For the past 15 years, I’ve replied to every single email, instant message or whatever. Well, that’s not entirely true, since I consciously didn't answer a few hate emails, I probably missed a few dozen emails that somehow got lost in the spam/full inbox or I accidentally clicked delete or something. But I probably replied to 99 % of emails, which is a lot. You get the point. Replying to all the emails was far from optimal thinking and good time management practices.
Since email and meetings are two biggest time wasters, I decided to build a superior system that will help me optimize the time I spend on email. Next to that, I also invested many hours into analyzing what kind of emotional behavior drove me to reply to all those emails, even though I had zero interest in them and I could have simply clicked delete. So let’s look at my findings and how they can help you be more productive when managing your email. Welcome to superior guide to email management.
What you will learn
Reading this blog post, you’ll learn about the key things regarding efficient email management, like:
- How to overcome email guilt and other similar negative emotions connected with email so that you don’t have to reply to every single message you receive (it’s the kind of an analysis with recommendations that you won’t find anywhere else on the internet)
- How to build a better system that will optimize the ratio between answered emails and the time you spend on email
- Which emails should you really answer and which ones definitely not
- How you can reply to every email in the fastest and most efficient way
- A few additional email management tips for handling and managing email better
Since building a system for better managing email is easy, because it’s the rational part of the equation, let’s start with the emotional reasons that push most people into spending too much time on email. After all, deciding to spend time on email instead of on the more important tasks is an emotional issue, not a rational one.
Negative emotions and perceptions regarding email
Here are five different types of negative emotions and perceptions regarding email that hinder your productivity:
Fake feeling of being connected
Before we even get to email guilt as the strongest emotional issue, there are two severe irrational reasons why people spend too much time answering emails. The first one is a sense of being connected. We’re all social beings and we like feeling connected. We feel secure when we belong and when we’re in touch with other people. So opening an email client and seeing all those emails makes you feel safer, more connected and more important. You feel like you aren’t alone in this world.
While email can, of course, be a great tool for communication and information sharing in certain situations, it definitely isn’t the best way to feel connected to other people. The best way to be connected to other people is to have quality real-life relationships and spend quality time together with people in real life. Virtual relationships don’t even come close to real relationships when it comes to emotional connections, building personal bonds and really belonging to a group of people. You need three strong pillars of real-life personal relationships – family, spouse and friends. We can also add business partners or bigger groups to the list (local communities, NGOs, sport clubs etc.).
When you have those four strong pillars of close relationships in your life, you don’t need to open the email client to feel more connected and secure.
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Fake feeling of productivity
The second very strong emotional reason for spending too much time on email is that email gives you a fake feeling of progress and productivity. As a matter of fact, by instinct we all want to contribute to the society and we all want to be productive. It’s how the community sees us as a valuable person. Nobody wants to spend hours and hours every day at a job or at home doing unproductive and meaningless things.
Procrastination and wasting time, if you aren’t consciously resting, are negative emotional reasons that bring down your feeling of self-worth, self-confidence, potential to create and the quality of life in general. Not being productive (doing the most important tasks), very clearly signals a lack of vision, purpose, focus, competences or other resources, or maybe too many cognitive distortions.
Still, anyone dealing with that kind of issues wants to contribute. Consequently, opening an email client and scanning through emails and answering a few of them gives you a fake sense that you’ve accomplished something. That you have contributed. That you haven’t wasted your time. But it’s a fake feeling of productivity. The important work often stays undone.
There’s only one solution if you pay too much attention to email instead of more important tasks. Clarify your life vision, find your whys, develop your competences, level up your game if necessary, live a healthier life (diet, exercise) and discipline yourself more. At the end of the day, life is either a daring adventure or nothing. You only have one chance and you want to do it right. The AgileLeanLife Productivity Framework can help you with that a lot.
But even being aware of those two emotional factors, I still spend too much time on email. So I analyzed my emotions further to see why I’m doing such a wasteful thing and found out a few more strong emotional reasons that drove me to such madness (I’m exaggerating, obviously). The most frequent one is email guilt, but there are also many other unproductive beliefs that can drive you to such behavior.
Guilt occurs when you feel that you violated your moral standards. You did something that doesn’t meet your standards and how you see yourself, and that causes feelings of guilt. For me, it was pretty simple. I see myself as a nice and good person. In my definition, a nice and good person replies to people when contact is initiated. But are you really a nice person if you reply to every single email?
As you can see, I believe that it’s nice and human and kind to respond if someone puts in the effort to make contact with you; nobody likes to be ignored. But your attention, time and energy are the most precious resources you have, probably even more valuable than your money. To make the analysis a little bit easier, let’s say that time is as important as money. Let’s say that time = money.
You don't give your money to just everyone. You give it to those who provide some kind of value for you – they solve your problems, they help you achieve your goals, they fulfill your needs, make you feel special or whatever. You can, of course, donate money, but you don't usually donate your money to everyone who asks or writes you an email. If you donate your money, you probably donate it for the causes you believe in. Why wouldn’t you do the same with your time and attention?
False guilt is always looking for people to please and rules to keep. Email is no different.
So it’s okay not to give money to everyone who asks you for a dollar, but it’s wrong if you don’t waste the same valuable currency – time/energy – on every single person who sends you an email? It doesn’t make any sense. Having the standard to give money to everyone who asks you or needs it, it’s ridiculous. You’d go broke in a second. Having the standard to reply to every single email and feeling guilty if you don’t is ridiculous in much the same way. You can go time broke in a second.
And there’s one more dilemma. If you don't answer thousands of emails every year, the ones that aren’t important to you at the moment, thus saving many hours, and you invest those hours into making additional thousands of dollars and donating that money, are you a better or a worse kind of person than if you had replied to those emails? Or what if instead of replying to emails, you spend those hours helping businesses grow and employ dozens of new people, are you a better or a worse kind of person? Or if you devote that time to charity?
Measuring how good of a person you are and meeting your ideal-self standards based on how many emails you answer is a completely wrong perspective. Not answering an email is not the same as being ignorant, sublime, an asshole or a bad person. It’s probably more the other way around. Answering all the emails can make you ignorant, sublime, or not a good person. Because you definitely have more important things to do in life.
Well, I now know that I don't want to be answering emails and instant messages most of my life. That’s not my mission and I don’t want my productivity to suffer because of politeness. There’s one question that completely changed my perspective on being a good person and replying to every single email:
If somebody doesn’t reply to my email, do I see them as a bad person? No, I know they’re probably busy doing more important stuff than answering email. Or they’re simply not interested. That doesn’t mean that they aren’t a good person.
The false Karma rule and the fear of being ignored
As analytical of a person as I am, I didn’t stop my analysis at email guilt. I further asked myself, was I really spending too much time on email only because I was trying to be nice and not meeting my ridiculous moral standards? Well, there was an even stronger personal emotional reason, of course. It was the fear of being ignored.
You probably know that being ignored in close or intimate relationships is often a form of irrational punishment and generally has even more devastating emotional effects on the punished person and the relationship than arguing does. Parents punishing kids in that kind of way is one of the greatest contributors to suicide. If I ignore you, you don’t exist, you have zero value. It doesn’t matter if you don’t exist. And people decide to stop existing.
You can easily project the fear of being ignored on email, since it’s nothing but a form of communication, especially if you had any experience with being ignored in your past. That was definitely my problem. I wanted every one of my emails to get a reply. I hate(d) it when my emails didn’t get a reply. It made me feel small and unimportant. I assumed that other people will pretty much feel the same if I don’t reply to their emails. But that is a completely false belief, because many people don’t care if their emails don’t get answered.
There was another unproductive belief. I unconsciously thought that if I answered every email, a good hidden force would make sure that all of my emails would get replies. You get what you give.
Whether there’s a higher probability that you will get a reply from a certain person if you answer to their email massage (kind of a Ben Franklin effect), it has nothing to do with your email in general. Expecting that Bill Gates or whoever will reply to your email because you replied to every single email is a crazy belief.
Rationally, it’s completely obvious that expecting that life will reward you with wealth, health, love, people replying to your emails and other things only because you are a good person is nonsense. Good money management skills and competences have much more to do with being wealthy than being good. Exercise and a clean diet have much more to do with health than being a good person. And so on.
I definitely think you should be a good person and that it has many benefits, bringing a lot of positive into your life (here’s more about being a good person), but you shouldn’t expect that life will make you successful in all areas just because you’re good.
It’s soft and naïve thinking, helping you cope with not being assertive enough. At the end of the day, someone replying to your email (in the way that you wanted) has most to do with mutual interest. Even more than that: someone will reply to your email if they love what you’ve written or they simply need what you can provide. If they don’t know you, they don’t have a clue whether you’re a good or a bad person.
What goes around comes around is valid for email. But not in the way that all your emails will be answered, if you reply to every single email (especially if different people are involved). In a way, it’s valid that if you write more emails, you will get more emails into your inbox. If you write long emails, you will receive longer emails. If you write hate emails, you will receive more hate emails.
I don't have problems with that anymore. If somebody is not replying to my emails, it’s because I’m not bringing enough value to the table. The only solution is to level up my skills, innovate, create more value or deliver it better and try again. And answering all the emails certainly won’t help all of my emails to get replies. It will only make me drown in email.
Opportunistic thinking and fear of punishment
There is one more emotional layer bringing all the previously mentioned emotional reasons to a common denominator. It’s a mix of opportunistic thinking and a fear of punishment. Religion, especially in the western world, strongly emphasizes that if you don’t follow your moral standards, you will be punished. Not only that what goes around comes around, you will also suffer in the afterlife.
And on the other hand, there’s an unwritten social rule (the mentioned Ben Franklin effect), that if somebody does something for you (replies to your email, for example), you feel morally obligated to do something for them in return.
With replying to emails you may feel that you’re collecting social debt.
I’m taking things a little bit too far, just to get a better picture, but all these beliefs can easily lead to having an unconscious unhealthy perspective on email:
- If I don’t reply to an email, not only am I a bad person, I will also somehow be punished based on the karma rule in this life and maybe even the afterlife. People may consequently not answer my emails and you never know when you will need someone whose email you haven’t answered.
- If I reply to every single email, I’m a good person, people will love me more, life will reward me, I am connected to the world, I contribute and am productive and people will owe me.
You can easily see how that kind of thinking (or even a small part of it – a single false belief) can lead to wasting hours and hours of every day dealing with email. And remember, as funny is it may seem, these things usually happen on an unconscious level based on your beliefs and values.
Building a personal email management system
Enough of emotions, let’s get to the easier, rational part. Well, there are emails you should definitely reply to; and there are, of course, emails that you shouldn’t bother with at all.
Therefore, there must be a middle path that enables you to meet your moral standards, answer all the important emails, stay open to new opportunities and connections while keeping your productivity levels high and not wasting too much time on email.
There is. The middle path is called building a superior personal email management system, after putting all the toxic emotional reasons that force you to spend too much time on email to sleep.
The main idea of building a personal mail management system is to reply to all the important emails in the shortest period of time possible with the least collateral damage (not meeting your moral standards).
A bulletproof management system is the best solution, especially if you have severe feelings of email guilt when you aren’t replying to every single email or when you’re behind your email schedule. There are only two solutions – easing your superego or/and building a better system. We have already looked at how to deal with the first one, now let’s focus on the latter.
Here are the elements of building your personal email system (and processes):
- Unsubscribe from most newsletters
- Delete, delegate/outsource, reply, do sequence
- If you can do it under 1 – 2 minutes, reply immediately
- Always write the shortest possible reply
- Use templates and canned responses
- Send the fewest emails possible
- Don’t send any group emails, if not really necessary
- Publically explain what kind of emails you don’t answer
- Timebox your email time and set some strict limits
- Email can be real work if it’s connected with creating, delivering and capturing value
The first obvious thing is that you don’t want to type “Best regards” and your name every single time at the end of every single email. Even though we’ve known signatures almost since the beginning of email, I’m still surprised at how many people don’t use it.
Even with a signature, I used to write my initials at the end of each email, but that also doesn’t make any sense. Now I just use the signature for regards, my name and the promotion of this blog. Every second counts.
- If you don’t already use a signature, set it immediately.
Unsubscribe from most newsletters
Every day, you probably receive dozens of mass mailings, newsletters and similar kinds of email. Out of 10 newsletters, you maybe actually read 1 to 2 that are really valuable to you. Here’s a simple rule. Unsubscribe from everything you don’t read on a regular basis. Everything. It doesn’t make sense to click delete every time you get a newsletter, just because you’re too lazy to unsubscribe.
And there are many apps and extensions that enable you to unsubscribe from mailing lists in bulk. If you haven’t read the last two editions of a certain newsletter, unsubscribe.
- Open you email client, look for newsletters whose two last editions you haven’t read and unsubscribe.
- If you receive many newsletters you don’t read, you can help yourself with a tool like this.
Delete, delegate or reply/do
Even when you unsubscribe from most newsletters, you definitely still receive some emails you can simply delete without any feelings of guilt. From group emails to funny emails and all other stuff that’s really not important. Just press the delete button. If it happens a lot, you can ask people to stop sending you that kind of clutter.
The second thing you can do with many emails is to delegate them, if you have a team of people. You have to, of course, be very picky with what you delegate (you don’t want to overburden your team with emails) and you can have a deal to just forward an email and they take care of it, without you doing any intros or writing long explanations on what it’s all about (if not really necessary), and so on.
Then you’re left with the emails you have to deal with. Because they are important. There are a few categories they should fall into:
- Short reply (if it takes you less than a minute, reply immediately)
- Longer reply (use template, put it on your to-do list or reply if it’s urgent and important)
- Reply and do (put it on your to-do list and write a reply)
- Do and reply afterwards
If an email takes you under 1 minute, reply to it immediately. Don’t hesitate for a second, click reply and write the shortest possible answer. Coming back to it, going back and forth, only creates unnecessary motion that expands the time necessary for a task to be complete. If there’s also an important task you have to do connected with the email, write the shortest possible reply and put it on your to-do list. You can often simply put something on your to-do list without even writing a reply. Then you do it and write a reply. Remember, the more email you send, the more email you get.
The question is what to do with emails with a response time longer than 1 minute. Well, for the important emails that take longer to answer, you have to find a system that works best for you. Here are some options and ideas on how to do it:
- Use templates and canned responses for replies that have pretty much the same wording.
- Can you call someone and just answer them in a few minutes instead of writing for hours?
- Have someone from your team or support staff answer longer emails.
- Group them in a folder or mark them with a star or a pin or whatever.
- Schedule a time in a day or a week to reply to longer emails. Set some limits and boundaries.
- Resend them to yourself when you have time scheduled for long emails, using tools like Boomerang
- Create to-do lists and make priorities or prioritize them in your inbox.
The shortest possible reply
Always write the shortest possible reply (TSPR) to every email. One word. Excellent. You can’t use one word. Do it with one sentence. Two sentences really are the maximum, but even that’s too much. There are, of course, exceptions. When you write to the president, for example. You have to use common sense. Nevertheless, always follow the rule of the shortest possible reply.
Also make sure that your emails are short, clear and to the point, not essays. High school is over. You can write long blog posts for that kind of people torture. :)
Here’s a good exercise that can help you with the shortest possible replies. Analyze the last 100 emails you replied to and brainstorm on how you could have answered it shorter. Then group the replies in short answers you can always use (Google Inbox’s Smart reply does that for you to a certain extent).
You may come up with short replies like:
- Working on it.
- Files attached.
- Please connect.
If you’re used to writing long emails, you simply have to rewire your brain to write shorter answers. Once you consistently follow the TSPR rule, it gets super easy not to write essays. Try it.
Templates and canned responses
If you analyze your last few hundred emails, you’ll find patterns for which emails you answered with pretty much the same answers. Short-term history usually predicts short-term future. That logically means that in the future, you’ll get similar emails (questions, comments, to-dos, sales offers etc.) and you will construct similar replies. Templates and canned responses are a great solution for that. You can write longer responses with just one click or by changing a word or two in a text template if necessary.
Most email clients already have a built-in function for canned responses, but if not, there are many extensions you can help yourself with.
Send the fewest emails possible
There’s one more important rule regarding email management. If you want to receive fewer emails, send fewer emails. For every email you send, there’s an expected reply. If you send one email, you will get one or zero replies. If you send emails to 100 people, you will get 100 replies or maybe a little less. But still, 50 is a lot more than 1 or 0. And you had to write or copy all those 100 emails.
It’s even worse if you send group emails. If you send it to a group of people, God forbid, you’ll probably start a group discussion. It may trigger an avalanche of dozens “reply to all”. Your inbox will get hyper inflated. So send fewer emails and don’t send a group email to people that don’t really necessary have to receive it. Or maybe even send separate emails with the same text instead.
Publically explain what kind of emails you don’t answer
If you have your own blog or you use different social media, publically explain what kind of emails you do answer and what kind of email you don’t answer. The more emails you get, especially if you’re a public figure, the more that kind of an explanation can help you. You can maybe even write a FAQ page that directs people when and how to contact you or who to contact, if you have a team of people.
Here’s an example of what you can include in your explanation or FAQ page:
- When and how can you contact me?
- I want to meet you in person one-on-one. Is this possible?
- How can I persuade you to help promote a project I'm involved with?
- I'd like to interview you for my blog, podcast, radio show, etc. How can I do this?
- What advice would you give to other people who want to be successful?
- Are you available to speak at our upcoming event?
In the same way, you can explain other online communication rules that are a part of your system, like please don't send me connect requests if we never met. Tweet @myname with your ask instead.
Timebox your email time
Well, every task more or less takes as much time as you dedicate to it. If you put strict limits on when and how long you take to reply to your emails, there’s a greater chance that you won’t get lost for too long in writing replies and totally forget about your system and your efficient management rules. So put some hardcore limitations (alarm clock etc.) that will help you follow you system.
The best tool to do that is time-boxing with an alarm when the time is up. First, you put a block of time in your calendar, marking when and how long you deal with your email. You start on time, set the alarm, and start sprinting to reply to as many emails as possible, keeping everything we talked about so far in mind.
Here are some good rules and recommendations for how and when to do email timeboxing:
- Don’t look at your email first thing in the morning.
- Spend 30 minutes (or less) of your time with email before noon on a working day after your most important task (eat that frog) is finished, and 30 min just before you finish your working day. If you can do it only at the end of the day, even better.
- Put those 30 minute (or less or whatever you decide) block(s) in your calendar and make an alarm that reminds you to stop dealing with email.
- Constantly improve your personal email management system – when and how much of your time you spend on email and how you reply.
Should you reply to every email?
Now we can easily answer whether you should reply to every email. Definitely not. First of all, you can optimize how you handle your inbox by sending fewer emails, using autoresponders and templates, unsubscribing from newsletters, using filters etc. You can also answer many emails with one word or a sentence like no, yes, not interested etc. But at the end of the day, that still takes more effort and attention than just hitting the delete button, if an email is not about something you’re interested in.
Here is a table that sums up everything we talked about and can help you build a system and decide which emails to answer:
Should you reply to an email?
|Are you replying to an email to feel more connected to other people and to the world?||(NO) Close your email client and build strong real-life personal relationships with your spouse, family, friends and business partners.|
|Are you replying to an email to feel more productive and like you’re actually contributing something?||(NO) Close your email client and ask yourself how you can really provide value to the world based on your talents and competences.|
|Are you replying to an email only because you feel email guilt?||(NO) Close your email client, go outside, open your wallet and start giving away your money to people. Just kidding. Change your perspective. Loosen up.|
|Are you replying to an email because you want to be seen as a good and kind person?||(NO) Being a good person has nothing to do with how many emails you answer. There are so many other more valuable ways for being good and making the world a better place.|
|Are you replying to an email because you’re afraid that your emails won’t get replies?||(NO) Face your fears and become aware that your email will be answered if there is interest. If it’s not, provide more value or write a better email. And there are 7 billion other people you can connect to.|
|Are you replying to an email because you never know when you will need someone?||(NO) If someone is really interested in working with you in the future, they will reply to you regardless whether you have or haven’t replied to an email in the past. It may, of course, be a different story if you offended them.|
|Are you replying to an email when there’s no reply needed, you just want to be polite?||(NO) Close your email client and start working on important stuff. The fewer emails you send, the fewer emails you will get.|
|Are you replying to a pretty standard email because you don’t have a system with templates, canned responses, explanations for what you aren’t interested in etc.?||(NO) Build a system and reply with one click.|
|When to reply to an email?||(YES) You care about the topic or a person or a project
(YES) You’re actually interested in what is written
(YES) It’s a part of you creating, delivering and capturing value
(YES) It’s part of your team’s communication on creating, delivering and capturing value
(YES) Other rare instances where email is not a waste of your time
|How to reply to an email?||
Email can be real work if it’s connected with creating, delivering and capturing value
There are, of course, always exceptions, for example with sales people, support, administration, IT administration etc. where email is the key productivity tool. In the information age, email can be real work. If email is part of creating, delivering or capturing value, there’s no problem at all to spend more time with email. But if spending time on email is part of you avoiding creating, delivering or capturing value or you’re only doing it because of email guilt and other emotional reasons, there certainly is a better way to manage your time.
If you are looking for a simpler answer than the one on the table, here it is:
You should write/reply to an email that’s connected to creating, delivering and capturing value on the markets. Next to that, you should reply to the emails you really care about (person, topic, project or whatever)!
At the end of the day, dealing with email is part of your life strategy. You have to decide which emails you’ll reply to and which ones you’ll skip. Maybe I don’t know exactly which emails you should reply to, but I do know why you shouldn’t reply to every email – in hopes that each of your emails will get a reply or that people will see you as a good person or in order to not feel email guilt. The only way you can be a really good person and not feel guilt is to create as much value as possible for the world and the people you love, and that definitely isn’t done by replying to every one of your emails.
Here is your homework:
- Schedule one or two times in a working day to process your email
- Set the timer on your phone to 30 minutes
- Try to get to zero email in that time
- Ready, set, go!
One last thing. Real life conversation is so much better than email. It’s much more difficult to be happy answering email than building strong real-life relationships. So close your email client and go hug someone.