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Quick tips on processing your email inbox

Gotten a lot of messages since the email productivity post asking for more detail on how I process my email Inbox. Here’s a very brief overview from a response in the Google Group.

The basic idea is to firewall processing as a discrete phase you go through no more than every hour or two at the most. For God’s sake, don’t live in your Inbox if there’s any way you can avoid it.

Processing determines as quickly as possible what, if anything, to do with each piece (in ascending order of urgency and importance):

  • delete it
  • archive it
  • defer it for later response
  • generate an action from it
  • respond to it immediately (if it—literally—will take less than 2 minutes or is so Earth-shattering that it just can’t wait)

Then as often as time allows, I return to the response and action folders and crank through as many replies and complete (or generate) as many todos as I can—usually in 5-email sprints.

The critical point, as ever, is to focus on action and not on the administration and housekeeping. If the action is just a response, respond. If it requires more than a return email, either do it or get it in your “next actions” and keep moving.

As I said in the Google Group post, “you have to remember you’re in the business of making sandwiches—not deciding the prettiest way to stack the customers’ orders.”

Zen slap: An email auto-check set for every minute means 60 potential distractions every hour, or almost 500 per day. Look back at a week of your emails and ask yourself: how many distractions was that really worth? How much crucial, instantly actionable email did I receive to make it worth shifting my attention over 2000 times?

Merlin's picture

Just curious, but do you...

Just curious, but do you use an “@Action” folder (or similar) to track emails that require action, or do you add an action to your next action list?

I do have an “actions” folder for any deferred email that requires more than a short response. Whenever possible, I just do it immediately. If I have to re-defer it, I either keep it in “actions” if it’s mostly email related or generate a new task and archive the source email--never both.

To more directly answer the question I think you’re asking—in all things, it’s best whenever possible to let the work be its own reminder. That’s not always true for reference, later, or maybe items, but for actions, IMO, the email itself should be the email reminder, etc. YMMV




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