4 principles to spend less time fiddling with email

In a series of small productivity tips to work efficiently as an individual and team, I’d like to share my simple 4 principle system to enjoy working with email, achieve inbox zero and be faster communicator.

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Vince Schwidder

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This article can optimize your workflow when working with email. The 4 principles defined are easy to setup and will improve at least one area of your experience with email.

The 4 principles of my email system:

  1. Recurring moment to process your inbox

  2. Review and process with the 2-minute rule

  3. Use an email app that works for you

  4. Plan a bigger chunk of time for email

Let’s get started.

1. Recurring moment to process your inbox

Create a recurring moment in your day when you check email and really focus on processing your inbox. Depending on your role, this moment might be once a day, or multiple times a day. I do not recommend checking your email more often than 3 times per day if your role allows it. These 3 moments give you confidence that you have short enough intervals to know that you won’t miss anything important throughout the day.

My moments are:

  • 15 minutes before work

  • 15 minutes before lunch

  • 15 minutes after work

It’s key to really be in the mind state of processing your email during these moments. Try to ignore other notifications coming in from other apps like Slack while you’re looking at your inbox. This gives you a Deep Focus on the task at hand and allows you to process your email much faster.

You won't be able to reply or process to a ton of email in these 15 minute moments, unless you apply my 2nd principle.

2. Review and process with the 2-minute rule

Scan every email in your inbox for about 10 seconds and determine one of these 3 actions:

  • Do it now

  • Postpone

  • Archive

These should be the only 3 next steps you take when reviewing an email.

Do it now

You can immediately process an email, but only if it will take less than 2 minutes. This 2-minute rule enables you to reply to important emails, or take an action that has a priority. On the flip side it will protect your precious time from less important emails. Processing an email can mean several things like sending a reply, creating a to-do, or sharing an update to a colleague. As long as it takes you less than 2 minutes.

Postpone

If you need more than 2 minutes to process the email, you can postpone it. My trick is to “Star” an email so it shows up in my Starred folder. Moving the email from the Inbox to Starred is primarily a mental win as it allows you to achieve Inbox Zero, and you know that everything in Starred requires a bit more attention.

Archive

Archive is a powerful action to take with an email in your inbox, as it removes it completely from your radar. Archiving is perfect for emails that you only need to read and don’t require more action.

3. Use an email app that works for you

The app that you use to manage your email should enable you to work efficiently and focused on the task at hand. At Yummygum we’re using Google Workshop, but the Gmail interface is far too bloated and distracting to use. I am currently using Mimestream which is a minimal email tool with great keyboard shortcut support.

When I trigger ⌘R to reply, it automatically adds the right signature to my email and I can start writing. Sending the email with ⌘⇧ + Enter immediately archives the email.

I recommend disabling notifications, and keeping the email app closed unless you have your email moment.

4. Plan a bigger chunk of time for email

You will build up Postponed (or Starred) emails over time that require more than 2 minutes of your time. The key here is to plan time when you're going to process these emails, instead of doing it ad-hoc.

I usually plan a bigger chunk of time when I have more than 5 postponed emails. It works for me do to this in Low Energy Moments during your day. Processing email does not necessarily require a lot of creative energy, so right after lunch is often a good time for me.

Trust your new system

It is important to trust your new setup system to process email more efficiently for a few weeks. You’ll notice you’ll experience less FOMO or stress, and you become much faster at processing your emails.

By the way, if you’re starting with Inbox Zero for the first time, just archive ALL emails that are older than 1 or 2 weeks. Process the rest with your new system. If anything older than 2 weeks was really important, you’ll get a reminder.

This system works for me, but maybe you have any tips I am missing? Tweet me at @vschwid with your tricks.


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