September 10, 2012

Avoiding Email – by Steve

Steve Locke-Wheaton is the Teaching Grid Coordinator for the University of Warwick Library. The Teaching Grid is a flexible working and teaching space on Floor 2 of the Library for any postgraduates with teaching responsibilities, academics and Teaching & Learning partners. Follow @teachinggrid

In my last post I talked about stopping things from stealing your time and attention to allow you to get stuff done. This time I want to talk about the number one culprit for stealing our time and attention – email.

The Problem

Some of you might think you don’t have a problem with email. If that’s you then read the following problems and see if you recognise any of them. If you have more than zero emails in your inbox, I think you might have a problem.

The headings are taken from Merlin Mann’s Inbox Zero: Articles of faith.

Some messages are more equal than others

All men may have been create equal, but all emails certainly are not. Should that invitation to send money to Nigeria really take up the same time and attention as that email from your supervisor? They will both count towards the same total in your inbox unread count and both make the same ping noise.

Your time is priceless (and wildly limited)

Do you have more or less time left in the day at the end of this sentence than at the beginning? Instead of reading this sentence what could you have done instead?

You will never have more time, you will always have less time. Spend it wisely.

When you opened up your email this morning how long did you plan to spend in there? How long did you actually spend in there? Significantly longer I’d bet. That’s time you’re not getting back.

Lose the guilt

We seem to have an implicit contract with email. Anyone can send you anything and you will read and respond to it.

You can’t do everything, you have to say no sometimes – or, dare I say it, say nothing at all. Don’t even reply. That’d make you feel guilty, right?

Lying to yourself doesn’t empty an inbox

Will you reply to that email later?

I know you want to, and intend to, but actually can you? So you’ll just leave it until the next day…and the next day….and the next day….

The Solution

Don’t give away your time and attention

The number one rule of Inbox Zero (aside from having an inbox with zero emails) is don’t give away your time and attention. This means:
- Don’t leave your email program running. Check once a day or as sparsely as you can get away with without getting fired. If it’s open you will give in to it’s siren song.
- Turn off notifications. No inbox counters on your desktop, no pop-up notifications and absolutely no ping noises. You are off the grid until you choose to process your emails.
- Touch each email once only. If you have to re-read an email because you thought ”I’ll deal with that later” then you are giving away twice as much time and attention.

Getting free

Here’s how to get Inbox Zero.

Open your mail program, select everything in your inbox and hit delete.

Too harsh? OK, create a new folder called DMZ (DeMilitarised Zone) and move all your messages there. Now ignore them.

You now have a fresh new start. Now close your email and get some proper work done.

The next time you launch it (wait 24 hours if you can) you will doubtless have more emails cluttering up your recently sanitised inbox. Your aim now is to get in and get out as quickly as possible using the following decision tree:


For each email, spending no more than 20 seconds on each, do one of the following:


Is this something you want to spend your priceless limited time on? If the answer is anything other than “Yes!” hit the delete key now.


Mailing from – DELETE

Library overdue fine notice – DELETE

Isn’t this Inbox Zero thing easy? One key to make it go away and you didn’t even have to read it.

Next email!


OK, so you actually need to read this email. How quickly do you read? If you can read it (and reply if needed) within a maximum of 2 minutes then do it now and time yourself with your phone alarm. When it goes off, stop reading, your time’s up. Learn what you can easily do in 2 minutes and what you can’t.

If you can’t read it in 2 minutes then carry on down the decision tree, otherwise if you’ve read it:

Next email!


Maybe you need to actually do something with an email. Well, can somebody else do it? If there’s absolutely anyway you can kick the can down the road then do it. Click FWD and send that email asking about the next society social to somebody else in the society.

Next email!


Sometimes only you can provide the answer an email is looking for. If this person and this topic is actually worth your time and attention, and it will take more than 2 minutes to do, then capture it and move on. Move it to a folder called Respond, then ignore it. Don’t reply until it comes up on your to do list.

Next email!


Sometimes you have a task you have to do from an email. As with responding, capture, move to a Defer folder and move on.

Next email!


Sometimes you don’t have to do anything with an email but you can’t actually delete it – electronic receipts for example.

Create a folder called Archive. This is for anything and everything you think you might need to keep. Think of it as a place to delete emails to but you can always find them if you need to later.

A word of caution

You’ve created several folders with helpful names, so it’s tempting to now use those folders as your todo list. Do not fall for this trap! For all of the reasons listed above your email program should not be open unless you are processing your inbox down to zero. Track you commitments with your todo list not your email program.

Share you’re thoughts

Do you have any tips and tricks for automating email? How do you say no to people? Let us know your thoughts and ideas in the comments below.

Further Reading

Inbox Zero – Links to articles on the methodology.

43 Folders – The home of Merlin Mann, productivity guru.

Inbox Zero Google talk – Merlin Mann’s famous talk to Google employees about Inbox Zero, time and attention.

Inbox Zero: Articles of faith – More on why this is such an important subject if you want to get stuff done.

- One comment

  1. monisha

    Thanks for your grateful university blogs informations.

    11 Sep 2012, 07:36

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