gravatar image

My Rules for E-Mail Happiness

Over the last couple of days and maybe weeks a lot of my friends, coworkers and most of all people I follow on twitter have been overly excited about the beta availability of an e-mail client. At first I was being regrettably very snarky about it as in my opinion the mail client in question has some serious privacy and availability issues. But as more and more people got excited about it I took a step back and thought about why I couldn’t understand the excitement and why people would give up their privacy for “better e-mail”. And it dawned on me that I have never actually seen e-mail as that problematic and annoying and that I actually like my setup a lot. This is why I decided to share how I do e-mail and why it works well for me (yes you may consider this one of those productivity blog posts).

Setting the stage

Before I start I want to make very clear that I’m likely not a power email user and what works for me might not work for you. This is also mostly about how I manage my work email, as my personal email is low volume enough so that it’s probably not interesting. I also use a somewhat esoteric e-mail client and while most of the things I’ll talk about are generic, using mutt makes it a lot easier for me. And to give you a ballpark number for e-mail volume: I receive about 370 e-mails per day - your mileage may vary.

So how do I use e-mail?

The first two very important factors for me are filtering and Inbox Zero. I am subscribed to a ton of mailing lists at work. Everything I deem interesting (and I’m a super nosy person) I subscribe to, but I have strict rules about what goes into my inbox:

  • E-mails addressed directly to me
  • My team’s mailing list
  • Mailing lists of teams I work closely with
  • Low volume mailing lists (less than 5 messages a day)
  • Important automated e-mails (e.g. from Nagios)

Everything else gets filtered into separate mailboxes. No exceptions. If a low volume list gets more busy it gets filtered.

With this setup I check my inbox a couple of times a day. The frequency depends on how busy I am obviously, but I check e-mail at most every 30 minutes and at least 5 times a day. And everything that is filtered I check once a day up until once a week, depending on how important the mailing list is. I also clear out all mailboxes at least once a week and archive all e-mail in there. This usually takes about 5 - 20 minutes and I do it before doing my weekly GTD review.

In mutt I also use the solarized light theme (as I do almost everywhere else) which helps a lot as e-mails are color coded differently. Read e-mails are gray, e-mails addressed to me directly or via cc are green and messages from mailing lists are blue. That way I can open up mutt, take a quick glance to see if I have new important email or if I can postpone going through my email. This is sometimes so fast that my terminal emulator warns me about the shell being closed too fast again and there might be something wrong, which I still find hilarious. When I actually go through my e-mail, I file them into mailboxes depending on whether I want to read them later or already know that they need an answer and archive everything else. Following the GTD principle if I can answer the e-mail in 2 minutes I do it right away. Otherwise I move it to the corresponding mailbox from which it gets pulled into my Omnifocus inbox. All of this is done with simple keyboard shortcuts that work on single or multiple messages.

I also have e-mail set up on my iPhone with the iOS built-in mail client via IMAP. However I only ever skim e-mail on there and at most answer if it takes me less than 2 minutes. I also have the labeling enabled that tells me whether a messages was sent to me directly or via cc or just because I’m part of a mailing list. That way I can also check very quickly if there is something in there that potentially needs my attention.

The important part

The most important part to take away from this is that you don’t need to read all e-mail you get. Especially in a big company there are enough things going on that you can’t possibly keep up with everything. And that’s ok. In addition to that what really works for me is using trusted clients that have been around for a while. I have been using mutt for years and I have most of its shortcuts in my muscle memory. When I came to work after a week of vacation and had 6000 emails in my inbox it took me 10 seconds to clear out all the automated emails based on their from addresses and cut the number of messages by 95%. The learning curve for mutt was pretty steep at the beginning but it has payed off over the years and since it’s open source I know it will be around and not suddenly disappear (or at least it’s unlikely). I also love being able to write my e-mail in vim and am a big fan of plain text e-mails. On my phone I also use the built-in e-mail client as it’s likely to stay and not completely disappear or get shut down either. My usage on the phone is also light enough so I don’t care about small changes in UX or functionality with OS upgrades. I have yet to encounter a bad surprise after upgrading my phone.

When it comes to dealing with stress and the feeling of being overwhelmed with e-mail, the biggest change for me besides filtering was to turn off all notifications. No e-mail that I receive will ever make a sound or make my phone vibrate. There are no lock screen notifications on my phone besides e-mail from people in my iPhone VIP list which is mostly family and even then it just shows up. No sound, no vibration. I decide when I have time to read e-mail.

As I said, most of these things are applicable no matter what e-mail client you use. I happen to use mutt (set up similar to how it’s explained here and these are my config files in case you’re interested), but there are a ton of good and proven clients out there (I used OSX for years and always liked it). And plain old IMAP is honestly pretty cool. But most of all - in my opinion - the biggest problems with e-mail are social or rather psychological problems (trying to keep up with everything, wanting to get notified all the time) and not technological ones, and they can be solved.