Jacob Evans

Putting Email In Its Place

Email is a communication method that must be tamed. Left unchecked, many knowledge workers, and particularly managers, can spend the majority of their time reading and sending email—like a human communication router.

When I served as a technology executive at a fast growing, mid-sized, software company there were entire days where an inordinate amount of my discretionary time was dedicated to managing email. Without question, this was a poor use of my working hours. And as a result, I have worked to develop a handful of methods to tame the beast we call email.

I’ll start by detailing two particularly effective methods I use to deal with what I call "bulk messages" followed by how I approach checking email and tuning notifications.

Newsletters

If you’re like me, you probably get a bunch of email from companies and organizations you like. You probably also get emails from people that somehow find you but you have no interest in doing business with them. More often than not, these are not urgent or important messages requiring your immediate attention and therefore should not hit your inbox.

Instead, these bulk communications can be filed away into another folder bypassing the inbox altogether. Fortunately, this can be achieved using a mail rule, allowing you to batch review these messages when you're low on energy and have some free time.

The mail rule I setup to file these types of messages away is pretty simple. It moves messages to a folder named "Bulk" that contain one or more words or phrases that are most likely to be found only in bulk emails. The words and phrases are as follows:

  • opt-out
  • unsubscribe
  • viewing the newsletter
  • edit your preferences
  • email notifications
  • update profile
  • manage your account
  • email preferences

If you use Gmail or G Suite as your email provider, here’s the “has the words” search string I used to create my bulk message filter:

"opt-out" OR unsubscribe OR "viewing the newsletter" OR "edit your preferences" OR "email notifications" OR "update profile" OR "manage your account" OR "email preferences"

I have found this rule to rarely file away a non-bulk message, but your milage may vary.

One nice ancillary benefit of corralling bulk messages into a single folder is that it gives you a punch list of all the newsletters you’re subscribed to. This makes it relatively easy to work through the list and unsubscribe to the ones that are no longer of interest.

Since setting up this simple rule, hundreds of messages a week that would have normally hit my inbox get filed away for later review.

Distribution Lists

If your company is anything like the ones I have worked with, chances are you get a lot of email via lists you’re a member of. Many of these distribution lists are used to send non-urgent, and often unimportant, company announcements that don’t need to be read right away or responded to immediately (or at all). For this reason, especially if you work in a company that sends a lot of non-urgent, for-your-information type of emails, you may benefit from having these messages skip your inbox by setting up a mail rule to file them away for later review.

Email Checking & Notifications

Once implemented, the two bulk email suggestions should reduce the number of email notifications you get by an order of magnitude. However, you may want to do what I’ve done and reduce the number of notifications and unread message counts further (and by "further" I mean "to alomost zero").

I determined some time ago to only process email a few times a day: once in the morning, once at mid-day and once when finishing up work. This has worked relatively well for me, however due to the nature of my work, I often need to send email messages outside of my processing windows. For this reason, I have all but turned off email notifications and unread badge counts. This allows me to leave my email app open without having to be reminded of how many unread messages I have waiting or getting pestered by notifications.

I do make use of the VIP contact feature on my Mac and iOS devices. For the few people that are on my VIP lists, mostly key leaders I work with on an irregular basis, I like to get notified immediately when they send me a message.


Since implementing these three simple strategies for taming my inbox, I can confidently say most email that does get through is more deserving of my time and attention. It effectively cuts out a lot of the “white noise” that would otherwise accumulate in my inbox, enabling me to deal with email on my own terms, to which my time and attention (and my delete key) are eternally grateful.

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