My Solution to E-mail Overload (or, How You Can Scale a Mountain of E-mail and Live to Tell About It!)
I think I might be getting a handle on my e-mail overload problems. As I wrote in an earlier post, Work without E-mail: Is it Possible?:
I am drowning in e-mail, and it’s becoming less and less useful because I simply cannot keep up with the volume I receive every day. It’s a shame because a valuable form of communication is being lost. (Yes, I’ve tried all the InboxZero and GTD stuff…if the volume is too much, even those don’t work.)
I’m not getting any less e-mail these days, but I have devised a scheme which is helping me keep it under control. The basic premise is that I am prioritizing e-mail by how directly it has been sent to me. In the first section of this post, I will outline how I prioritize the mail, and in the second section I will explain how I process the mail.
Visual Version: I had a friend review this post, and he suggested that I need a visual, so I made this flowchart on my whiteboard, just for you! (Click the image the full view.)
Prioritizing Inbound E-mail
Inbox: Sent To Me
The first principle of my scheme is this: the only e-mail that goes in my Inbox are e-mails where my own e-mail address is actually on the To: line. All other e-mail is filtered out into folders (or labels in Gmail). Period.
My theory is that if the sender sent the message directly to me—if they specifically identified me by name—then it definitely deserves my attention. Not only is that logical…I mean, it’s common courtesy, right?
Beyond that, all other e-mail goes elsewhere. CC’s, mailing lists, etc. are almost by definition less important because the sender didn’t explicitly send it to me. (Yes, there are a few exceptions to this rule, but for the most part it’s true.) Or, if not by definition, then for certain on average because while some are important, many are not.
From here on out, it’s simply how I sort all the rest of the mail.
CC: Carbon Copy
Next, I have a folder for e-mail where my address is on the CC: line. These senders thought, “this is an e-mail Scott should be aware of, so I’ll CC: him.” Again, intended for me, but not as important for things addressed directly to me.
Everything Else: Not to Me
Everything was explicitly not sent to me because my address was not on the To: or CC: line. The person who sent it did not have me in mind when they sent it. In 95% of the cases, it was sent to a mailing list to which I belong, so the sender was thinking of the group, not of me.
The problem with the e-mails sent to a group is that I don’t know how I relate to them. I know my relationship to e-mail sent directly to me, or where I am CC:’d. But, I don’t know my relationship to these e-mails. I don’t know if the mail is important to me or not…I just know that it’s mail and it showed up in my Inbox.
Ultimately, these are the really pernicious e-mails because they cost a lot of time to figure out if they are important or not. For example…
Have you ever been part of a long e-mail thread on a group e-mail alias? This happens to me all the time. When I read the mail for a the first time, I have to read it through to decide if it’s an important conversation for me to be a part of…which takes time. If it is relevant, then great. But, if not, it was a waste of time. And, it’s a gift that keeps on giving: each time I get a reply to the thread another mail clutters up my inbox.
So, I have a folder called “Not to Me” for everything else where my e-mail address is neither on the To: or CC: lines. But, wait…there’s more!
Known Relationships: Not all Mailing Lists are the Same
There’s one final adjustment to the system regarding mailing lists: not all lists are the same. Shortly after I started dumping all of the e-mail “not to me” in one folder I realized I need to filter some of these messages out into their own folders.
For every person, these folders are not going to be the same for you as they are for me because each of us belong to different lists and groups. But, here are my special folders for groups:
- Alerts (notifications from our web monitoring systems)
- Cheez Dev (our all developer alias)
- Cheez Tech (our all product team alias)
- Release Notifications (from our deployment system)
- Reports (for our automated daily scorecards)
The Magic of Processing
So, now that I have my e-mail all sorted, it’s time to explain how I process it. That is, how I go through my e-mails and deal with them. The beauty of the system I’ve devised is that it makes processing really easy.
Previously, I found that the biggest cost when reading my e-mail was the time that I had to spend figuring out if I needed to respond to the e-mail or not. What makes this system easy is that I know the probability of whether or not I need to respond by the folder.
So, when I get to work and start reading my e-mail, here’s how I process:
- Alerts and Release Notifications. I never have to respond to these—they’re just informational, so all I need to do is skim them.
- Reports. These are also informational, but every once in awhile they need to be forwarded to someone with a question. Pretty much, I cruise through them like I do the previous folders.
- Cheez Dev and Cheez Tech. These folders contain conversations that I might need or want to participate in, otherwise they’re just informational. So, I can skim them like Alerts and Reports with only a small mindset tweak: I need to pay attention for any conversations that require my input.
- CC’s. CC’s are pretty much like Cheez Dev and Cheez Tech, although the topics vary much more widely. As a result, the processing of each message takes a little longer because I need to read with more focus in order to understand the context. That being said, the reply rate is the same as Cheez Dev and Cheez Tech.
- Not to Me. This is everything else, and it’s the lowest priority. Pretty much, these get treated the same way as CC’s, although the reply rate is far less.
- Inbox. Honestly, I can get through all the above mail in 1/10th the time that I used to because the way the mail gets categorized into folders enables me to process it quickly. Before, I had to spend time with each mail trying to figure out how much, if any, attention it required. But, now I know, and the result is that I’m much faster at getting through them.
So, after I’ve cruised through the relatively unimportant messages, what’s left, of course, is the Inbox: stuff sent directly to me. Just like before, I need to pay attention to every single one of these, and almost all of them require thoughtful comprehension and a reply. They take time, no doubt, but they’re also the messages that deserve time.
So, that’s my system. What do you think?
(Maybe I need to think of a name for it and give it a brand and get a trademark and become famous for teaching people how to scale a mountain of e-mail and live to tell about it. Any ideas?)