Email has gotten a bad rep in the 21st century among us knowledge workers.

A barrage of continuous notifications with our electronic devices hasn’t helped much either. We are driven by the latest and loudest. The speed at which we get potentially meaningful inputs has only increased, while our attention spans have decreased. We are constantly juggling tasks instead of doing (and finishing) things, and that’s no way to work.

We forget that email just happens to be another inbox like voicemails or your postal mail. You don’t check your postal mail five times a day. That would be crazy-making. You check (and process it) once every day. It should be no different with email. The problem is not the tool itself, but how we use it (as an individual or an organization).

We struggle with email for a few reasons:

  • To begin with, we get more email than we would like. The less email we get, the less we have to process. The reason we get so much email is because we haven’t set up correct protocols as part of working in teams and broadly in terms of organizational culture as to how (and when) to use email as a tool. There’s bound to be problems when expectations with using it are not clarified at the outset because everyone uses it differently. This is one of the things we need to decide on when working in teams/groups. We’re responsible for not making any explicit policies about using email in advance; instead, we use it as per our discretion.

  • We use email as a way to procrastinate instead of doing any real work. We check email as a way to avoid doing the work that we know we should be doing. Often times, we are checking email because we crave that dopamine hit that comes with seeing a new email notification. We reward ourselves for doing something unproductive. Checking email is never about email. It’s about what it allows us to avoid (the real, hard work).

  • We leave our email open all day and respond to any incoming notification ASAP. This is like having your house door open for any and all miscreants to enter. We respond to the urgencies of other people when we should be proactive. When we let email interrupt us, it affects our ability to start (and finish) work.

  • When we use email, we have no process/system for processing email. We simply check instead of deciding what to do with each email. Other times, we simply pick and choose emails in “scan mode” for “relevant/important/interesting” emails while ignoring all other emails, rather than processing each email one by one.

  • We use email as a way to get work done. We forget that this isn’t what email was designed for. It’s just a tool we use to communicate with others. It’s no different than checking your postal mail from your home or voicemails on your phone except for the frequency. The problem occurs when we keep checking it obsessively. Sure, it makes sense to check your email and refresh it every minute if you’re waiting for something important and urgent (such as acceptance for a big proposal, let’s say), but if you’re checking your email all the time, it’s not helping you. You are simply reducing your attention span. Moreoever, you may be responding to other people’s urgencies and deprioritizing your own. This affects your ability to do good work.

  • Often, we use email when we would be better suited with another tool (such as a phone) and interact by voice rather than going back and forth in an email thread. One phone call could surely eliminate the need for sending/receiving multiple emails.

  • We don’t respect others’ attention in that we don’t write effective emails. If it’s going to be hard trying to understand your email, the chances of getting a response to your emails go down considerably. The emails we compose are often long-winded and rife with corporate-speak. We write longer emails when brief emails would suffice. Longer emails will take less time to write because you’re leaving the thinking to the recipient and making it difficult for them to understand your email. In contrast, shorter emails will take you more time to write because it forces you to think more about what you’re going to send to the recipient, thereby making it easier for them to respond. Respect their attention, and you’ll get it.

Now that we know the reasons we struggle with email, how do we use it to our advantage? How do we master it instead of letting it become our master? How do we let the process of using it consistently every day determine the outcome of staying on top of things?

Realize that email is a tool unlike any other. It’s not about email, but what it allows you to do — communicate with others.

Here are some ways of using email effectively:

  • Don’t just check email, process it to empty. That means deciding what to do with each email and then doing it. The goal isn’t to get your inbox to zero. The goal is to use email as a tool, process your emails, then close the application and move on to other things. It’s that simple (and uncommon).

  • Don’t leave your email application open all day while you respond to email notifications reactively. Instead, block some time every day for processing your email (preferably once or twice a day), then go back to doing your work; close the email application.

  • Use simple (yet effective) language. If you’re going to ask for someone’s attention (by way of email), get to the point quickly. Write in plain, jargon-free English. Be concise. Don’t use two sentences when one will suffice. Brevity is your friend. Use subject lines that do a good job of describing the email. Write emails that are well thought-out and that clearly respect others’ time and attention. We are far more likely to get a favorable response from a busy person when they can quickly understand our message. When we don’t respect others’ attention, we can’t expect them to deserve ours.

  • Learn to use email appropriately. Respond to emails only when you deem it necessary to respond. Often times, a phone call works better instead of going back and forth multiple times in an email thread. Besides, most emails don’t warrant a response and belong in the trash.

  • Have (and use) a system for going through your email as described in the workflow below.

  • Have values for using email and stick to them. For instance, your email values could include responding to emails (where warranted) within 24/48 hours 90% of the time. You could have another value such as not using email on the weekends, and thereby teaching others through your actions of not expecting a response and managing (and setting) others’ expectations appropriately.

  • Avoid using email on your phone (if you can). The problem is not the phone itself but how we use email on the phone. The thing is that we lack the discipline and the will power to do things because they are finite and run out quickly, so we use our environment to our advantage. When you don’t have email on your phone, you’re less likely to check it. When you stop checking email randomly on your phone, it goes a long way toward being more present with whatever you’re doing. When you want to stop doing something (checking email on your phone), make it difficult to do so (avoid having email on your phone). This is no different than when you don’t keep junk food in the house — you’re less likely to eat it.

  • Learn the keyboard shortcuts for your email application. It’ll save you a ton of time (and energy) in the long-term.

Setting up your email begins with having a good email service provider. Avoid using free services like Gmail/Yahoo/Hotmail. When these services are not charging you, you’re the product. It’s your information that they are using to serve you ads, etc. You’re not doing yourself any favors by giving away your personal information (privacy) to them in return for a “free” service, which isn’t really free. Use a paid email service instead. You get what you pay for. I’ve been happily using FastMail for many years, and I highly recommend them.

Here’s what you do to set up your email. Create three top-level folders on your email server (IMAP). Call it Action, Hold, and Archive:

  • Action: for emails that take longer than a couple of minutes to respond.

  • Hold: for emails that you want to hold on to because you’re not sure what to do with them just yet, and maybe you want to think about it some more before you decide what to do with it. Use it as a placeholder to keep track of shipments you’re awaiting, for instance. You’re going to review this mailbox at least once every week.

  • Archive: for archiving messages that you think you might need later. As a best practice, at the very least, archive all personal responses from others for future reference.

When you open your email application, you’ll likely have a few emails waiting for you in the inbox. Here’s what you do. Take no more than a couple of minutes to process each email. Processing an email simply means deciding what you’re going to do with it. You either delete, delegate, defer, respond, or do it. Don’t view an email more than once unless you have to (or like to).

Delete an email if you can. If you think it needs a response of some kind, ask yourself if you’re the best person to deal with it or if there is someone else you can delegate this to. If you’re the person best suited for responding, then you either do it now or defer it for later.

You respond to it right away if it’ll take you less than a couple of minutes to respond. If it’s going to take you more than that, move it to the Action folder and process it later. When an email requires you to do something with it, create a next action out of it in your trusted system or create an event in your calendar.

After you’re done processing emails in the inbox, don’t forget to respond to the emails in the Action folder before you archive them.

To summarize the workflow, you do one of five things with an email:

  • Delete: delete and/or archive.
  • Delegate: let someone else deal with it.
  • Respond: do it now if it takes less than a couple of minutes.
  • Defer: put it in your trusted system, archive it, and deal with it later.
  • Do: do whatever the email asks you to do.

This email workflow has worked great for me for many years, and I suppose it’ll work for most of you as well.

For those who want to quickly get started, set up four folders on your email server: Action, Hold, Archive, (as described above) and a fourth folder called DMZ. Move all of your old emails from your Inbox to the DMZ folder. Now you have zero emails in your Inbox. Think of it as a fresh start to your email. This is especially useful for those who have a ton of unprocessed emails in their email inbox. You’ll still have to process the emails in the DMZ folder, but at least it’s out of your inbox so you can process emails in that folder slowly over time without feeling guilty. Once you’re done processing the emails in the DMZ folder, delete it.

Email is an inbox like any other. Like all inboxes, it’s best used when processed regularly instead of obsessing over it.

Trust the process of dealing with email once/twice every day, then close it and go back to doing whatever you were doing.

In the next piece, I covered some best practices as well as some advanced tips for dealing with email.

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