How To Handle Email Calmly

I see a lot of people with a strong emotional relationship with their email—and not a good one. They then resort to use a phone, the tool of mass focus destruction. Or Facebook Messenger, the tool of personal focus destruction.

The lazy answer to email problems is Inbox Zero. Originally introduced as Email DMZ as a process to declare email bankruptcy often, it mutated into an idea that you should process all your emails every time and if you don't then well, you are not as worthy as other people. This is sticky advice as it plays on the sweet spot between habit building and Stockholm syndrome—and is as healthy as the latter. Moreover, it invites you to only handle the consequences of your choices instead of inspecting them.

These are the rules of my email handling. It is an opinionated process designed to remove decisions as much as possible. I hope they will help you get to your zen.

For this article, email refers either to an individual email message or email as a platform. Mailbox refers to a list of messages managed on a single email address (the username@server text people can write you to). Inbox is a list of newly received email messages within a single mailbox.

Have At Least Three Email Addresses

You have to have at least three email addresses. Those represent a different aspect of your life. Those mailboxes are checked at different times, have a different priority, and should have different notification settings.

The first three are mandatory for any reasonable email handling.

Private Communication Email Address

The high-priority email you should be very careful whom you give. It shouldn't be in any registration or notification form, any business card, or any contract. I only give it to family, friends, and people whom I trust not to abuse it.

This is the only email for which I have notifications enabled. When I recently returned from two weeks of offline hiking, it contained a total of 20 emails, all of which I responded to within a day.

It defaults to Inbox Zero as it only contains emails that spark joy and I respond to quickly.

The Notification and Spam Email Address

The high-volume email I give everywhere by default. It goes into all registration forms, notification systems, or conferences. It's not in any of my email clients, it most definitely doesn't notify anyone and is only checked when I go fishing down a registration verification email or check the status of some support ticket.

Having this kitchen sink is crucial for other emails to work. While I originally created it to combat spam in its original Viagra meaning, it is now used to counter more sophisticated forms of persuasion, distraction, and constant poking. It's much more efficient than navigating notification settings of dozens of services or unsubscribing from various mailing lists I was manipulated or sold into.

If there is a valid and trusted notification source, it is whitelisted here and forwarded to one of the other emails.

The content is only vaguely scanned and confidently climbs towards Inbox Bazillion. I found GMail's automatic categorization feature useful here as it helps identify an occasionally useful email here.

The Work and Project Email Address

The main email is used for coordination around work and projects. I maintain one that's tied to my domain and I usually got an additional one when employed. It goes on business cards and covers one work area of my life. It has many aliases that help me filter and segments my work and my focus.

I process all communication roughly once or twice a workday in designed timeslots. When I was in a company with a suboptimal approach to communication that forced me to be "on" all the time, I scanned the inbox more often, but still only for immediate fires.

If my tools support it, this email also receives reports and digests—but I try to avoid notifications. If I can, I get an additional email for those.

The Official and Bureaucracy Private Email Address

I give this address to official institutions, banks, or utility providers. I check it roughly weekly. In an ideal world, all communication here would be processed as a high priority, but many of those institutions have a very different idea about what important information is1.

The Work Mailing List

If you are flooded with questions and can’t keep up, it’s worth inspecting whether you are the only person who can answer them. If not, maybe your email should be a mailing list.

Sure, maybe your email should be a full-blown support solution, but having an email list (or mailbox) instead is a viable first step. Agree within your team on shifts and who’s responsible for cleaning on a given day—and you will both provide a better experience2 as well as clean your email.

Inbox Is Not An Archive

Inbox only stands for "messages not processed", everything else should be archived. The archive is different from deletion: archived emails are still available for search and can be viewed in the "All Emails" folder.

Aggressive archival is the main idea behind Inbox Zero. I like it, although I only use it on select mailboxes. I use it so often that I demand from my email client that has to be invoked with a single letter shortcut (like e in GMail3) instead of a standard shortcut (like Ctrl-E).

Enable Threads

Replies to a conversation shouldn’t appear as a separate email, but rather a new message in a message thread, visible only after “zooming in” from the main view.

If your client is not configured like that by default, enable it. It may sometimes get screwed by people who don't use this feature and thus see no difference between reply and new thread, but it works the vast majority of the time and it's worth the readability gain.

Consider Muting

“Mute thread” allows you to automatically archive further messages in a thread as long as you are only Cc’d.

I never do this in a personal email. But when working in a company with a very chatty email culture where I was randomly copied as a manager "so I know about this", this kept a few shreds of my sanity untouched.

Oldest First

I can’t stress this enough: You should always process your emails from the oldest. If your email client can’t sort your inbox correctly, change it. This is a major help for times where the inbox goes out of control.

It Avoids Anxiety Sediment

Unprocessed emails are like letters from your local tax bureau. They most probably don’t say your life is in ruins and you are going to jail—but you can’t be quite sure until you read them. And the longer you wait, the higher fine is waiting for you.

If you read through your inbox from the newest emails, the part you don't have time to go to gets older and older, it gets thicker and rots. After a certain point, it gets emotionally hard to reply to a simple "Hi" from a friend. "Hello, congratulations on your wedding three years ago, sorry for the late reply, I've been busy"?

I call it anxiety sediment. One glance that reminds you of all your failures. Some people prefer to cut off from the past and call in Email Bankruptcy. I think changing the processing order is more simple and more respectful.

It Gives You a Sense of Progress

You have an idea how much behind you are, time-wise. Few hours? One day? A week? Either way, it’s obvious and even if you are not catching up, you are not leaving anyone behind.

Correction: you may and you should. Not every communication has the same priority and emails shouldn't be treated the same just because they reached you. But you are now doing the prioritization consciously instead of by accident.

It Sets Expectations Right

With anyone being able to reach you, an email is a tool of mass messaging. Of no such tool, you can expect immediate responses. If people should have the right to expect so, they should have a different channel available—be it group messenger, SMS, or a phone call.

Whether urgent is important depends highly on the work you do. Either way, this helps you make that decision instead of others deciding for you.

If you have a work mailing list set up as above, this also helps to prove the point. I never intentionally neglected anyone, but when my email was abused as a priority inbox without even trying the mailing list, I always mentioned that people will get better response time there.

Inbox Is Not a TODO list

Any email that you can't respond to immediately and requires more than two minutes of writing is a TODO. Mixing a communication tool with a TODO list is an emotionally dangerous idea, even when it's served by a growing suite of products.

If you can’t handle email right now, it should go into your todo list. If you prefer Inbox Zero, then the email should be immediately archived. If you feel you will forget4, put a deadline or a reminder to the todo item. For this reason alone I prefer digital TODO list: sending an email to the TODO list is a single shortcut and the created item contains a link back to the email, making it effortless to pick it up later. If you feel this would make your TODO list cluttered, I have bad news for you: it already is, just at two places.

Remember that an email is a communication tool. If a glance at your inbox reminds you of all tasks you are behind on, you are not putting yourself into a state of mind advisable for high-quality communication.

Inbox Is Not a Reading List

An email that requires more than two minutes of reading is either a TODO (see above) or a long-read. That is fine—but should be read in a separate session, unless you're absolutely sure it has to be read right now. This is especially true for “interesting articles you should know about”.

There are plenty of "read later" tools, use any of them. Just decouple.

There is a shady middle ground of work-related reads that may be confidential or available only over a VPN. For those, I have a section in my TODO list: the task name is the intent of why I need to read it and a link.

Consider Filters

I once had a sophisticated set of filters that neatly classified inbound emails into dozens of folders. I no longer classify as I found search is good enough. For processing, I prefer a single inbox rather than separate inboxes in separate folders.

Folder filters can be used to fake the separate mailboxes within a single mailbox, but the problem is that it requires more active maintenance. It's also easier to just skip setting up a mailbox on mobile rather than figuring out different notifications for different folders.

I do use filters for forwarding emails from the notifications account as well as occasionally auto-archive emails that match certain criteria. It is the last resort, but sometimes necessary to tame the work email.

So What About the Inbox Zero?

I use the Inbox Zero for the high priority mailboxes. Not because it's a valuable goal in itself, but because with aggressive archival and high signal-to-noise ratio, it's essentially a bookmark of "where I am done with processing". It worked for me even at my corporate high peak of averaging 300-ish valid emails every single day.

I don’t think it’s required for a peaceful email though. Just properly decoupling the mailboxes should give you a lot less noise and more manageable volume.

Why Use Email Anyway?

The complaints about emails go on for decades and it’s pronounced dead every few years. The products that try to replace them, however, tend to fail the basic usage patterns.

The core feature of the email is the scalability of the communication. The complete decoupling of a sender and a receiver is what gives it this property. The fact that the receiver can independently manipulate, filter, reorganize, and archive (or delete) the inbound communication is what makes it usable for a wider audience than a few people.

Any replacement for email has to be asynchronous as well. Any synchronous communication doesn’t scale. Both phone calls and (group) chats are hard to do in parallel. They set up an expectation of immediate communication, disruptive to any focused work.

Chat is essentially a single communication thread per person. It has its place—but opening a chat application with 50 new conversations is as overwhelming as an overflowing inbox, yet harder to process systematically. It also introduces a different set of expectations and anxieties. There is a whole set of internet humor dealing with the emotional fallout of seeing the “recipient read the message” checkmark.

The open and federative nature of email is its blessing and a curse. If the main source of anxiety is random messages from strangers, it may be worth maintaining a whitelist of recipients. But unless you are a very visible persona5, I’d say the exposure is relatively low and providers do a good job of filtering out overt spam.

The alternatives are walled gardens. Political problems aside, this creates real usage issues as groups of people often reside on mutually incompatible platforms, making communication difficult.

Conclusion

Email is the only scalable tool for asynchronous text communication available. The scale, together with a mix of a wanted and unwanted message can be overpowering and create anxieties.

Not having an email may be an answer, if you want to cut yourself off an electronic communication. If not, I hope those tips will help you take the scale under control and provide a framework for calm email handling.


  1. As an example, my phone provider is unable to inform me of payment failures only. I can only opt-out completely or receive information about every monthly invoice ↩︎

  2. In larger companies, I saw a full-blown support solution for external customers, but not for fellow employees. Other teams using your product, salespeople and random VPs closing deals (also known as "internal customers") can flood you even more efficiently. A mailing list can be a valuable low-key solution ↩︎

  3. Keyboard shortcuts for GMail web interface have to be explicitly enabled in settings ↩︎

  4. This means you need help with your todo list, but that’s another article. ↩︎

  5. If you are, you may want to follow the footsteps of Master Yoda Donald Knuth, who gave up on email in 1990 precisely because of focus. You can still send him a snail mail—or a fax which he checks annually ↩︎

Published in Essays and tagged corporationsproductivity


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