Order Your Email or it Will Eat You / by Will Ringland

Even Ben franklin couldn't prevent letters creating yet more work for him in the 1700s. The quote above is from his autobiography where he described a few weks where he literally spent weeks running letters between the Mayor of London and various contacts through the city.

Last month I wrote about writing your routines down and pinning them to your wall. The particular routine I showed was my morning which had nested within itself additional little routines that help me get my day in order.

Below is a picture of my email and day processing routine.

I 💖 workflow diagrams.

I 💖 workflow diagrams.

After I finish writing, I do this either at home before getting ready or at work to plan for my day. the first section grouped in blue is processing email and the second is selecting tasks for the day. And while these are two separate things, email is a heavy driver of "shit I suddenly have to do" that trying to select tasks for the day is nigh futile without first throttling my inbox.

If you cannot tell, I do not like email. But we all still have to deal with it so here's how I do.

Part 1: Process Email

If you remember one thing from this article it is this:

Processing email is different than replying to it.

Say it with me now, with caps lock on:


Here is the workflow in words. So each morning I read through every email in Outlook (work) and Gmail (personal). For each email I ask, Do I need to reply? If not, archive it. If I do, I create a task on a follow-up list I maintain in my task manager for that email and then archive the email itself. If I need to do something before I reply, I create a task to do the thing in my tsk manager as well.

Yes, email can potentially create two additional tasks for me to complete. You scoff but you are already doing this for every email that requires you to do something. The difference here is that I actually write down each thing needed to address that email. You're probably doing them together and not seeing the real time it takes.

Stop that. Treating that response like a single thing is why we spend so much time doing email. Consider the following which are the reasons why I treat email processing differently than replying.

1. Reading and replying are two separate mental modes.

Reading is taking in information. Replying is taking that information and generating something else to add to or clarify or explain a thing for said response. Going from one to the other constitutes a shift in focus which ultimately slows us down. Doing all reading or all replying together means you stay in a single mental state longer which is much more efficient. This is doubly true if you carve out the actually "do a thing" part of a response if an email requires it.

2. Separating processing from replying makes it extra efficient to when done fewer times a day.

Processing 50 emails is generally more useful than processing 5 for the same reasons above - maximizing mental state and reducing shifting increases efficiency.

3. It's a damn distraction from useful work

If you remember two things from this article, this is the second thing. Email is a distraction from useful work. Email can feel like productivity what with the reducing list and the dopamine hit you get from clearing it. I'm sending information and tasks! I am helping! And yeah, that's partially true, but is it actually moving any of the projects or parts of a project you own forward? Not always.

Part 2: The Follow-up List

"But isn't having a follow-up list the same thing as an inbox in Outlook?"

Yep, pretty much. But here's the kicker: If I have that list separate, I can reply without the distraction of yet more email coming in. If you reply in your email application, more email comes in, and you start replying to that. Next thing you know, you've spent your entire morning just responding to emails.

Separating Follow-up from your email application further reduces distraction. So yes, creating follow-up tasks for email responses is shifting from one list to another but that second list of already-read reply tasks list keeps your brain focused on doing the one thing.

And, frankly, it means you're processing when you choose, not when the email program dictates.

Part 3: The Task List

Pro-tip: if you create a task on your task manager to do a thing requested in an email, you probably don't also need to create a task to reply. You'll remember. So don't create two items if you think it is silly, that's fine, but creating at least the one is important to capture the work the email generated.

After processing my inboxes, I move to my task manager application. Right now, I'm using Todoist. Those of you on my newsletter have seen it during the Order and Resolve Focus Weeks. Task managers are a huge part of my organization and productivity scheme so if you're not using one, you really should start.

I track everything in my task manager - work, play, hobbies, books to read - everything lives in a list. And every morning, I review the projects and tasks I am actively working on and flag the most important ones to do for that day. And, if during the email process, any of those need a response today, I flag those too.

Part 4: Get to Work

Email, for better or worse, can blow up your priorities pretty quickly. And if you don't even know what those priorities are to start with, email can easily become the only thing you do in a day.

Treating email like a process helps you contain it. Shunting actionable emails to your task list helps prevent email urgency overshadowing your project work. I mean, you may actually have 6 things due for real today that you have to do and that high priority email to review some new thing may really be way less important than them. Or, maybe that email is more important than 3 of them so you can stick the email action between your 3 most important and 3 less important tasks and get to work.

Email should feed your task list not eat your task list.