If I could turn back time

A few very simple comments about email and how to ensure that you control it rather than it controlling you.

Here is how I work. I use a modified ‘Getting Things Done‘ approach. There are only four things I allow myself to do with each e-mail:

  • Do
  • Defer
  • Delegate
  • Delete

Lets look at each one in turn:


If the email requires you to do anything, and that thing can be done in a couple of minutes (shoot off a quick reply, send a document, etc) then I do it as I read the mail.


If doing whatever the email wants me to do would take more than a couple of minutes then I defer it. Or more correctly I add it to a to-do list. More about this below.


If someone else can do whatever the email wants me to do (and it is in my power to ask them to do it) then get someone else to do the task.


Anything else, delete. Or, if it’s useful information you might need later, then file it away in a folder.

This approach has the great benefit of ensuring that you only ever parse your list of emails once. This saves time. Lots and lots of it.

One other thing I always do. Set up a couple of rules on your inbox (someone you know must be able to do this). If you are the only person the mail is addressed to then colour the mail red. Such mails are usually ones you need to read. If your name is only on the CC list, then colour it green. I take the view that if the mail has not been sent directly to me then it is unlikely to require me to something.

For a to-do list I currently use Trello. It’s free. It works like having a wall of intelligent post-it notes. Plus you can email tasks to it. So everything can be done from the email client. Most email clients have some form of task manager attached so you might want to do that.

One final thing. Turn off notifications on all your email clients. Don’t have your phone pinging at you or a little ticket turn up on the corner of your screen every time an email arrives. You’ll be amazed how much more productive you become when you are not being distracted from what you are doing every few minutes (usually by some special offer from Nandos).

Two things that you could get your sysadmins to do are:

  • At a system level make ‘Reply’, rather than ‘Reply All’ the default reply action.
  • Restrict access to the “Everyone’ and other large groups.

Hope this helps.