5 rules for Email

These five rules help to outsmart and overpower the Lizard Brain when it comes to dealing with email:

  1. Limit time spent on email. You don’t run to your physical mail box every five minutes, why would you do that with your electronic mailbox? Working with email once or maybe twice a day should be sufficient. This should not take more than 1h (takes about 1.5h for me, but I am on the busier edge). The goal of working with email should be to implement rule 2 (keeping your inbox empty). Some of us are also expected to do ’emergency scanning’ (i.e. checking if there is something really urgent). Limit such scans to one per hour or less frequent.
  2. Keep your Inbox empty. Merlin Mann calls this principle”Inbox Zero“. People who have long inboxes containing a toxic mix of unread email,references, junk, calendar reminders and vaguely defined tasks are rarely efficient. Serious professionals recommend emptying the Inbox every day. I rarely manage to to do so, but I usually get down to zero every 2-3 days. “Getting to zero” means that every email is processed as defined in rule 3.
  3. Don’t ignore emails. Rule 2 does not mean that you have to react, respond or even read all relevant messages. But it does mean that you would pay enough attention to each email to decide what it means. For me such decisions (in a somewhat increasing order of difficulty) are:  (1) delete, (2) archive, (3) save as reference, (4) save as calendar item or task; and (5) respond/forward. Usually under 10-20% of emails require some serious decisions. The Lizard Brain tells you to postpone dealing with them, and let them clutter your Inbox and your mind, but this rule prohibits you from ignoring the messages. They won’t go away! If dealing with a message requires more than 2 minutes – clip it to your Task Management system and archive it, but never ever ignore it.
  4. Automate your email work. Automation means you don’t need to think about most of email tasks. This pleases the Lizard Brain, which hates thinking. But here is the catch. By saving time and mental energy through automation you are able concentrate on the most important battles with the Lizard Brain, where thinking is unavoidable. You don’t get tired fiddling with your mouse or thinking which folder to put your attachment in. Thus your time, attention and energy are ready for making difficult choices about posts that really deserve it. There is a lot of software and tricks for automation which we will cover in future entries.
  5. Treat your own emails seriously. Are your emails too long? Edit them down!  Refer to our posts on writing. Do you Reply to All? Think about the consequences highlighted in this HBR post on Email etiquette. Do you pay attention to who is cc’ed, what is the Subject Line, the greeting? the signature? These are all terribly important! Consult Send: The Essential Guide to Email, a short book with excellent guidance.
Happy emailing!
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About Aleh Cherp

Aleh Cherp is a professor at Central European University and Lund University. He researchers energy and environment and coordinates MESPOM, a Masters course operated by six Universities.
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5 Responses to 5 rules for Email

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