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Handling email is one of those things you usually never think twice about. It’s this thing you simply have to deal with and that’s it. But using a few handy principles can really help to get a more streamlined approach. In how you deal with incoming requests — as well as how you maintain your inbox. These are the small principles I use for handling email.

Batch processing

Don’t keep your email client open all day. Instead check it on a couple of preselected times, and then spend as little time in there as possible. Use the batch processing principle. It’s much faster to go through everything at once than to go through each individual email as it drops in your inbox. I read a wonderful book called Algorithms to Live By, which helped me understand why this is kind of a big deal.

Review later

When seeing something interesting in your inbox, it’s easy to get diverged and start clicking links on different newsletters. And before you know it you have forgotten what you came to do — namely processing email. Set up a @review folder where you can drop all those newsletters and interesting requests that you would like to get back to. Remind yourself that right now, your only goal is to process the inbox.

Also keep a @bills folder for the same purpose. Drop all invoices and bills that needs attention at the end of the month. Don’t get distracted by the thought of "maybe I should pay that bill right now", because you’re having a couple of minutes over. Remember, process now — review later.

Delete now

Don’t be afraid to delete emails that have no relevant meaning to you anymore. All notifications or other types of auto-generated content landing in your inbox is a prospect for deletion. No need to agonize over this. There is no value in keeping irrelevant notifications from messaging services or product announcements you don’t care about. Delete those things now and move on.

Snooze

A function which has made it into most modern email clients by now is the ability to snooze email. This is great because you may not need a particular piece of information right now, but next Friday is exactly the day when you want to have that hotel booking confirmation nearby. Snooze it and don’t let it take up mental space in your inbox until it’s needed.

Archive

Archiving is the star of the email game. Keep all conversations you have with real people, and things you may need for reference later on. Personal or work oriented email threads can prove valuable years down the road. So I’m using the archive button for anything that I want to keep for reference. Just remember: don’t let anything hang around in your inbox if there’s no more action to be taken.

Inbox relevant

All email sitting in your inbox should be relevant to you right now. If something needs a reply but you don’t have the time to answer it now, leave it where it is. This way you’ll know that the inbox only contains the relevant stuff, things that you will get back to later.

I don’t like the concept of always keeping an "inbox zero", it can easily flip into a tormenting experience, but I do like the concept of having a relevant inbox. Don’t hold on to things where you don’t need to take action. It’s a waste of mental energy. The inbox should only contain things you’re working on now or messages which needs follow up within the coming days.

Permanent storage

The best way to store email is to simply hit the archive button. It’s gone from your inbox, but still kept safely in your email account. Searching is so frictionless today that there’s not much need to save things in specific folders. Simply type for the things you need based on date, content or person.

With that said, for some cases it could still be good to use a dedicated space.

  • @ for review. As I mentioned previously, I use the @ symbol to prepend folder names which I will go through later. For instance: @review and @bills
  • # for storage. For permanent storage I prepend the folders with the # symbol. I do this when I want to have collected information on a topic in a single space. When I work on a project I set up a #projectname container where I can drop all communication I have during the project. It’s nice because I find everything related to the project in this container.

Turn off notifications

This is a principle I apply generally on all applications on my phone and computer. The less distractions the better. The last thing I want is to have my attention diverted by any stranger (or computer system) that happens to send off a request my way. I keep my own schedule for when to check (and not to check) email. And following the principles I’ve laid out here has worked very well so far.


Things I write.

Personal blog by Johannes Holmberg.
Thinking and musing.