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Get your life back: 12 steps to taking control of email

1. Admit you have a problem. “The mass of men,” wrote Thoreau, “lead lives of quiet desperation,” and he didn’t even have email. We’re drowning under the stuff. Sysadmins get a lot of email, and when you’re spending more time on your inbox than at the command line, there’s a problem.

When Outlook helpfully notified me one morning that I had 40,000 email messages in my inbox, I had a moment of clarity. I knew I needed to go on an email detox. But how?

2. Get clean. Clear your inbox.

If I was going to get email back under control, I had to start with a clean slate. I wiped the lot.

It’s not so scary as it sounds. After all, if someone sends you an urgent request and doesn’t get a reply, they’ll probably either ask you again, or resolve the problem some other way. If it’s been sitting in your inbox for a month, the crisis is probably over anyway. One way or the other.

3. Stay clean. Unsubscribe from mailing lists you don’t read, announcements for products you don’t use, and joke-of-the-day lists you don’t remember signing up for.

4. Funnel all mail into a single inbox. You want to be able to see and process everything in one place. Gmail is great for this as you can add all your IMAP and POP accounts into it directly, or just forward mail there.

5. Filter messages automatically to folders for the mailing lists you do read, or other emails that don’t need to be read daily. If it doesn’t need your attention right now, it doesn’t belong in your inbox.

6. Auto-delete mails you can’t get rid of any other way (pontificating “strategic vision” emails from the CEO and ancient jokes from your Auntie Doris, perhaps).

7. Process the remaining mail efficiently. Geeks love systems and workflows. Here’s the email workflow:

Reading each message in turn, newest first, either:

  • reply to it
  • capture an action from it
  • archive it
  • delete it

Leaving messages in inbox is not an option. If you do need to act on it, just make a note, capturing it for later, and continue processing. It’s tempting to just go do it, but what’s in front of you right now may not be the most important thing to work on. Process your inbox to zero first, then get started on the captured actions.

8. Check email once a day. The less often you check email, the less you send. The less you send, the less you get. It can be difficult at first if people are used to getting a quick answer from you by email. Communicate what you’re doing (see step 9) and give them a little time to adjust. Resist the temptation to have a quick peek, or to use “new message” notifiers, and get some real work done instead.

9. Communicate your new strategy to co-workers and anyone else who needs to know. Tell them you’re cutting down time spent on email on favour of doing productive work instead. That’s hard to argue with. If it’s urgent, they can call you, and if it’s not urgent, then they’ll get a response by the next day.

10. Call instead of emailing. If something needs discussion, it’s way more efficient to discuss it on the phone or face-to-face. Praise and criticism both sound better by voice.

11. Be brief. When you do send email, use the five sentence rule. If you can’t express what you need to say in five sentences or less, you either need to have a conversation, write a document, or organise your thoughts a little better. Short and punchy emails get read. I had 40,000 of the other kind that didn’t.

12. Mentor others. When people ask how you manage to be successful and productive and stay on top of your email, show them this article. Free others from email servitude. The less email your co-workers send, the less you’ll get.

Further reading

Put your faith in a higher power: David Allen’s Getting Things Done: How to Achieve Stress-free Productivity.

Read the Inbox Zero series on 43Folders.

my similar approach

for all my imap accounts, i use rules to filter messages from friends, family, co-workers, and known clients to appropriate folders upon receipt.

the inboxes catch anything else, which i process right away (respond, file, or dump).

then i have a few “smart mailboxes” in apple’s that show me broader snapshots of time. one shows all mail received from friends or family for the past week. most of the time, there’s nothing specifically urgent here, but it’s nice to see who sent what in the past week.

another aggregates all received mail for the past month. this takes the place of the “one large inbox as dumping ground” approach. for the most part, all the mail is already filed in subfolders, so there’s nothing to do with it. it’s just a larger view of the past 30 days’ mail.

another smart folder shows all work-related mail. i use this less in practice than i initially thought, so i might just delete it.

there’s a smart folder for any message i’ve flagged for review. usually these are items useful for reference or requiring action. when i’ve addressed the message and removed the “flag,” it doesn’t appear in the mailbox. self-cleaning…

the other few smart folders show all sent mail for different years for archival purposes and all unread messages in case there’s one buried deep in some subfolder somewhere.

this system tends to work for me because it doesn’t involve a lot of work. the mail client handles most everything, and i review only those messages requiring action.

re: my similar approach


Thanks for sharing your process. I used to be a big user of smart folders until I started using Gmail - the search is so good that I really don’t need the smart folders anymore. Everything is either filtered straight into a mailing list folder, or archived in ‘All Mail’, or deleted. I can find any email sent or received for the past several years just by entering one or two keywords, which is fantastic.

I think the main win of the Inbox Zero approach is that you don’t confuse ‘urgent’ with ‘important’. If your mailbox is doing double duty as a to-do list, then the items at the top of it tend to get your attention. Anything that doesn’t keep emailing you, tends not to get done :)

The other thing is that it drastically reduces time spent on email. As you’re no longer constantly popping to your inbox to check for email, you can actually get work done. And I know that there aren’t any actions lurking in there that I haven’t captured!

Zero Inbox Approach

I just try to keep email processed on a semi-daily basis with the goal of having a zero inbox at the end of the day/week. I do this with IMAP folders.

Archives - Numbered folders by year/month, e.g 201009, for stuff I need to hold on to.

Hold - Stuff I need to hang on to past the month or keep at attention until whatever it deals with is done/resolved.

Follow-up - Stuff I need to do later and send a reply.

Some of my rules:

2 minute rule - If it takes me less than 2 mins to do what is in the email or reply I do it immediately.

15 minute rule - If it will take longer than 15 minutes it goes on my task list.

Don’t keep everything. Delete any non-essential emails before you archive them.

Review your archive at end of month to clean out more.

Purge daily/weekly depending on volume

Invest in good anti-spam solution. I get 1-2 spam emails a week.

Zero Inbox

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