The care and management of…email?

Yes, that’s right.  I figured it was time for a productivity related topic, something that leans towards the incredibly practical.  This is an area in which I believe I have a reasonable amount of expertise because I am generally a prompt responder/ processor unless life is simply too unruly.  I will confess, however, that from time to time things get buried and parts of my email can turn into a dead letter office.  I am still working on that.

I used Google to search “email productivity tips” and got this screen:

Email productivity tips search
Email productivity tips search

Yes, plenty of folks have plenty of ideas about managing the unruly inbox.  I’ll admit that the Zen Habits post is one of my favorites, mostly because when I first read it I was introduced to the idea of “email bankruptcy.”  I use a similar principle when I go completely off the grid for a significant length of time, mostly because any email that hasn’t been processed in two weeks without consequences either (1) wasn’t that important anyway or (2) got figured out in the meantime.

I did have a phase when I was ruled by my email inboxes.  Every email that arrived resulted in a “ping” on my phone.  I received push notifications on all of my computers.  Of course, I’m as Pavlovian as the next girl- those pings and dings feed my Dopaminergic impulses, so I would look.  And look I consistently did until I tried an uncontrolled experiment of- GASP!- turning off email notifications.  This experiment had two key findings.  First, the world did not end if I didn’t get notifications of all of my emails as they landed (and in fact, it provided me with the courage to turn off essentially ALL notifications on my phone except for my pager app).  Second, the emails would still be there when I had time to process them logically and thoughtfully.  Those electrons don’t just vanish into space.

I now describe my relationship with my email inbox as “generally healthy.”  I say generally because we all have those things that we sit there and stare at…and just don’t want to deal with so we instead avoid them.  Those things will differ for each of us, but we ALL have them.  One of my biggest productivity helps was setting up my work email with Sanebox, which has good default filters that can be made even better with a little work.  I simply cannot describe the satisfaction I find in banishing solicitations from predatory publishers to “Sane Black Hole”.  Also, since many of us tend to use our email a bit like a to-do list, I can forward something to “” then delete it from my primary box, but receive a reminder to act on it on Thursday.  All very helpful for processing.

My other secret isn’t really a secret.  We all read plenty about “Inbox Zero,” and while I can’t achieve that level of perfection, I can achieve “Inbox Almost-Zero.”  If something will take me less than a minute to respond to or process, I manage it as soon as I read it.  If it requires more time but can be done today, I’ll leave it.  If it requires even more time and can’t be done today, that’s where forwarding it to the sanebox of the day comes in for me.  Also, it’s important to confess that with notifications and push turned off, I’m not responding to email as a constant crisis stream.  If I’m doing other things, I might check once an hour.  If I’m truly busy (on clinical service!) I’ll check between cases for urgent items, then process things for real twice during the day- once in the morning, once in the evening.  It doesn’t get me all the way to Inbox Zero, but it gets close.  Most importantly, it reminds me that I’m really the one in control of my electronic communications- not those pings and dings telling me I’ve got mail.

Do you have some email management tips that help improve your productivity and get your email to work for you?  Please share in the comments, or Tweet them at me (@AmaliaCochranMD).