How I Deal with Email

Deb sent me a note a few days ago wanting to know how I deal with all my mail each day — one of the things I’ve always been really good about is e-mail responsiveness. When I sent her something back, she noted it would be a good blog post, so here you go. 🙂

  1. First & foremost, I treat my email as (probably my most important) work queue. (although that’s both work and professional.) I don’t really use it at all for information sources, etc.
  2. No bug mail of note goes into my e-mail. That’s not really a decision so much as a responsibilities thing. but i think the volume of bugmail is so brutal that it’s an e-mail destroyer. (So if I had to get a lot of it, I would segment into a different account.)
  3. I’m on basically zero mailing lists — have other ways of reading that stuff.
  4. I try really hard to get my inbox to less than 20 messages before i leave each day; and 10 before I go to bed. Happens most of the time. I’m sitting on 6 messages in my inbox now, for example. Staying on top of things is *way* easier than getting on top.
  5. Any message that I can respond to quickly, I do, and then throw it away. I do that a lot on my iPhone, as I walk between meetings, wait for my lunch appointment to show up, whatever.
  6. If something is in my box that’s going to take a while to get sorted out, I file it and move the task to my Things list.
  7. Also, if it’s going to take a few days to get back to someone, I generally send them a note to that effect — that I’ll get back to them. and sometimes, especially when I’m doing a favor for someone, I send a note that says “if you don’t hear from me by Tuesday, send me a note”
  8. I try really hard to respond to everyone — either the content of what they want, or the message that it’ll be a while — during the same day — don’t always get that done, but mostly. Generally, my inbox is a bunch of messages from “Today”, a handful from “Yesterday” and some that have actual dates on them. If I note the dated ones getting too long ago, I generally think about how to make traction on them. (There’s some core of ~3-4 messages that are on longer-running topics that sometimes I’m comfortable to just leave there since I know I’ll get to them by the weekend.

An observation I’ve had lately: I’m getting less mail than I used to. More is happening on twitter, IM, etc.

It’s that combo of stuff that I do. I now pretty much don’t file things away, either — I put them either into “FileToKeep” (which I keep for a long time) or (mostly) into “FileToTrash” (which I clean out so that I only have 3 months of past mail in it).

I think the critical things are: (1) treating it purely as a work queue (and getting off every other mailing, or separating to another account, like bugmail), (2) having a discipline about quickly giving *some* response, (3) moving long running tasks to a task list and (4) getting it very close to zero when you start, as I think it’s difficult to whittle down over time (I’ve seen a lot of inboxes with thousands of messages in them — don’t know how you can do anything with those.)

That’s what I do. You?


  1. I let it completely overwhelm me, and remind people that poking me on things isn’t harmful, it’s helpful.

    While I don’t get bugmail to my inbox, I do get list traffic, but I’m pretty brutal about deleting it as it’s all archived anyway.

  2. hey john. you have here a very interesting post about mail. You can also, edit my comment:) Good day!