six months or so.  It really helped, but will take some concerted effort to get right after the holidays again. Rather than constantly watching my e-mail I try and set some time aside to deal with e-mail (or sometimes use those odd five minutes between meetings). The gist is to deal with the e-mail in a disciplined manner.  After reading an email I do one of a number of things:

  1. If I need less than 2 minutes to deal with it, deal with it – reply to the email, mostly – and then do 2 or 3.
  2. delete it as it will be no further use…  (mailing lists were a major culprit here – I try to unsubscribe from them as soon as I realize they don’t add value.  Even valuable ones I prefer to follow via an RSS feed…)
  3. file it in a folder where it may help in future (I for example have a folder for each of the committees that the university seem to prosper on and some more to deal with specific projects and categories of information)  Here I must say I need to refine my habits as I file too arbitrary messages, but hey at least it is out of my inbox
  4. If I can’t deal with it in 2 minutes, I move it to a folder name “_Followup” (the underscore ensures its at the top of folder list).  I come back to these at a later stage set aside for these emails or when my inbox is down to zero items. This essentially is one of my trusted lists…

Step 4 is being honed regularly. I, for example, quickly realized that there is different kinds of followup that happens. I therefore quickly made 2 folder “_Followup” and “_4comment” where “_4comment” is very specifically for documents on which I need to provide detail comments.  In fact this takes up quite a bit of timer out of my schedule as it is stuff such a papers to review for journals and chapters, proposals or papers by research students – stuff that is rather core to my  job, while there are many other things I must “_Followup”, things such as forms to be filled out, documents to familiarise myself with and information to be supplied.

One of my planned refinements is to split “_FollowUp” into two types, Followup that requires Internet access and one that don’t…

This represents ROUND 1 of my fight with e-mail.  I think I came out better, but it was tough. Have you tried following a zero inbox approach?  Share your tips in the comments or feel free to question my experience…

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3 Responses to Fighting the e-mail monster… (round 1)

  1. […] Well round 1 has been paying off…  my habits are not perfect yet, nor is my mechanisms perfect, but I feel I have more control over my e-mail than 6 months ago.  However, I still spend way too much time on e-mail.  So ROUND 2…  here I come! My next strategy is to get brief in answering e-mail.  Some might consider this unfriendly, I call it practical.  I am going to join the 5 sentences movement.  You will start seeing in my signature a statement: “Personal e-mail policy: http://five.sentenc.es/“.  This does not mean that I will not treat you with respect, or spend time on your request.  To the contrary, it may sometimes take longer…  This does not mean that I won’t attach a document with feedback etc.  Support me by not sending e-mails with multiple topics (its bad e-mail manners anyway), rather send two that each deals with its own topic. […]

  2. Gary says:

    i know a guy who gets about 150 emails a day, it takes about 3 hours a morning to just handle emails. Most of them are as you say, just delete or quick response.

    hey wait, if you could combine twitter, with a email client. with just 3 reply, mark, forward, delete. hey… on to some thing…. let the hacking begin..sorry sir

  3. […] may recall that I’ve previously blogged about how I fought my e-mail monster in two rounds (one; two) and how I’ve sized it up, and how.  In that post I also mentioned that I used GTD […]

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