Self-Management Practices, Part 1: Email Control

[Note: Following is the first part of a series on personal productivity. Whether you work remotely, in-person, in a team or as solo contributor, most professional people in today’s knowledge economy need to develop the competency of self-management. I aim to share some of my techniques for self-management, learned through discovering my own weaknesses and using my strengths and applying the ideas of others to create structures and practices that militate against those weaknesses and help me focus on getting things done. Topics I plan to cover include personal kanban, pomodoro technique, planning by cost-of-delay and sustainable pace.]

Email Control

I’ll start with perhaps the most ubiquitous and nefarious enemies of personal productivity: Email. Do you control your email, or does your email control you?
Email used to control me, making me respond to it on its terms, overwhelming me, creating unnecessary cognitive load. Now, I control this silent killer of productivity. Here are a few of my practices.

Inbox Zero

Why am I smiling in this picture? Because I have no email!

I can’t tell you how much of a difference having a policy of inbox zero — that is, at some point during my day, having no email in my inbox— has made. Before Merlin Mann’s thorough talk inspired me to set and live by a inbox-zero policy, I used to worry about those unresolved messages: Had I forgotten something? Was someone waiting for a response? Sometimes I had indeed forgotten, or someone was waiting — in which case I caused dissatisfaction around me. However, many times, no one was waiting, but still my brain, not being certain of that, couldn’t let it go, and I had to deal with unresolved threads spinning in my mind, causing unnecessary cognitive load.

Today, I have a recurring daily card in my personal kanban (more on that in another post) to get to inbox zero — actually two: one for my work email, and one for my personal. Because I devotedly follow my personal kanban, this ensures that I actually do it. (If you’re interested in combining your inbox with personal kanban, you may want to try Flow-E, a new tool from the makers of Kanbanize.)
This leads to other virtuous practices: First, I’m able to give people a 24-hour response expectancy 90% of the time. (Don’t you just hate it when you have to nag someone with a followup email?) Also, I don’t overreact to email requests*, which frees me to manage my work on my own terms, not simply the random arrival rate of the message; one study found that 70% of work emails were attended to within six seconds of their arrival — that’s what I consider overkill in terms of service-delivery expectation! And because of those two things, I’m able to actually switch off email throughout the day.
*The technique that supports this is planning by cost-of-delay, which is another post in this series.

Turn Off Email

Given that it takes people on average about 25 minutes to reorient back to a task when they get interrupted, it’s a wonder that people who keep their email open ever get anything done (other than incessantly replying to email!).
Yes, it’s possible to not have your email tab (or email app) open all day. I check my email roughly three times per day (morning, lunchtime, late afternoon). And I work in a global team, in a global organization, so I’m getting email around the clock. If people need me to respond to a request faster than 24 hours (or during my core work hours, four hours), I make sure that that know they can reach me other ways (e.g., text, Google hangout).
Just say no to enabling desktop notifications.

What percentage of your day is email open? Why is that? Perhaps you have a good reason, but you might try removing desktop and phone notifications and checking to see if you’re more productive.

Email should scale with your role/position/level

If you’ve ever gotten promoted, did you notice an increase in the amount of email you received? Regardless of my level and responsibility, I’ve tried to keep my incoming email manageable — that is, I can usually get to inbox zero in 30 minutes. If you reach a place in your career in which you have to hire someone to manage your email for you, you’re doing it wrong. Instead, look for different ways to interact with your stakeholders — better feedback loops, more face-to-face time, delegating decisions to others, working in a team. By responding to people’s email — or having your admin do it — you’re simply exacerbating the problem.

Five sentences (or less)

Given that you will always have some email to deal with — and that can be an appropriate communication medium — the last tip relates to knowing how to communicate effectively with email. My main practice here is the “Five Sentences or Less” response (, which forces me first to think about whether email is the right medium and second to clarify and condense my thoughts in my reply. This allows me to communicate assertively and clearly, while “paying forward” to my recipients less email cruft on their end. Be honest: When you receive an email that requires scrolling, how many of you actually bother reading it in its entirety?
How do you know whether and how to reply? Some smells:
  • You’re attaching something: Before you drag that doc into the email body, consider putting it into a shared team space (e.g., Jive, wiki, Google Docs) and simply including the link to it. In addition to simple hygiene of facilitating versioning and collaboration,  you’re also helping people to avoid using email as a document repository. Don’t force people to keep your email.
  • You’re writing more than five sentences: If you can’t say it in five sentences or less, chances are that you need better fidelity communication; try a video or phone call. If you need something to serve as documentation that needs to live beyond a phone call, write the document and share the link.
  • You’re writing only one sentence (or word): Simple yes/no responses can be better handled in other ways, such as instant messaging.
  • You’re writing something that will require group discussion and/or decisions: We have other, better ways of group discussions, namely video calls or quick in-person meetings. If it’s a simple decision or set of preferences, create a survey and send the link. And please — whatever you do — don’t use email to try to find out “what time works” for each person in the group. It’s not 1999 anymore!


3 thoughts on “Self-Management Practices, Part 1: Email Control

  1. Pingback: Self-Management Practices, Part 2: Information Intake | Matt Philip's blog

  2. Jared

    I make heavy use of Outlook’s category feature. If an e-mail requires action on my part, I mark it with a ‘To Do’ category, which gets transferred to an item on my kanban. Everything else is filed under a reference category.

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