How to never miss a single e-mail again

04Jan11

To wrap up year 2010 I counted my received and sent e-mails. I have a total of 12211 received e-mails* and  7076 sent e-mails. If I divide those numbers by the amount of my working days in 2010 I get 52 e-mails received and 30 sent per working day.

* Excluding spam, I’m not a subscriber of any newsletter and I have disabled all e-mail notifications such as from Facebook.

This brought up again one of my favorite subjects, the personal process of handling e-mails. How do I handle the load without missing e-mails nor burning out? I think people don’t often give this as much thought as they should.

I’ll present here my current process for handling e-mails with the pros and cons I see in applying it.

The Taskbox model

I’ll call my process for handling e-mails the Taskbox model. It refers to the fact that Inbox is regarded as a personal task list filled by other people. It means every e-mail in your Inbox is a pending task. In other words, if your Inbox has 10 e-mails, you have 10 pending tasks.

These are the three steps in the process

The process consists of three steps, previewing, taking action and archiving. Let’s go through these steps one at a time.

Preview

When new e-mails arrive, you preview them. Previewing means glancing at them quickly. When you preview an e-mail your aim is to understand what kind of actions are required from you, how urgent they are and then decide whether you should immediately take action or postpone. Most often e-mails are postponed.

Unread e-mails get a new definition here. The unread tag on an e-mail indicates that it has not been previewed yet.

I think this is quite natural behavior. When you have received a bunch of e-mails, you have an urge to first glance through all of them.

Take action

Taking action means here simply handling an e-mail. You read it through, you reply if required, you take some actions if asked for and so on. After you have taken all actions required by an e-mail, you archive it. Note that you can execute e-mails in parts. When someone asks me to deliver something, I often reply “Ok, I’ll look into it and get back to you on monday”. In such a case, the task is not fully completed yet and the e-mail stays in my Inbox until I deliver everything on monday.

Archive

Archiving in this process means closing a task. Open tasks are in Inbox, closed are not. I use a mailbox folder called “archive” where I move e-mails to archive them. If you want to categorize your e-mails, you could move them to different mailbox folders. The point just is that you get them out of your Inbox. How do you move e-mails? I usually just drag if using my laptop.

Example scenario

A carpet pick up scenario according to the Taskbox model

Let’s say I receive an e-mail from my dry cleaner. When I receive it, I preview it, and it turns out to be a notification that my carpet is ready for pick-up. I don’t rate fetching my carpet urgent or high priority. However I reply them “Thanks for the notification!”. As the e-mail still requires action from me, I leave the e-mail in my Inbox.

After work I decide to pick the carpet up on they way home. As a result, all actions required by the e-mail have been taken and I move the e-mail to my archive folder.

Pros and cons

So why is this Task box model so handy?

  • simple and easy to pick-up
  • you never miss a single e-mail again
  • no time spent in noting down tasks elsewhere
  • allows you glancing at e-mails without the fear of forgetting them
  • e-mails are easily postponed – by doing nothing

And what are the shortcomings?

  • as glancing is allowed and so easy, it easily encourages you to interrupt your work all the time
    • this has been a big problem for me, at the moment my process for avoiding this is taking e-mails offline for certain periods of day
  • on bad days Inbox filling up faster than you process can be stressing
  • if you are swamping with high priority issues, your processing order is quite arbitrary
  • some lowest priority e-mails will can stay in your sight for months
  • it does not allow following up sent emails
    • for example if I request something from someone and that someone forgets it (apparently he’s not using this e-mail processing technic), would be handy to have it as a pending sent e-mail

Summary

I feel every office worker who spends time every day on e-mails should give thought to his or her personal e-mail handling process. I presented here the Taskbox model I use where you treat Inbox as a task list. An e-mail in the Inbox equals to a pending task.

As a disclamer, the model has not been invented by me, someone presented it to me a few years back and ever since it has been evolving slightly in my use.

I hope this gives inspiration to some people. I also hope I could have discussions on the matter to help to improve my personal process.

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3 Responses to “How to never miss a single e-mail again”

  1. Thanks for the tips. I guess I’m trying to do more or less the same thing, i.e. keeping emails in the inbox until they have been adequately acted upon, and then archiving them. The problem is that I get so many proposals, CFPs and queries that I am not sure whether to act on or not. Choosing to act on a CFP (call for papers) is a major time commitment, but with large potential payoffs as well. I need a better process for making these decisions.

    For keeping track of tasks and personal projects, I’m using OmniFocus, which is based on the so-called Getting Things Done (GTD) method. But I find it a bit overly complicated for my needs.

    On the topic of email handling, I have just moved all my last year’s folders and undecided mails lingering in the inbox to a 2010 archival folder, like I do every year. I love to start the new year with an empty inbox and zero folders! The same applies to my file folders.

  2. 2 Pyry

    I guess there’s no one process fits all. But in your case would sound like taking CFPs out of your Inbox would be a good idea. I mean noting them down on a separate task list with priorities (I use Remember the milk).
    I’ve also found GTD a bit impractically complicated.

  3. I’ve found that archiving messages in folders takes up too much of my time and also makes the messages harder to find. The best and only way to find important emails is search. In my apple mail the search is really really fast even when there are lots of emails – as soon as they all are in the same folder! It seems to me that having them in separate folders slows the search down.

    So every single message stays in my inbox. I never delete anything (except occasional spam). When I read an e-mail, I think about whether it requires an action. If the action can be taken immediately and lasts less than five minutes, I take it. Otherwise (if I have more important stuff to do) I either add the task to a to-do list, create a calendar event / mobile notification or – for example if I’m on my mobile or in a terrible rush – I mark the message as unread so I know I have to come back for it later. I use separate todo-lists anyway since most of the stuff that I put in them comes from other places than emails. But in this case marking the message as unread works for me the same way than the way you leave the message in the inbox.

    Having an inbox full of messages does not stress me at all. Having the pressure of cleaning my inbox used to, as did the fear of misplacing or deleting emails that might later be of importance.


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