Washington Post: Overwhelmed by email? Here’s how to get that inbox under control.

Angela Haupt:

Marsha Egan has a theory: You either control your email, or it controls you.

I have 21,000 unread messages — in my personal account, not others I use for work — so it’s safe to say I fall into the latter camp. Email overwhelm can be crippling: Good intentions to read every interesting newsletter or respond to old friends are flattened by a constant deluge of more, more and more messages, some marked “urgent” or accompanied by chains that take an hour to decipher.

“Email has become the biggest and worst interrupter the universe has ever experienced,” says Egan, a workplace productivity coach and author of “Inbox Detox and the Habit of E-mail Excellence.” “It’s cheap, it’s immediate, and you can copy 200 people if you want to.”

It’s also, many would agree, a giant headache and time suck.

The article goes on to list a bunch of advice for dealing with email. I like it! Here are the headlines of advice:

  • Check your email just a few times a day.
  • Adhere to the four Ds: do, delete, delegate, defer.
  • Turn off notifications.
  • Install useful browser extensions.
  • Don’t think of your inbox as a to-do list.
  • Get good at finding emails.
  • Unsubscribe aggressively.
  • Don’t obsess over Inbox Zero.
  • Don’t use email for urgent communications.
  • Work with colleagues on best practices.
  • Skip the late-night messages.

When I read through these, I have a weird sinking feeling. Is this the kind of thing I want to say with this site too? That’s certainly been my message at times. No exotic technology. No power poses. Not even any dramatic alterations to what you already do. Just adjustments to your relationship with email to get to a healthier place, so that you can start leveraging it better. Being more proactive rather than always reactionary.

It worries me that that advice then becomes… boring. Not that Angela’s article is terribly boring, it’s just all stuff that seems pretty surface level and that I think we’ve all read before. Part of me thinks that boring advice is sometimes OK, people need to hear the basics over and over so they sink in. But another part of me thinks that I’m not really digging deep enough here if I’m just going to echo boring advice.

Just take the first one: “Check your email just a few times a day.” OK, I get it. Email can be a time sink if you dwell in there, so don’t. Get in and get out. I bet that works for a lot of people. But actually, without looking any further than myself, it doesn’t work for everyone. I keep my email open all day and it doesn’t bother me. It’s like a command center for me. I do other work (blog, write code, do meetings) and manage my email all day, and I like it, it’s fine.

But maybe that works for me because of a combination of things. Like this one: “Unsubscribe aggressively.” That’s me. I unsubscribe from things every day. I’m constantly pruning what gets to come into my inbox. And because of that, it makes it manageable to live in there a lot.

Analyzing my own behaviors is one thing, but I have a feeling these combinations of behaviors are unique to everyone, and that there is more to uncover there. Are there people that actually like email notifications and they make them more productive? Probably—but why is that? Are there people that actually go for zero emails in the inbox every time they check it? Or is Inbox A Couple an OK strategy too? I hope to keep exploring this kind of stuff over time.

Different Ways of Being Productive in your Inbox

The classic way of being productive in your email inbox is:

  1. Open Inbox
  2. Read new emails
  3. Respond to things
  4. Reduce inbox to zero or as close as you can with the time you have

But that’s not the only way to be productive. Say you’re in a situation where you can’t really do good reply emails. Maybe you’re on your phone and the tiny keyboard isn’t good enough for a proper reply. Or you just aren’t in the brain space for writing. But reading is OK — you feel like reading. Productivity can be:

  1. Open Inbox
  2. Read each email in the inbox with a fresh mind and with zero pressure to actually reply right now
  3. Imagine what the reply might be like, later. Give your brain a chance to chew on it.
  4. That’s it

There is other work you can do even if you aren’t in the mood for replying: janitorial work! Say you’ve come back from a few days off and the inbox is bulging. An entirely productive thing to do is:

  1. Open Inbox
  2. Swipe away all the emails that don’t need any action from you
  3. Take the opportunity to unsubscribe from things that you can just tell you don’t need in your inbox anymore like ever
  4. Leave alone the stuff that will need more thought, later
  5. That’s it

Here’s another one.

  1. Open Inbox
  2. Look at that one haunting email in there that you know is the most difficult or most effort to answer
  3. Just deal with that one
  4. That’s it

Big Mail

I can’t help but be fascinated when new email clients drop. Like I want to be convinced. Email is such a big part of my life, I both want these things:

  1. to mix things up and keep the job of doing email feeling fresh
  2. to not upset the current bar of productivity

So if it’s not fairly obvious fairly quickly that a new email client will quite literally make me more productive, I just end up reverting back to the old muscle memory of the client I already use.

The latest hot email client that I’ve come across is Big Mail. Looks like the big promise is AI-based categorization of emails. I don’t know that I need that? But hey maybe? I don’t wanna be afraid of new ideas. Then there are sorta dangerous ideas mixed in here, like The Bouncer. Emails from new senders appear in here before you see them in your inbox, so you have to manually approve them. I think that’s how Hey works too. That might be really neat for a brand new email account, but dangerous for someone not expecting or used to that feature who’s had this public email address for decades.

See? I’m already looking for reasons to not like it. I don’t wanna be like that, but alas. Just minutes after setting it up…

  • It would show me emails in my inbox, but show a seemingly infinite loading spinner awkwardly placed.
  • After the email did load, several of them had so much white space at the top of them, I had to scroll super far down to read the email. Same email not like that in any other client.
  • I can’t configure the shortcuts, so my muscle memory is already shattered.
  • Some emails that are rolled up together and treated as one in my main client are split into multiple emails in here.

Ugh — that’s enough for me. I don’t hate it, I just don’t even get a whiff of why this would benefit me. I suspect it’s best for those people with massive unweildly inboxes, where a smart computer sifting through thousands of unmanaged emails actually will help organize them and uncover important things.

Dan Moren of Six Colors experienced a similar vibe. He found some interesting things, but also some difficult hurdles, especially for someone dipping their toes into switching:

There’s another sticky wicket with Big Mail’s approach: while I appreciate that it doesn’t touch my email account’s organizational hierarchy so that if I do pop over to another email client, my messages haven’t been moved into weird folders and whatnot, it also means that those ignored messages…well, they are literally ignored, meaning that they will sit in your inbox, unread. Seemingly forever.

And ultimately I agree with the take:

Look, I get that a lot of these are things that can be chalked up to my personal usage of email. But the very longevity of email’s existence makes it by definition personal. Many people have been dealing with email for decades, and we all have our own systems—there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach.

The trick to email is finding a client that jives with you and building up your strategy over the long term. The strategy is more important than the client, so the long as the client doesn’t get in your way.

If you want to make it clear that email isn’t your thing, do it up right.

All in all, I prefer it when people just list their email somewhere practical to find and just learn how to manage their email. But hey, if you’re already successful and productive, and you’re upfront about not preferring email as a contact method, at least be clear about it.

Here’s Nicky Case’s contact page:

I can't give each email a thoughtful response, but I'd feel dirty giving a thoughtless response. So, I wrote this FAQ to give you thoughtful answers now, rather than have you wait 4+ weeks for a useless reply. Check it out!

There are tons of FAQs here, which might cover why you are emailing them to begin with.

Then at the very bottom, you still gotta really want it to actually get the email address:

I love it. It’s useful. It’s personal. It’s funny. And it bet it works.

“Hi, I’m the founder of _____”

Just a little email trend I’ve noticed lately.

It must work right? Usually things are trends for a reason. I’m a smidge put off by it because, like, dude, it’s not you sending me this email, it’s a fricking template. Now that the lie has been established, I’m not sure I’ll believe any email from “the founder”, unless you do something to really obviously make it a personal email.

One of my most-used buttons in email clients

It’s “Remove Formatting”. Sadly it’s often tucked away somewhere a little hard to reach:

Gmail

I use it when I’ve pasted text in and it comes in with weird formatting.

  • Maybe I copy-pasted from somewhere that used a table layout, and the email client thinks it should maintain that.
  • Maybe I copy-pasted from formatted text and the font-weight and font-style come along and I don’t want that.
  • Maybe for any reason at all I just want the text in the email to be “default” looking rather than have some kind of applied style.

One trick to preventing the need for this is to Paste and Match Style, which is a thing on Mac apps often:

Notice I’ve even got it mapped to have a nice keyboard shortcut. But sometimes I forget and sometimes it doesn’t work quite right, hence the “Remove Formatting”.

Front

I don’t know if I’d implore email clients to make it more prominent, as I have no idea how popular of a button it is, but certainly, if email clients made their UI more configurable, I’d move the button somewhere more prominent.

The Reply `cc` Tango

Say you cc someone on an email. We’ve talked about the expectations there before, but that was largely from setting expectations as a sender. As a receiver, who then replies, what are those expectations?

In my experience, it’s random whether the people replying include the cc’d people or not. I’m not entirely sure if this is a technical thing. For example, different mail clients might choose to include the cc’d recipient in the most prominent reply-button functionality. It could be a brain thing too. For example, someone thinking “the sender here cc’d some people, but that was a one-time thing, I’m not going to reply to all of them because it is nobody’s intention to continue hitting those people’s inboxes”.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t usually jive with what I’m hoping. When I cc someone on an email response, I’m hoping the next response also includes those cc’d people. If that doesn’t happen, I gotta do something awkward like this:

I’m including Quinn and Jake on this email response again. I looped them in last time because they’ll need this information too. Let’s keep them on this email thread for now.

To prevent that, it might be work doing this pre-emptively:

I’ve included Quinn and Jake on this email. Please reply to all of us for now as they’ll need to be looped in on this information as well.

The clarity probably doesn’t hurt there. Also might be worth just adding them as additional recipients rather than literally using the cc function.

Decays over time?

Automattic makes a thing called P2 which is the way communication happens there. I think they use Slack and other things too, so I’m not 100% sure how it all works. Maybe it’s more “official” than those other things? More like public forums than chat.

There is a quote from Matt Mullenweg on the homepage of it:

That’s from a 2014 article. But the P2 homepage looks to be a pretty fresh design, so I imagine he largely feels the same way.

I’m curious what “decays over time” means there. Like an individual email becomes less useful as it ages? Maybe? Or the overall global concept of email is degrading? Seems less likely. I would think he means an email thread can be hot-and-important on a given day, and then fade into obscurity, only to be found via search, later on.

“Empowering the sender” is even more interesting. Is that true? It feels kinda true at first though. If I’m the one asking things of people, I’m the one getting those asks. But I’d also think the power dynamics at play here exist well outside email itself. Probably a lesson there in being the person sending email rather than the hamster on the reply wheel.

“Empowering the group” sorta feels like marketing, but I take the point. Perhaps just the existence of this platform, if used, becomes a place of equal voices?

Ultimately I don’t think having some forums for your group, whatever form they take, is terribly at odds with email. I don’t think email’s strength is typically from within tightly formed groups.

Email is your electronic memory

Bron Gondwana, CEO at Fastmail on the Fastmail blog in 2018:

The email in your mailbox is your copy of what was said, and nobody else can change it or make it go away. The fact that the content of an email can’t be edited is one of the best things about POP3 and IMAP email standards. I admit it annoyed me when I first ran into it – why can’t you just fix up a message in place – but the immutability is the real strength of email. You can safely forget the detail of something that you read in an email, knowing that when you go back to look at it, the information will be exactly the same.