Manage your mail (GTD style)

Today it’s time for a more practical topic.
Namely how to survive in the modern, e-mail crazed world.

For many of us, the daily arrival into our mailbox is closely analogous to Orpheus’ descent into the underworld. We witness hundreds or thousands of unread emails, several dozen that need answering or addressing, and an undefined amount of unforgotten obligations (whose absence is both blissful and enerving).

I used to have this problem too. Learning how to deal with email overload is a learning process for all of us, and there was certainly a time when I thought only a SWAT team intervention could help me make any headway into this struggle. In the end I found something quite a bit simpler.

For the last two years, I’ve managed to really consistently deal with mails by setting up a task management system inside my email client (Gmail).
The system is based on the interplay between several Gmail features: namely the ‘Multiple Inboxes’ lab and an efficient use of labels. Every day I can simply go over my mail chronologically, sort it into different categories using some labels (like “Todo” or “Monitor”) and keep my obligations clearly visible.

The final result looks something like this:

Email example.png

 Behold that zero inbox!

 Let me first address an important counter-argument to this approach: many say that email isn’t supposed to be a task management system at all. It is simply a single mode of communication; you probably wouldn’t create a task management system for your phone calls, so does it really make sense to make one in your mail?
I have a lot of respect for this view, especially since it tends to come from other productivity geeks and gurus -many of whom have a single productivity system, in Evernote for instance.
Perhaps this is a more advanced productivity system than I currently use, and I have yet to see its full value.

Nevertheless, I can say that I’ve had a lot of success with this mail management system in the last years. It helped me managed getting up to 100 mails a day and effortlessly structure and deal with them.
And the method has a philosophical advantage as well: it provides a split in reactive versus proactive working time. Most of us wake up to inundated mailboxes and spend a significant amount of time just keeping the ship afloat. Most of the time, however, answering emails isn’t proactive work. [1] It’s reactive work: reading announcement of others, giving input, and so on. And the constant dopamine shots of “You got mail!” or “Help me with this!” are very distracting to blocks of focused time.

Personally I try to observe a clear split in my working day:

Until a certain time in the day (usually until noon) I don’t want to open up my mail at all. I’m focusing on my personal productivity and using morning time to focus on difficult problems.
Then around noon I’ll have my reactive time; striving to deal with my mailbox in its entierity -to the extent that that’s possible.
I’ll then go back to 100% proactive time in the afternoon, and have another reactive block before I stop the working day.
I find this really helps with the quality of my work.

The practicalities

For managing productivity workflows, it’s hard to beat the principles outlined in ‘Getting Things Done’ by David Allen. I highly recommend that book, as understanding the philosophy behind the system can make it a lot better.

For almost two years, I mainly used labels to structure this system. I had 4-5 different labels that Gmail lets me “assign” to different labels by dragging and dropping.

From the moment I opened my mailbox, my block of reactive time looks like this:

  • I start going through my mail, and whenever I see something I can take care of in 2 minutes or less (filling in a Doodle, giving someone green light, uploading a file) I do it right away to not clutter up my todo list.
  • Tasks that are urgent and must be taken care of ASAP, get the label Next Tasks. They will be the first tasks I go to after I finish going through the mail.
  • Other mail threads that need work, attention, or otherwise point towards my involvement, are assigned the Todo label.
  • Topics with which I can’t proceed because I’m waiting for someone else’s input, are assigned the Awaiting Reply label. They won’t be worked on, but labelling them makes sure I don’t keep track of them!
  • Someday/Later: a label for non-urgent and not-so-important tasks or threads. They’re saved for a more chill time period.
  • Scheduled: mailing threads you’ll frequently need to use to get information back.

The labelling system works really smoothly. Go through the mail, drag and drop a label, and boom! It shows up in one of the multiple inboxes assigned to each label (see the tutorial I linked to above, and let me know in the comments if you have practical problems!).

You can even make this setup a bit easier by using Gmail “starring” system instead of using drag-and-drop labels. Credit to Andreas Klinger for this idea! (Be sure to check his blog post if you’re having practical problems: his explanation is very in-depth).

Having an actual system for managing mails did the impossible for me: it turned me from a guy who never knew what was going on and with hundreds of unread mails, to someone who actually looks forward to checking and managing his inbox.

Being able to deal with emails is crucial in our fast-paced society, so learn how to manage it before it manages you!


[1] Sending mails can be proactive work if you’re in a marketing or communication business, or in the cases where your project includes communication duties. Nevertheless, by processing your mailbox you’re opening yourself up to the outside world and risk others pushing jobs and responsibilities on you.


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