I have a lot of email accounts. I have a work account as well as several personal accounts on Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo, and other providers like my ISP who all assume I want to use their email system. At one point, I was receiving hundreds of emails per day, and my multiple inboxes were seas of unread mail with islands here and there of the few messages I was actually able to read. My friend Scott Hanselman made me aware of the term “psychic weight” . That is the burden that impossibly full inboxes (and other electronic notifications) have on the mind: so much email, so little time.
I know I’m not alone in struggling under the psychic weight of what feels like a million messages. There’s even a term for what people do to deal with the problem: email bankruptcy.
There have been a number of solutions proposed to solve the email overload problem, and the most famous is probably Merlin Mann’s “Inbox Zero” concept. This is the idea that inboxes should be regularly zeroed out to free yourself from the mental burden of so many unread messages. Merlin proposed a five step system: delete, delegate, respond, defer, do. I like Inbox Zero, and I’ve augmented with they way that I manage overflowing inboxes and also pro-actively reduce the rate of incoming messages.
My system for email management is called D.R.A.F.T. It stands for Delete, Reply, Archive, Filter, and Transform. You can apply this method by starting with the first message in your inbox and deciding whether to delete it, reply to it, archive it, filter out similar messages, or transform it (yes, like Optimus Prime). Some messages require more than one action to be used, but the overall goal is to unshackle your productivity from your inbox and direct it towards more efficient tools like your calendar, task list, knowledge repository, etc. More importantly, you’ll be less tempted to tend to the care and feeding of an overflowing inbox after work when you should be doing important things like spending time with the people you love (or your therapist).
The Pre-D.R.A.F.T. Principle
Before we get into the D.R.A.F.T. email management method, I have to make sure you understand one key principle: Fire and Forget. That means that you only deal with an individual email once. You may apply more than one action from the D.R.A.F.T. method to an email, but once you’ve dealt with it, don’t go back to it.
Your first goal for every email should be to delete it. This is especially true for those emails that flood into your inbox because you signed up for the free newsletter of a person or business you can’t even remember. One of the best ways to organize your inbox in a way that facilitates deletion is to sort your inbox by sender or by subject. If you use Outlook or some other desktop email client this is usually easy to do. It’s a bit harder if you’re using a web based email system through a web browser, but there is usually some workaround. For example, Thunderbird is an open-source email client that can connect to GMail and other cloud email systems. You can then use Thunderbird to sort by sender, subject, etc. I’ve found that sorting my inbox by sender is a great way to target messages for deletion.
If you can’t immediately delete an email (if, for example, it’s an email from your boss, significant other, probation officer, etc.), then your next goal should be to immediately reply to it. If writing your reply takes more than one minute, then add it to your task list. Your inbox should not be a replacement for a task list!
So, you may ask, “What if I immediately reply, and that results in another reply from the original sender?” I’m glad you asked because that is why The Two Reply Rule exists. If your reply triggers another reply, then reply again. If that triggers yet another reply, then pick another communication channel because email clearly isn’t working. I’ve seen emails with more than twenty replies going back and forth. After the second reply, a phone, telegraph machine, or sign language should have been used. Email is not the medium for deep discussions!
To clarify The Two Reply Rule, here’s how it works:
Person A emails Person B
Person B sends a reply to Person A
Person A, apparently not satisfied with Person B’s reply, sends a reply to Person B’s reply.
Person B sends another reply to Person A
Person A, again apparently not satisfied with Person B’s reply, sends a reply to Person B’s reply.
Person B stops this madness and reaches out to Person A via some other channel (phone call, instant message, video conference, physical visit, smoke signals, etc.).
It’s perfectly fine to send a summary email of the discussion, but don’t try to have the discussion using email.
If you can close out an email thread with a reply, then you can archive it. That removes it from your inbox and reduces the cognitive load of your email system. You can also archive messages that don’t warrant a reply. For example, the email may be an interesting article that you actually want to read later. You can archive that email so that it’s out of your inbox but still available for you to read later. Even if you don’t read the article, you may still want it to show up in future search results.
Deleting, replying, and archiving messages in your inbox will go a long way towards getting you to an empty inbox. However, those actions can only occur after the damage has been done (i.e., the email lands in your inbox). It is far better to preemptively keep emails from getting into your inbox altogether. One of the best ways to do this is to set up a filter that automatically performs an action on a message based on criteria you establish. Do you get emails from restaurants you often frequent? Create a filter that automotically moves those items out of your inbox and into a folder titled “Restaurants”. Do you get emails from you bank account with balance and transaction information? Automatically filter those into a folder called “Finances”.
Another way to preemptively keep email out of your inbox is to unsubscribe from email newsletters. I love a good newsletter, but I tend to follow their sources on Twitter (using TweetDeck) or subscribe via an RSS tool like Feedly. If you feel the same way, then unsubscribe from those newsletters and find ways to follow their creators without having them flood your inbox.
A lot of people think they have an email overload problem, but they really have a time, task, and file storage problem. As I said earlier in this article, your inbox is not your task list because tasks simply get buried and searching for them makes them even harder to complete. Furthermore, your inbox is not a calendar reminder to set up a meeting. Your inbox is also not your file storage system. I know we all get great attachments full of amazing content in our inboxes, but it’s a disservice to the greatness of those attachments to keep them trapped in your inbox.
So, transform those messages! Instead of waiting to schedule a meeting, immediately add it to your calendar and use the body of the email to create the agenda for your meeting. Then Delete or Archive the email. If the email is a task that takes more than a minute to do, add it to your real task list (Trello and Bear are great options) and then get the email out of your inbox (remember, if it takes less than a minute, do it immediately). If the email has a great attachment, detach it from the email and put it in your personal cloud storage system or inside your corporate knowledge repository. I prefer Dropbox for the former and a wiki for the latter.
Delete, Reply, Archive, Filter, and Transform make up the D.R.A.F.T. Method. Like any other method, it’s only useful if it’s used, and you have to use it over and over again to make it a habit. It will take some time, but you’ll have a much more manageable inbox if you D.R.A.F.T. your emails.