Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Email Done the Right Way

Is email making your life too stressful? Here's good advice: Read email only once! And here's how and why.

You'd like to make email trouble a thing of the past..?

Yes, it's possible. In fact, it's simple: "Do not use your inbox as a task list."

The email inbox was not designed to be a task list. It gets way too cluttered. Keep your inbox much like you do your SMS messages. Read them, store them and move on. Don't ever return to old messages. It simply is not effective.

If you're asking why, my answer is very simple. Have you ever met someone that truly made it work? Sometimes I meet people who claim the inbox is their task list, and that it works. But then, if you dig deeper, you'll find these people are deeply frustrated and stressed with regular intervals. Don't believe it. Do not do it!

In order to make the change, all you need to do is decide one of three possible outcomes for each email you read:

  • NO ACTION REQUIRED: Archive it.
  • SIMPLE ACTION REQUIRED: If you can deal with it right away, or pass the ball back or to someone else, then hit reply or forward immediately. Keep messages as short as possible. Long emails tend to come back with more work.
  • WORK REQUIRED: Does the email take extra effort? If yes, move it to your task list with a deadline. Keep that task list prioritized and up to date.
Believe me, I've witnessed people increase their effectiveness by leaps and bounds this way. How to do it? Decide to never read emails more than once - from now on!


  1. Online poll / survey: Do you open email even when you know you don't have the time to respond right away? Yes or no? Go here http://linkd.in/yt6BW5

  2. Great post, I agree. It is difficult to change bad habits in practice, but your simple steps is the way to go. I have written about inbox2zero several times: http://gjemmesiden.blogspot.com/2008/05/tom-innboks-er-mulig.html

  3. Thank you, Svend. FYI, you inspired me to finally order David Allen's GTD. Your chart is a good one http://aitel.hist.no/~svendah/bloggbilder/index.php?bid=GTD.png

  4. Not my chart, I "stole it" from the web :-) Your focus on email management is very much in line with my intentions, but it is somewhat difficult to adhere to it in practise. A tip: The tool OmniFocus for Mac (and propably other GTD-tools/todo list managers) enables you to right click an email and "Send to OmniFocus inbox". This is brilliant, because it forces you to make an e-mail actionable. I do this with all my email that needs an action from me (which I can´t do right away), and as it becomes an OmniFocus task, I also assign it to a project or list, set a due date, and set the email context. This is an important key for me and a great tip I got from Morten Rovik. This way, the Mail inbox is clean and I can work exclusively within OmniFocus. Just like you wrote in your blog post.

    My problem is that this is my system in theory. From time to time it works, but in practise I fall back on old sins which means "living in the Mail-inbox" instead of processing the mails as you describe. Therefore: Thank you Vidar for stressing the importance of checking e-mail only once (or twice) a day. It is also a great tip to try to keep e-mails short. I need to improve in this respect. :-)

  5. ...and thnx for correcting me on the source of the chart ;-)

    BTW, I so much agree on making emails actionable, like you say. If a system does not allow it, I would strongly oppose the use of it. Gmail is my platform, and I find that works perfectly to fit my needs.

  6. You should read: http://bitliteracy.com/ - in it the author, Mark Hurst, suggests you delete un-needed e-mail as well. I have been getting my inbox down to zero at least 4-5 days a week. It does indeed make a significant difference in my productivity and reduced stress.

  7. Good point!

    So far I've only made the distinction between spam or not and never deleted simply because there's enough space and the search engine always retrieves the information I need. Hm, worth a thought..!

    Interesting site.