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An Email Management Strategy Built on Discipline and Dignity

By Dave Stuart Jr.

Last time, I wrote about the absurd netherworld that has, for most of my adult life, been my email inbox and how I heroically handled all emails and arrived at the magical kingdom of inbox zero.

And then about two seconds passed, and suddenly my inbox had emails in it and the perfect little “inbox zero” was broken. Thankfully, I had learned a couple of principles that I want to guide my use of email from now on, and I had some simple rules in mind for turning those principles into habits.

Principles for email management

I knew that I was addicted to checking email. I didn’t like that email was the first thing I checked most mornings and the last thing I checked most nights. That wasn’t something I was comfortable writing, so it’s not something I should feel comfortable living with.

Which led me to Principle for Email Management #1: Discipline. I didn’t see that a life without email was an option, but a life of disciplined email use seemed perfectly possible.

Additionally, I knew that I wasn’t okay with receiving personal messages from folks and putting off responding so long that I eventually forgot about them. This was the foundation of the anxiety email made me feel when my inbox had 500+ messages in it: I knew that there were some good people buried in there and that my lack of response didn’t do justice to their value as a person.

Which led me to Principle for Email Management #2: Dignity. The folks sending me messages were people who I wanted to treat like I would want to be treated. Typically when I send an email to an individual, I want some kind of response from that individual. This isn’t always the case, but it often is.

These principles were a good start, but I knew I needed some simple rules if these principles were going to take on flesh and manage the email part of my life every day.

Rules for email management

Here are the rules I came up with for handling email, in rough order of priority.

1. Never start or end the day with email. Not when you wake up, not when you get to school. This is a cardinal sin.

2. Check email at or after lunchtime and handle it, returning the inbox to zero. During this time, process email using the remaining rules.

3. Delete and try to unsubscribe from stuff that has a low-likelihood of actually needing to be read. These are things like the daily announcements, coupons, junk mail, etc. The goal is really to make it so you never see this stuff. If you’re not going to have time to read it and you’ve somehow survived without having read it for awhile, there’s no point in seeing it.

4. Externalize emails that are tasks without an immediate deadline. Stuff that doesn’t have an immediate deadline should be turned into a reminder on your phone or written on an index card and then archived. These are things like that form you need to fill out for school in a few months.

5. Archive information that you’ll need later but can’t do anything with now. These are testing schedules, airline tickets, etc. Just remember who it’s from so you can search for it when the time of need arises.

6. Analyze and act on emails sent to me personally. Use this as a rough analytic pathway:

  1. Decide if a response is needed.
  2. If it is, try responding in two minutes or less.
  3. If a two-minute response isn’t possible, then add the response to your to-do list. Be disciplined here because a two-minute immediate response to a heavy email is better than a twenty-minute response that never happens.
  4. Alternatively, if the person asks a great question, consider turning the response into a blog post (anonymized if needed). This way the additional time spent writing will both answer the person’s question and serve as a blog article that could help some other folks who have a similar query.

7. Either read or print emails that contain something you want to read (e.g., newsletters). 

  • If you don’t want to read something that’s been emailed to you, see Rule 3.
  • If you do want to read it, either read it right away and archive it, or print it out and put it in the to-read pile. (This pile sits in my classroom, often forlorn and alone. But at least it is not in my inbox. I tend to take the pile with me on trips for speaking engagements.)

What’s your approach to email management?

This is all rough draft thinking for me; I’d love to learn from you. Share in the comments!

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