If you work in product management or do almost anything collaborative, you probably send and receive a lot of email. Like many of you, even with Slack and Teams, my total in/out email volume is in the hundreds per day.
Here’s a contrarian opinion: getting a lot of email is a good thing. Email is information and opportunity flowing to you. It’s good to have access to information and opportunity. The trick is in learning how to manage it.
If you’ve been reading my content for a while, you’ve likely noticed that I like simple frameworks. Email is no exception, and I’ve developed a basic system that helps me manage my inbox. There are four core concepts here:
- Inbox “one page”: limit what’s in your inbox to a single page that’s (a) urgent + important or (b) active conversations related to your current focus.
- Buckets: automatically and manually filter inbound emails that aren’t (a) urgent + important or (b) active conversations related to your current focus.
- Batching: address emails routed to folders in a single “batch,” usually weekly or monthly.
- Archive everything: in 2021, search is good. We’re not curating folders of emails here; we only use them to help tackle inbound email efficiently.
Overall, I aim to keep my inbox focused on a manageable set of tasks and active conversations relevant to my priorities.
Forget Inbox Zero, Remember Inbox “One Page”
I don’t focus on “inbox zero.” Instead, I focus on an oddly specific number: 18. This is the number of emails I can see in Outlook’s inbox without scrolling. Our inbox often becomes a to-do list. A good to-do list encourages easy prioritization while limiting the number of concurrent tasks we’re working on.
Seeing everything on a single page helps tremendously with both.
Inbox zero, on the other hand, is an endless battle. Every inbound email is an offense to our efforts. And while we can win the battle temporarily, we never win the war. Inbox “one page” helps us maintain our ground while still having a view over the battlefield. Odd analogy. I’ll move on now.
Automated Filters Reduce My “Inbound” by ~60%
Pre-defined rules automatically determine which inbound emails are important now or important later. Everything “review now” goes directly to my inbox, and everything “review later” is routed to folders.
If an email matches one of the below filters, it’s bucketed as “review now.”
- Sent directly to me (I’m on the “to” or “cc” line of the email).
- From a certain person, e.g., my boss.
- Contain the words “alex,” “reeve,” or “areeve.”
- Sent to an important distribution list, e.g., my direct team.
If an email matches one of the below and none of the above, it’s routed to one of a few “review later” folders that I address periodically.
- Sent to an unimportant distribution list of which I’m a member.
- Where I’m not on the “to” or “cc” line.
“Now,” “This Week,” or “If There’s Time”
With this automated filtering done, my inbox is effectively a working to-do list. From here, I do a little manual “bucketing” sporadically each day.
First, I apply the two-minute rule. I don’t like reading things twice, so if I open an email and it’s a quick response, I’ll answer it right away.
Second, I move emails that are important but not urgent to a “This Week” folder that I review at the end of the week. I move anything important and not urgent to “If There’s Time.” Almost invariably, I never make time for these, so they’re usually bulk archived every month. If you’ve ever emailed me and been routed to the “If There’s Time” folder, I’m sorry.
Everything that the two-minute rule or the “This Week” and “If There’s Time” scrub doesn’t clear out stays in my inbox until I’ve dealt with it.
Batching Your Work
With automated and now/later filtering reducing my email volume by ~60%, my inbox is a fairly focused list, so I just keep an eye on it throughout each day. If I’m above a single page, I’ll carve out time to stay on top of it.
I address most of my emails—i.e., those automatically routed to folders—at the end of each week or month. Batching isn’t complicated. I set aside an hour or two on a weekly or monthly basis to clear out these folders. Once I’ve finished with an email, I archive it.
Everything ends up in my archive. This system isn’t about keeping things in neatly organized folders. Folders of emails are inefficient as a permanent store; search has become good enough that we don’t need to curate our emails. We use folders only to help us manage our time and address inbound email efficiently through batching.
Bringing It Together
All of your email flows in, we apply rules that route it to certain folders, and what’s left is your inbox. Tackle your inbox throughout each day, and on a weekly/monthly basis, tackle the other folders to which email was routed.
All that said, in closing, don’t get obsessive about keeping everything perfect. If my inbox is in perfect shape, I’m usually not busy enough.