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Email offense

January 8, 2017


Photo: Søren Niedziella (CC)

Great email management requires more than defensive tactics. It means having a solid offensive strategy.

Getting a permanent handle on email frees us to do productive work, removes the anxiety of facing the Inbox and assures colleagues and partners that we’re handling messages decisively. It works, but it requires us to take a few more aggressive steps.

1. The most important step forward is to set boundaries. This is straight outta “The 4-Hour Workweek” [aff. link].

One boundary should be expectations of timeliness. Email can’t be a dog whistle that anyone in the world can use to summon us at a moment’s notice. I can immediately tell when those expectations are out of alignment when someone responds to my email after a few weeks, but then sends me followup emails within an hour demanding a reply.


If it’s an emergency, call me. If it’s not an emergency, email me. (And trust me, I have a strict definition of what constitutes an emergency.) I’m perfectly fine letting calls go to voicemail 99 percent of the time.

Many questions magically resolve themselves without my intervention. And just about everyone receives a reply from me within 24 hours.

2. Another boundary to set is how many times a day we check email. I’m down to two times a day and should eventually get to once a day.

When email is the to-do list written by others, I prefer to keep that list as short as possible. Otherwise, it threatens to sap away all productivity and focus. We don’t check our snail mailboxes obsessively, and we really shouldn’t snatch our phone up for every notification for texts and social media.

We do this to ourselves.

We must rescue ourselves.

Checking work email in bed at night and first thing in the morning is counterproductive. It’s setting unrealistic expectations and burning us out. It’s allowing the tool to use us than the other way around.

3. Where many people fail is not in cleaning up their Inboxes. It’s not even in setting up auto-filtering rules.

The failure comes from having a working system in place.

What good is clearing 700 messages out of the Inbox if it’s overstuffed a week later?

It’s like having an organization system for clutter in the home. Mail goes here, keys go there, remote goes there. Otherwise, clutter.

Filtering rules can handle most of the incoming email. But we must still whittle down some pile of messages. “Getting Things Done” [aff. link] offers a solution: Reply, do later, archive or delete.

  • If a reply can be written in 2 minutes or less, we take care of it on the spot. Then we archive it.
  • If it takes more than 2 minutes, we put it in a To-Do folder.
  • If we need to refer to it later, we archive it.
  • Or delete it.

By putting total focus on the Inbox, we can manage it daily, without re-reading messages or struggling with indecision.

Quite a few posts can guide newbies through applying Getting Things Done to email, including this one that focuses on Gmail users. The Getting Things Done system is terrific, but applying it to email and other areas takes study and practice.

Without any system in place, email becomes a burden again, rather than a simple task to handle with a smile.

4. A big step to consider is email encryption. It’s technology that’s available to all of us at a reasonable cost, allowing only us and the recipient access to the message.

But why do it?

Email privacy is an illusion. Our mail can be read by government agencies, corporate spies, tween hackers, Russian hackers and nosy family members. Many of us have faced similar privacy concerns about our medical records, our financial statements, our phone data, our photos stored on the cloud and other sensitive material.

We lock our doors, try to hide our PINs at the ATM and supermarket checkout terminal and use two-factor authentication for site logins. Maybe we’re not thinking enough about securing our email.

Lifehacker put together a guide to email encryption in 2013 worth studying. For most people, having stronger passwords and better password management will be enough of a defense. But for a few, encryption will be a necessity.

Email offense ensures that we take charge of this communication tool. Our game plan is to free up time wasted on tracking messages and give ourselves ongoing peace of mind.

Tips for email defense

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