My "Email Workflow"

"Checking one's email," taken as a set of personal and unspoken/unwritten practices for managing communication and the artifacts left behind by communication, is rarely discussed anymore. Ten years ago, before Twitter and Slack, it was fashionable to discuss one's own personal workflow for dealing with the metastisizing fungal bloom of email that seemed poised to end the world with a single Reply All...

This all seems relatively quaint now, like Victorians discussing the proper etiquette for reading broadsheets on public transport, but back in 2007 Merlin Mann, Inbox Zero, and the GTD school of time management loomed pretty large in my world. By 2007 I remember trying to control Mail.app exclusively with the keyboard using custom actions in Quicksilver. (Remember poor old Quicksilver?) Email notifications—in the way we think of them nowadays—were relatively new (remember dear old Growl?) and I wanted to immediately deflect incoming communication into a folder without taking my fingers off my PowerBook G4 keyboard. Like I say, relatively quaint.

But the truth is that email is still a huge problem. It's a set of protocols and implementations and hacked workflows that have largely outstayed their welcome. Because half the world still use only email for every business communication, the rest of us just sort of have to find a way to manage our inboxes.

Recently, a colleague accidentally screenshared his inbox to howls of laughter from the assembled team. He had over 500 unread emails—hundreds of which probably came from ticketing and project management software bots—and a convoluted folder structure he probably diligently tries to maintain.

As I thought about my own process, I was reminded of another recent situation where dryly and dispassionately documenting the numbered steps in a previously undocumented workflow resulted in an unexpectedly clear understanding of exactly how poor an experience it represented.

My "Email Workflow"

  1. Open email on device. I have three folders. Inbox, Archive, and Trash.
  2. Sweep notifications generated on behalf of other systems. 99% of these can be deleted outright. If an automated reminder was generated that explicitly requires an action within the next 1–8 hours, it stays.
  3. Inspect and accept/decline meeting invitations.
  4. Sweep and archive (but not delete) all messages for which I'm a carbon copy but am only peripherally involved in the project. Based on the sender and subject, this is usually pretty easy.
  5. Sweep and archive any messages for projects in which I'm directly involved, but for which no action is required in this email thread. Optionally send quick thank yous to close off threads.
  6. For any messages that contain new information about a project (URLs for staging servers, delivery dates, etc.) IMMEDIATELY copy this information into Evernote and tag it.
  7. Sweep in order to keep only the most recent or most actionable thread pertaining to a given project/client/XYZ in my inbox and archive any older ones.
  8. At this point, almost every item in my inbox is meaningfully related to a possible next action and can help me identify who to communicate with next.

What is it Worth?

For the record, even after writing it down, I still think it's pretty sound. But the question is, do I need this at all? If my email is simply the detritus of other people's decision to keep using email, what is my continued diligence really buying me?