Email: Still not perfect.

I am a fan of email. Email does not interrupt me[1]. Email is fast when it needs to be, and slow the rest of the time. Email has no character limits. Email is private by default, preventing it from becoming performance art.

I’ve been using Google Inbox for my email since the beta period. I like Inbox. Inbox understands that when I am done reading my Social Media folder for the day, I am done. I do not want to see that folder pop up again until tomorrow. Inbox understands that every email is an action item, even if the action is “decide if I care about this”. And that it should be possible to be done with action items for the day.

I have split out the majority of my business-related[2] emails to Front, where I can share them with my assistant and where I do not see them unless I specifically go looking for them. This is good. I do not need to be tempted to address customer service issues on a Saturday.

I receive nearly all of my news, both of the larger world and of my industry, in the form of email newsletters. This is good. When I’m done reading a newsletter, I’m done. There is no refresh button on a newsletter. I click through to a few particularly notable items, queue them up in Pocket, and move on.

And yet. All is still not well in email-land.

Like many humans, I am fond of reading news with my coffee in the morning. This may not be the best idea in the world, but it’s not overly deleterious to my productivity. Most news is not actionable beyond “hmm, I would like to read more about this later”.

But if I go into my inbox looking for newsletters, I run the very real risk of seeing other emails, like:

  • Letters from friends and associates which deserve thought and response.
  • Notifications of Bad Things that have happened and which I must address (“Your daily backup job has failed!”)
  • Social media notifications. Oh my gosh, what are people saying to me?? I must know, right now!

This isn’t good. I’m susceptible to distraction. And being distracted by email first thing in the morning is very, very bad for getting things done.

Similarly, if I go into my mailbox with the intent only to send a message, I run the risk of being distracted by notions unrelated to sending an email. I’ve been considering going back to a native email client on my computers, just to make it easier to write an email without accidentally seeing my inbox.

If I open my inbox during my 1-hour “upkeep” period, intending to deal with assorted notifications, I run the risk of spending the whole hour distracted by community forums, newsletters, or thought-provoking personal emails.

The truth I’m realizing is that, even with my “business” mail split out, the items in my inbox represent very different categories and modes of work. Categories like:

  • Personal and group correspondence
  • Requests for my time/energy/thought.
  • Administrative notifications (you have been invited to an event; your package has shipped)
  • News
  • Social networks and community forums. I don’t have to read/participate in these, but I like to when I can.
  • Promotions (I have unsubscribed to most of these, but there are a few I care about, like upcoming events at nearby parks and venues)

Some of these items are things I want to see in the morning. Some of them I very much do not need to see in the morning. Some of them I need to see when I’m doing upkeep near the end of the day, when creative work is already done. Some of them I guess need some sort of “correspondence time”, separate from upkeep. And some of them really ought to be relegated to discretionary periods of time, separate and apart from work hours.

Like I said, I’m not immune to temptation. Seeing the wrong items at the wrong time is one of the the things that hurts my daily output. Even if I manage to avoid the urge to deal with everything in my inbox at once, research has shown that simply being aware of unread/un-dealt-with items in your inbox can reduce your mental effectiveness.

I’m not sure what to do about all this. Anyone have any ideas?

[1] I mean, it could if I enabled notifications for it on my phone, PC, watch, refrigerator, and cat. But good god, why would I want to do a silly thing like that?

[2] This is a fuzzy line. I get a lot of emails from people who want to talk about programming-related topics, and whom I only know because my business involves interacting with programmers. Does this make the email business-related? Or personal?

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  1. I am a big fan of GTD and friends, and I have my inbox empty most of the time (without Google Inbox).

    What I would advice is basically what David Alen advices: to take things out of your mind — or Inbox — do the minimum necessary processing on them, which to me in this case is to put them into lists to be processed at a later *specifically allocated* time (WorkFlowy!). If *I know* I will get back to them later, I will not worry about them.

    It can happen that some of those lists categories get long, and start to feel overwhelming. This is when I go through them and strip the actual items (just delete them) and their sources: from these 17 email lists — e.g. “Weekly Ruby/JS/etc.” or — which 5 ones do I really want to keep? Then delete everything else and unsubscribe from them. Getting to look at them en masse makes it easier to decide.

    This is what I do to my Gmail and to my Feedly.

    It seems like this is a bit like “ebb and flow”: I first go through a period when I collect interesting things, and then strip them out, round and round. 😎

    Good luck!

  2. […] Previously: Email: Still not perfect. Also related: Don’t React. I noodled on this a bit more, and the following is what I came up with. It isn’t really specific to email, although most of the input mentioned comes to me in the form of email. […]

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