How to Win at Email
by nikil ~ 51,173 views
I used to spend hours a day reading every single email that I got. During my Freshman Activities Fair at Stanford, I got really excited and signed up for > 70 clubs – everything from windsurfing to Indian dance. The next morning, I began to understand exactly what I had done. I was added to all of the club mailing lists and started getting over a hundred emails per day. For the next couple of years I actually read every single email that I got – looking back now this seems pretty ridiculous.
Over the following years, I started getting better and better at managing my email, learning a tip here and there and trying to see what worked for me. Sometimes someone who was more organized than me would give me a tip that I would try out. One time, as APM intern, we had an “email ninja” workshop by the Product Manager of Gmail. Most of the time, I figured stuff out from necessity – trying to keep afloat in the barrage of email. Long story short, I’ve managed to develop a system that helps me respond to all of my email quickly and more importantly helps me feel like I’m “done” with email after I check it for the day.
With the strategies below, I can usually deal with the > 100 emails I get a day in under 20-30 minutes. Here’s what I do. This is written using Gmail terminology though the lessons can be applied to any email program. Each point by itself saved me hours of time and together they blaze through email like Gangnam Style gets YouTube views. Enjoy.
1. Filters + Labels
The single most important thing you can do to help manage your email is to filter all emails that come to you from a service. This means email notifications from Facebook, Pinterest, Wells Fargo, and mailing lists that you may be on in college. Essentially you want to filter out any message that does not require you to respond by email. (ex. You’re probably not going to reply to a Facebook notification through email.) In Step 3, we will show you all of your important mail, so don’t worry about missing out on by filtering here.
First, create the following labels:
- Accounts - For emails from any of your services (Facebook, Twitter, Groupon, etc..)
- To Do - For emails that need to respond to. We will use this in Step 2.
- Wealth - For emails from your bank or Mint.
- To Read - For emails that have stuff you want to read later.
- Any other category you feel is necessary. (I have one for work that groups all of my Github commit emails and project related emails)
Now, for every piece of mail that comes from a service that you have signed up for, create a rule that filters this email. The rule should:
- Select all messages from this sender
- Apply a label (that we created above)
- Archive these messages (skip the inbox)
Be really aggressive about this; anytime you notice an email coming to your inbox that wasn’t sent from a real live person directly to you, add a filter for it.
2. Inbox as Task list
From now on, your email inbox is your Task list. As we go through the email in the inbox, for each message
1. Open with the first message in your inbox.
2. Handle the email as follows:
If it is from a real person (not an automated service)
- Response takes < 2 minutes –> Respond immediately and archive
- Response takes > 2 minutes –> Label as “To Do” (see Step 1) and archive
- No response necessary –> Archive it
- Want to read later (ex. link to cool article) –> Apply the label “To Read” (from Step 1) and archive
Email From a Service
- Immediately filter out all email from that sender to a specific label (see Step 1)
3. Go to the next email in your Inbox
4. Repeat 1-3 until you have 0 emails in your inbox.
Right now you might have thousands of emails in your Inbox. Do these steps for the emails up to 2 weeks ago. Archive the rest. If you want to, you can go back and deal with them later, chances are that you would probably not ever look at them again; bite the bullet and start with a clean slate – you will feel great!
This process is extremely important. Make sure you:
- Go directly from one email to the next.
- Do not jump around.
- Open each email exactly once.
- Deal with each message immediately after you open it.
The great part about this is that when you hit Inbox 0, you are DONE (yes thats amazing right?) with email. Once you get a taste for what this feels like, you’ll be hooked.
3. Multiple Inbox
Now we we will surface the important mail that you have filtered out from your inbox. Turn on the Multiple Inbox labs feature in Gmail. (Make sure you are using the Classic Inbox type)
Multiple inbox enables you to see all of your most important categories of emails on the same page. Add these 3 sections:
- To Do
- Your most important label. (for me this is my work label)
Now you have a dashboard that shows you all of the most important mail, filtered by category and limited to the most recent.
4. Email Checking Time
Most people I know check email constantly. I know you feel good when you do this (lots of research has gone into this – check out the “random rewards” theory) and you feel productive and like you are “doing stuff”.
STOP. Right now.
Choose 2-3 times during the day in 20 minute blocks and designate them as email management time. During these allotted segments, ruthlessly go through your inbox and immediately deal with each email one by one (as per Step 2). I’ve found that once in the morning (depending on how you define morning this can be 5am or 2pm), afternoon, and evening works well. During the last block, process all of the emails that are in your To Do label.
In the times between these blocks, resist the urge to check your email. Relax. The world goes on even if you wait a couple of hours to respond to a message. If someone really needs to get in touch with you, tell them to contact you via chat or text. Friends will be more judicious about firing you a message and I’ve noticed that these tend to be actually important. Other emails can wait.
On your phone, turn off email notifications, new email sounds, and also hide the icon which shows you the number of emails in your inbox. Doing this, especially hiding the inbox email count really brought me peace of mind and helped me stop compulsively check email on my phone every few minutes.
5. Pro Tips – Keyboard Shortcuts (Gmail)
Turn on keyboard shortcuts in Gmail. This will be weird at first, and after a few days you will wonder how you enjoyed life without them.
Here are important ones (press SHIFT + ? to see all of the shortcuts):
- j – moves down one email
- k – moves up one email
- x – selects an email
- e – archives the selected emails
- l – labels the emails (start typing to search for a label and hit enter to apply the label)
Single Email View
- [ - archive the email and go to the next one
- l - labels the emails (start typing to search for a label and hit enter to apply the label)
- j – move to the next email without archiving
Try using these for a day or two and see how it feels.
Here are some of the philosophies I believe in with regards to email.
- Touch everything at most once. When you open an email deal with it immediately. (See Step 2)
- The world will go on if you respond to email after a few hours, or god forbid even after a whole day. Tell anyone who really needs your attention immediately to use a real time method of communication.
- Focusing on your life without constantly checking email makes you much better at everything.
- Once you hit Inbox 0, you are done! Relax and go enjoy your life.
I noticed that whenever I was tired or overwhelmed with my work, I would start checking email constantly. Checking email felt productive as replying to a message was a quick, easy, concrete win and I felt like I had accomplished something. Forcing myself to follow the principles outlined above, I discovered that I was able to manage my email in a few small chunks of time during the day and actually do my real work.
Checking email feels good. Being done and living your life? Even better.
Really happy about all of the positive feedback and encouragement for my first ever blog post! Thanks everyone for your support! A big thanks to Tara Viswanathan, Toni Kenthirarajah, Bharath Sitaraman, and David Ngo – your awesome advice and feedback on drafts of this essay was invaluable! I really hope this is useful and slightly (or greatly improves your life! Feel free to shoot me any thoughts, questions, or feedback you may have and for those of you who have been asking, here’s my personal site.