A System for Email

Nov 22, 2020

For many years at Square, then later at Bradfield CS, I ran a class for new hires and managers about managing email. This is basically an Inbox Zero approach, but I deliberately avoid the label because Inbox Zero is a thing people often misunderstand. It’s not about how many emails you have. My mantra: I don’t care what your system is, so long as you have one. Your inbox should not be a source of stress.

I don’t expect many to follow this process to the letter (I barely do…), but it does a decent job of encouraging people to reflect on their own process and come up with something that works better for them. For me these principles scaled to a couple of hundred emails a day to my inbox, with many more filtered out, without requiring too much dedicated effort.

Changing how you handle email, particularly in such a seemingly radical way can be scary and require a lot of support and coaxing. Probably more than a blog post can provide, but I’ll do my best. If this seems scary to you, still at least try it for a couple of days to see how you feel once you have the process under your fingers.

This is really a collection of notes, rather than a considered way of introducing the material. It also doesn’t address instant messaging, nor effective ways of actually writing email. If anyone wants to remix this material (alternate presentation, videos, training for your team, whatever) please feel free, it is unlikely I’m going to.

Your inbox is for triage

Your inbox is not a to-do list. It is not a calendar. It is not a passive information source. It is good for one thing and one thing only: triage. Triage queues trend to zero, so when your inbox is empty you know you are done processing. A previously unnoticed weight lifts off your shoulders, as the nagging doubt that you’re missing something important dissolves away.

Buckets

Every email falls in to one of four buckets, each mapping to an action:

  1. No action. There is nothing to do as a result of this email.
  2. Immediate action. For tasks that take less than a minute, such as a quick reply. Do the task.
  3. Today. Action needs to be taken in a timely manner, but will take too long to be part of the triage process. Add to your to-do list.
  4. Future. No immediate action is required. Schedule something on your calendar.

After performing the associated action, you are done triaging that email, so therefore it no longer belongs in your inbox. Archive it and move on to the next one. This may make you uncomfortable for emails on your to-do list, since you haven’t done them yet but are removing them from your inbox. You won’t forget about them since they’re written down on your to-do list, and you can easily find them again using search (see below).

This does not imply that you respond to every email, which is a common misunderstanding of this kind of process. Your inbox being empty means only that you have seen everything that came in and decided what you are going to do about it.

Technique

To effectively triage email, you need to be able to move fast. Most emails should take less than a second or two to handle.

Enable keyboard shortcuts in GMail. There is only one shortcut you absolutely have to know: shift+{. This will archive the current message, and move to the next one in your inbox.

Open the first email in your inbox. Don’t pick and choose! Open the first one. Which bucket does it fall into? Do nothing, reply, add to your to-do list, or add to your calendar. Now press shift+{, and the next message appears. Rinse and repeat. With practice, you will be able to do this very quickly. If you are doing this for the first time, after you have triaged back a day or two, select all of the remaining messages and archive them. It’s probably not worth it to triage anything older than that, and there is a large benefit to having your queue empty: you know when you’re done and can close your email client.

To-do List

Your to-do list contains useful things you plan to do today. Things that might be nice to do someday do not belong here. Put them on a different list. Your to-do list must trend towards zero, otherwise you are committing to too much work.

Each day, start a new list. I use a pen and paper, but you could use an electronic list. Cross off everything that didn’t get done yesterday. If it is still worth doing, write it out again for today. Yes, this is redundant work! By writing out your list each day, you ensure that your list doesn’t get too big, and nothing will be forgotten. You commit each day afresh to what you are going to do. It makes it obvious which work empirically isn’t getting done so that you can explicitly handle that (de-commit, ask for help) rather than giving the impression you forgot.

Everything on your list should be actionable. If a task hangs around for a few days, maybe it isn’t actionable enough? Can you break it down into smaller chunks? Make it harder to procrastinate on? Set a calendar reminder next week to follow up?

Keeping an effective to-do list is probably the most important technique in this entire post.

Passive Information Sources

Some types of emails — interesting or informational lists — are useful to keep an eye on, but don’t need to be part of the triage process. Have them skip your inbox, then you can review at your leisure by searching for to:nameoflist@groups.google.com. Alternatively, you can apply an Interesting label which acts as a saved search. Consider automatically marking these emails as read, so you are not distracted by an unread count in your sidebar.

Example

Alice emails a short status report. I fire off a quick clarification on one point (bucket #2).

Bob is asking for feedback on a new proposal. I want to collect my thoughts, so add an item to my to-do list: “Reply to Bob” (bucket #3). Later when I get to this item, I can easily retrieve Bob’s email by searching for from:bob.

Charles sends an interesting looking article to a mailing list I’m on. Reading a blog post takes longer than a minute, and is too distracting from triage, so I open it in a background tab to scan when I am done with triage (bucket #3, implicit to-do list). After triage (there are no emails left in my inbox), on scanning the article it is really long but seems interesting, so I add it to my proper to-do list. Tomorrow when creating my to-do list, I notice I never got around to reading the article (as I’m crossing it out) and feel like I’m probably too busy, so don’t bring it forward.

I receive some alerts for a service my team operates, but I already know our oncall is taking care of it so I skip it (bucket #1). I already filter the general oncall list to Skip Inbox when I am not oncall (passive information source).

A friend replies confirming a new lunch time for later in the week, I ensure it is in my calendar (bucket #4).

Having no further emails in my inbox, I close my email client and turn to my to-do list. I am confident it is a complete list of the tasks I need to prioritize.

Common mistakes

Categories/Hierarchies

Explicitly categorizing email — usually by manually applying labels — adds too much cognitive overhead to the triage, and provides negligible benefit. Search is good enough that you will always be able to find what you are looking for without a predefined taxonomy. (Though a taxonomy doesn’t generally help you find emails anyway…)

Priority Inbox

GMail’s priority inbox tries to do some of the triage work for you, but it provides no benefit if you are triaging properly. Triage is fast and always trends to zero, there is no need for a “triage this first” concept.

Preemptive Filtering

Filters should only be created as a reaction to repeated triage. When you notice yourself triaging the same class of email with a repeatable action, that is the time to create a filter to automate that action.

Do not use filters to solely apply labels unless it helps you triage faster.

The first step I do with people when training in this method is have them delete all of their filters. They can contribute to a sense of “not being on top of everything” and rebuilding them from scratch using the above principle (response to repeated triage) is the best way to address.

Leaving to-do items in your inbox

It is tempting to leave email that you need to reference or reply to in your inbox. Don’t. It clutters your space, and clutters your mind. Search is a much more efficient way of bringing back email. See the example above for how to do this.

Continuous triage

Don’t keep your email open. Triage, then close it. Set an expectation that if someone needs your attention urgently, they should call you.

Nothing should notify you when an email arrives. Triage on your terms. Triage is busy work and isn’t the useful thing you should be doing. I’ll usually triage a couple of times a day, or more if I have a couple of minutes between meetings and no one to talk to.

Don’t triage email outside of work hours. Don’t put work email on your personal phone that might tempt you to check it.

Bonus Techniques

Follow up label

If you need to follow up on a lot of email that you send, it can be too much overhead to add all of them to your to-do list or calendar. Instead, keep a “followup” label separate from your inbox that you can scan once a day. Keeping these in your inbox means you have to “re-triage” them every time, which is wasted effort.

Skip email

For tasks you are going to do either do immediately post-triage or add to your to-do list you can skip over them without archiving (keyboard shortcut j), then do a second pass. It is equivalent to using your inbox as a hyper-short-term to-do list. This is a dangerous technique if you are not already adept at clearing your inbox to zero, since by divorcing bucketing and action it subtly encourages you to be sloppy in your categorization and clean up.

Putting it together

Try this system for a week. Don’t cheat. This should be enough time to cement the process into your subconscious. If you don’t feel like you can function without your inbox being regularly empty, you’ve made it. Now is the time to cheat, cut corners, or optimize for your personality. Good luck!