Staying on Top of Email

An eternal struggle for any information worker is to keep up with the deluge of emails. Increased remote working exacerbates this by driving more communication to asynchronous styles.

In this article, I’ll share a few practical things that help me stay on top of the never-ending stream of emails. Some of these tips also work for chat tools (like Teams, Slack, or Google Meet), but I think I’ll write a dedicated post for that another time. I also recognise that some of these tips may be client-specific (I use Gmail as my main client), so YMMV.

Separate prioritising from doing (mostly)

Busy software teams with a never-ending workstream don’t simply start working on the first item. Instead, they prioritise work into different categories, such as “Do this week,” “Do some time in the future,” and “Won’t do.” I apply a similar approach to my email, treating new emails as a backlog of unprioritised work.

Hand sorting sticky notes
Separate prioritising emails from actioning on them to quickly identify what is important or urgent

Here are some ways I categorise my emails (some of these inspired by Getting Things Done or Inbox Zero approaches):

Don’t reply, tag, and archive – Not all emails need a response, so I try to reply only if necessary. I learned that for almost every email you send, you get 1+ emails in return. Stop the cycle if you can. I archive emails I think might be useful for the future (e.g., an email thread about a work topic) and apply relevant labels to make future searches easier.

  • Don’t reply and delete – This is a variation of the above, but I delete emails I won’t need to keep (e.g., event details that I will not attend).
  • Mark as spam – Everyone gets spam. It also gets worse the more decision-making power your role has, as someone is always trying to sell you something, and you get added to mailing lists you never requested. If I never signed up for something, I mark it as spam.
  • Reply immediately (and archive) – If an email doesn’t require a lot of effort to read and reply (i.e., 3 minutes), then I respond and get the work out of the way.
  • Write the reply immediately but schedule later (and archive) – Sometimes I have an email that would be quick to reply to, but sometimes I use the “Schedule Send” feature instead of sending immediately because I want to time my response. For example, I used this a lot when leading teams so that even if I’m checking emails on the weekend, I don’t want anyone to feel pressured to reply on their weekend.
  • Leave to read or reply later – If an email is particularly long or requires more time to compose a reply, I will leave this in my inbox as a reminder I need to read or reply soon. I will get to this in my following email checking block (more on that later)
  • Convert to a to-do and archive – Some emails don’t need a reply but require me to do something, so I add this to my to-do list and archive the email. If the email also requires a reply, I “snooze” the email near the task’s due date, which removes it from my inbox but reminds me to provide an update.
  • Snooze to follow up – Some emails don’t necessarily require a reply or an action, but I would like to follow up. Sometimes, I use the “Snooze” feature to remove an email from my inbox and, when it returns, to remind me to follow up with someone if I haven’t heard from them on the topic.

Having a priority system in place keeps my inbox mainly as a small to-do list of emails to read later or emails to action on, and it’s always under one screen on Gmail (usually <10). Some people like having everything in their inbox, but I like how archiving emails gives me the sense of “done.” I know I can always search for emails, and my inbox only combines a few “to-do” and new items to prioritise.

Filter aggressively

I rely on filters (called Rules in Outlook) to automatically process emails and keep them out of my inbox as much as possible. My goal here is to automatically categorise work and reduce the mental load of thinking about dealing with each email. Once work is categorised, I can process each category according to the system I use without revisiting this system each time. Most of my filters automatically tag and archive emails, so I don’t need to prioritise each. I have a few exceptions that tag emails but leave emails in the inbox. I aim to have as few as possible because each email in the inbox requires additional thinking and processing time.

Apples in a sorting machine
If you can automatically filter, you should

One of my favourite Gmail features is having multiple labels for each email. I don’t have to worry about applying the “perfect” label and can tag an email to help me search for it later. For example, let’s say I booked a flight with British Airways. In that case, a filter with a subject containing “Your e-ticket receipt” with the domain “*” can get tagged as a “Travel” and “Receipt.” I might manually apply another tag if it’s connected to a particular project.

I use filters in a few different ways.

  • To group project/team-related work – Typically through a mailing list ID or an associated email address
  • To delay non-urgent reading – Newsletters are a good example of an item I can automatically filter. I then skim them in 1-2 batches each week in my allocated research/reading time.
  • To filter unwanted emails/spam – Sometimes, I get several different emails in my inbox from the same domain, even if I mark them as spam. If I notice this, I’ll add a filter to automatically send them to trash or spam.
  • To categorise automated notifications – Handy for automated processes that send notifications such as CI/CD deployments, notifications about tickets/issues you’re tracking, updates to projects, etc. For example, I receive notifications when someone fills out a feedback form for one of my courses, and then I go through this once a week to review feedback.

Most of my filters rely on one or a combination of subject, email address, or mailing list ID. Sometimes, I get emails falsely classified, but these are exceptions rather than the norm.

Reserve time each day to review email

When I used to work full-time in an office environment, I preferred coming in earlier than others because that quiet time helped with deep work topics, but for checking email. Otherwise, the day fills up with meetings, especially as a manager. Many people expect communication to “happen”, but you need to reserve time each day if you want to do it well. If you don’t have dedicated time, you can’t guarantee good response times, or you do it during other meetings, increasing context switching, or you never do it at all and miss important information.

Sand hourglass
Reading time is value-added time if it helps you work on the most important tasks

Although the reserved time for prioritising email will vary depending on the average incoming rate, I always have a minimum of two 15-minute blocks. I keep one block at the start of the day and the other at the end to quickly prioritise and action emails. Any time left over from meetings is also an excellent opportunity to prioritise and action emails quickly. It’s even better if I can reserve more time (such as after lunch), but it heavily depends on the context.

Reserve time each week to process email

I need more time to read or reply to some emails, and a 15-minute block may not be enough. They might contain a lot of information or demand a considered response. Unless it’s connected to a specific project, I usually keep these types of emails in my inbox as a reminder that I need to process them eventually. I aim to have at least one hour each week dedicated to processing these more complex emails.

Sometimes, I use an existing dedicated focus block for email processing. Still, if I have other tasks planned in those blocks, I’ll reserve one or two additional hours to read and respond to emails. You might feel guilty reserving time to read or write an email, but an hour invested in effective communication can prevent days of miscommunication.

Batch reviewing and processing of filtered emails

As I mentioned, many emails get automatically filtered but remain unread. The goal of automatically filtering them is to review and process them in one sitting to minimise context switching. I try to work with the principle of “Choose when to work on the topic” rather than the other way around.

For example, all email newsletters get filtered into the same folder, and then once or twice a week, when I’m in my “newsletter reading mode,” I scan, read, bookmark, or write notes for as long as I’m in this mode. Each label has the option “Show if unread” to remind me to review new emails. When I get to my planned email checking time, the labels show me which folders I need to check.

Some labels with unread emails

Similarly, when I’ve led several projects, all emails get tagged into each project group. I’ll have dedicated time for each project to review those emails. For an active project, I might have dedicated time daily, and for less active or inactive projects, I review them once a week or once every couple of weeks.

Define escalation channels

My email system works well for handling the flow of predictable work, but sometimes urgent or emergency emails must be dealt with. Emergency emails will mostly hit my inbox because they come from a specific person or use an unusual subject. But sometimes, emergency emails end up on mailing lists because they meet the criteria for one of my filters.

How do I deal with these situations without checking every folder? One practical way is to agree in advance on an escalation channel. Sometimes, this is as simple as, “If it’s an emergency, here is my number, and call me.” Other times, it’s been agreeing on a signal format that is easy to detect, such as an email subject that starts with “URGENT.”

I wouldn’t worry too much about this because if you’re constantly dealing with escalations, you have different problems to solve. If I constantly miss an emergency email, I look for ways to tweak my filters to highlight it.

Learn keyboard shortcuts

When writing code full-time, the investment in keyboard shortcuts for my code editor was a huge productivity boost. Moving back and forth between a mouse and a keyboard can take a significant amount of time if you have a large email backlog to get through.

Fortunately, Gmail also has keyboard shortcuts built into its web application. However, you will need to turn this option on by reading its help page. Once you have the shortcuts turned on, you can type the question mark character (?), and an in-screen popup will remind you of different shortcuts.

Use “?” to access the keyboard shortcuts once you’ve enabled the setting

Don’t worry about learning all the shortcuts, but it’s definitely worth investing in learning the most frequently used actions. Out of all the shortcuts, the ones that I probably use the most include the jumping shortcuts (e.g., go to inbox), navigation shortcuts (e.g., move to the next email, move back, open email), and action shortcuts (e.g., reply, archive, mark as spam).

Use the app but turn off notifications

Accessing email on your mobile device is convenient because you can always review it when you have time, but it also increases interruptions and context switching. To live with the principle, “You choose when you read emails” and not “Emails choose when you read them,” turn off your notifications. Having an endless stream of “You have new email” is a guaranteed approach to interrupting your flow in other ways.

Some people choose not to have the app on their phone to prevent this, but I found you can prevent this by turning off the notifications and developing a habit of only checking email when you want (but try not to do it all the time). If I’m dealing with a large number of emails, then I might check emails when I’m commuting or when I’m in an office waiting for a meeting to come free.

You do need to be careful because, like social media, a poor habit can quickly turn into checking email every time an email arrives.

Be comfortable with FOMO

I’m lucky because I read emails, at least in English, relatively fast. At the same time, I periodically remind myself that it’s unsustainable to read everything, so it’s okay to miss out on a lot of information if it’s not so important. And if something is truly important, I will hear about it again.

Even with all the time in the day to read emails, it’s still possible to miss out on some information. Yet there are still more important or urgent things to do than read email all day. So, the next best thing is to have a daily and weekly time budget for email and accept I’ll maximise how I use that time without worrying about never having enough.

Holidays or out-of-office events can lead to a large email backlog. So, I balance this by having a larger dedicated block for when I’m back in the office to process emails and get comfortable marking all as read, archiving, or declaring “email bankruptcy.” If it’s important, I’ll receive another email soon.

Refine your email habit

Email is an inevitable part of digital life these days, and learning how to deal with the flood of information requires practice. I’ve experimented with these approaches over the years and find that these combinations of practices help me stay informed, be responsive, and ensure that I’m covering the most critical topics. I hope they help you, too.

What techniques do you use? Leave a comment and let me know.

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