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How to manage email

For a lot of developers I talk to (with and without ADHD), email is the stuff of nightmares: an endless torrent of stuff that piles up endlessly.

Today, I wanted to share some tips and tricks for making email easy and pain free. Let’s dig in!

Inbox Zero (but not really)

Nearly 17 years ago, GTD evangelist Merlin Mann gave a talk at Google about a concept he called Inbox Zero.

The idea was that every time you check your email, you should immediately “deal with” the stuff that’s in it, with the goal of getting it down to zero items before you move on to something else.

In later years, he later said that it was more of an ethos than a hard goal, and admitted his own inbox was cluttered AF.

But there’s some really great stuff in his talk. Most notably, his tips on how to manage email when you process it…

  1. Delete
  2. Delegate
  3. Respond
  4. Defer
  5. Do

The list is pretty self-explanatory. For each email in your inbox…

  • If it’s junk, delete it immediately.
  • If someone else can do it, forward it to them.
  • If you can respond quickly, do so immediately.
  • If it’s a bigger ask, defer it until later (but archive it out of your inbox).
  • If you can do the task in it now, do it.

But in my mind, respond, delegate, and do are all the same damn thing.

I simply this down to just three items…

  1. Delete
  2. Defer
  3. Do

Delete ruthlessly

Honestly, a majority of the emails you get are bullshit.

Delete them immediately. Delete them without even reading them.

Feeling overwhelmed? Declare inbox bankruptcy, delete everything, and start fresh! (Maybe double check before you delete everything.)

I’ve heard people say, “An inbox is a todo list that someone else controls.” But that’s absurd! Just becomes someone asks you to do something doesn’t mean you have to do it.

And while we’re at it…

Your inbox is not a todo list

When you defer something, do not keep it sitting in your inbox.

  1. Add a todo item to your second brain
  2. If your email client lets you link directly to emails, include the link in your todo item.
  3. Star the email so you can find it again later easily.
  4. Archive it to get it out of view.

Emails in an inbox are digital and visual clutter. And if you have a bee-filled ADHD brain, that clutter increases the information overload and makes email feel like an increasingly daunting task.

When you eventually do the task later, delete the email (or at least unstar it).

Canned responses are your friend

A lot of emails require the same kinds of responses or links frequently.

Identify those common responses, pop them into a text snippet tool, and use them heavily. I use Alfred on macOS, but there are options for every operating system.

If you can respond quickly to something or put it off entirely, do it.

Check your email way less often

You only check your physical mail once a day (at most). Why is email different?

Check it just a few times a day (morning, midday, and evening are good ballparks).

Turn off push notifications. Turn off alerts. Turn off noises. Turn off the icons that tell you your unread email account. Hell, close your fucking email app altogether.

Email is a tool, not an overlord.

If someone at work really needs you for something urgent, they should have other ways to get in touch with you.

I fail at this constantly

For all of my big talk here, my inbox currently has 72 items in it, 12 of them unread.

Most of them are deferred tasks that I just didn’t properly star and archive. Every now and then, I get annoyed and go through and delete a bunch of stuff and start fresh.

That’s ok, too!