Email is a pain in the butt

Email is a pain in the butt. There, I said it. I hate email.

I haven’t blogged in a few weeks because I’ve been really busy with projects at work. I’ve been busy juggling several big projects, traveling a bit and going to lots and lots of meetings. I’m not complaining about that. The past few weeks I have done my best to keep up with the important things but have intentionally let the smaller things go. That includes email — lots and lots of email.

For the past two or three weeks, I have fallen into the habit of skimming my email for important messages from members of my team, students, people I work with directly and anyone seeking my assistance directly. I haven’t been reading vendor emails, webinar invites, project summary updates, publisher advertisements and TOC updates. I have been letting these emails stack up, unread in my already full inbox.

It all finally caught up with me.

Last week I was checking my email while at a conference. A friend leaned over my shoulder, noticed the 687 unread emails badge on my email folder and said, “Dude, you have over 600 unread email messages! That’s awesome!”

I didn’t feel awesome. I felt embarrassed. I felt tired. I felt a bit angry. So, I made a promise. No more stacking up unnecessary emails. I aspire to keep a clean email inbox. All the productivity literature advises the following on incoming emails: Deal with it; Delegate it; Delete it.

Easy, right? Not quite.

First, I had to deal with the rat’s nest that my inbox had become. So I did a bit of triage. I cordoned off my inbox. Everything older than April got shipped into  a separate folder to be dealt with later. To start, I would only deal with the current month. The goal is to winnow down my emails from the current month until I am left with a clean inbox to work from. I still have about 70 emails that need to be dealt with, filed or forgotten. I have only 4 unread messages at the moment.

I’m a piler. My office is the same. I have stacks of mid-level importance stuff piled up on my desk waiting patiently for my attention. Since I can’t pile emails, I flag them. My Outlook inbox is a parade of flags billowing patiently, waiting for me to deal with, delegate or delete. Some of the emails require a conversation. Some require recording some information someone else. Several require reading. Many are diverse threads of a single conversation.

I’m working through my rules. I need to be ruthless in my discipline. I want to be merciless in my digital housekeeping.

The trouble is they keep rolling in. Yesterday I received 57 new emails and sent 25. Today I received 67 and sent 27. This is a pretty light week, so far.

Please help. I am under attack. This is a full-scale assault.

Emails are a messages in bottles. I am the man on the beach. I keep throwing the bottles back out to sea but they keep washing up on me.

Here are my new rules for merciless email management:

  • Don’t flag emails for later reading. If they are articles, read them now or push them to Instapaper for easier offline reading.
  • Delete all previous emails from a threaded conversation. Keep only the most recent.
  • Don’t save emails to which I have replied. I can find the email later in my sent messages file.
  • Keep emails short, focused, to the point.
  • Don’t read emails that waste my time.
  • Don’t read emails that require me to open an attachment to understand what they are about.
  • Don’t email drafts of documents to others for editing. Use Google Docs.
  • Move emails that require a scheduled event directly to the calendar for safe keeping.
  • Unsubscribe to anything that does not immediately benefit me.

This will be an ongoing campaign, I’m sure. I want to keep a clean inbox. I’ll let you know how it goes.

What rules work well for you in keeping email under control?

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