Staying afloat in email

One of the things I’ve noticed when folks share their screens and they happen to toggle over to their email client is there’s a lot of email folder names in bold. They’ve got these unbelievable piles of unread mail. With the volume of unread mail, they tend to miss out on replying to some items, so the original sender sends a follow-up email, and so they end up with more unread mail. I guess email management isn’t exactly something that’s taught by our parents or in school. What I would like to share with younger folks is that they don’t have to work like this — drowning in email, dreading having to open their email, griping that they’ve got so much mail. These are stuff that works for me, or things that I would like to develop and encourage more with respect to email.

Inbox zero

With inbox zero, you don’t just check your email. You process it or convert it to actionable items. For any thing that comes into your inbox, there are 5 possible things you can do with it.

  • Delete (or archive) – especially if it’s just spam or you know it has no relevance to what you’re working on
  • Delegate – if it’s something that has to be addressed by someone else, go send it to the appropriate person. You might also want to have some system for following up.
  • Respond – if it’s something you can respond to right there and then, go ahead and send your 1- or 2-line response
  • Defer – this is for stuff that’ll take some time to respond to e.g., if you need to gather info first, or if it’s something that requires more thoughtful writing
  • Do – if it’s going to take just a minute or two, then go right ahead and do the action needed in the mail

A thing to remember is that your inbox is not your calendar; not your address book; not a task list; not your bug list. Keep it tidy so that you’ll be able to respond more promptly, and you don’t end up feeling overwhelmed. The author of the inbox zero idea has a video explaining this much better. Around 30 minutes of the video goes to the explanation, the rest is for the Q&A.

Email charter

This site – – lists 10 rules for saving our inboxes:

  1. Respect recipients’ time – the fundamental rule
  2. Short or slow is not rude – being terse doesn’t mean you’re cold, angry, rude. You’re just using fewer words.
  3. Celebrate clarity – this also includes having a subject that clearly correlates to the content. Don’t you just hate that long “Re: Hi!” email thread.
  4. Quash open-ended questions
  5. Slash surplus cc’s
  6. Tighten the thread – sometimes the email thread has gone for so long, the original questions or concerns have been buried and overlooked.
  7. Attack attachments – don’t you just hate it when someone sends you an excel file for a little table that could’ve been copy-pasted onto the email body itself
  8. Give these gifts: EOM, NNTR – add as needed to the subject line. EOM = End of message, so that the recipient won’t have to open the actual message anymore. NNTR = No need to respond, sometimes you don’t need the email response just saying “Noted, thanks.”
  9. Cut contentless responses – you don’t have to reply to each and every mail especially if it’s just a “Yeah”, “Great”, “Wow, thanks”. They provide no additional value.
  10. Disconnect – less time on email would mean less email. You don’t have to check your mail every minute (unless that’s what you’re actually paid to do).

Mastering the short email

This lifehack article shares a quote that I like and an outline for a 5-sentence email. First, the quote:

“I apologize that this letter is so long. I did not have the time to make it short.” – Blaise Pascal

It actually takes more effort to come up with lean, coherent content than to ramble on. But it saves more time especially if there are a lot of recipients.

Now, an outline you can use for your 5-sentence email:

  1. Who are you? This might be skipped if you already have a relationship with the recipient; otherwise, in as little space as possible, explain the relevant facts about yourself.
  2. What do you want? Explain why you’re writing the email, what you expect your recipient to do about it, and any relevant information they need to respond with the appropriate action.
  3. Why should you get it? Or, more to the point, why should they bother? Explain why your request is important, and if relevant, what’s in it for them.
  4. When do you need them to act? Open-ended requests get open-ended responses – that is, they get responded to whenever the recipient gets around to it. Be as specific as possible, so that your recipient a) has a sense of urgency, b) feels that their response is important to you, and c) feels inspired to act.

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