Today I am continuing this series on Christians and productivity. I have said that productivity is effectively stewarding your gifts, talents, time, energy, and enthusiasm for the good of others and the glory of God, and to this point I have suggested many different ways of doing that (You can see a series round-up at the bottom of this article). Our topic for this article is taming the email beast.
I think we all have a love-hate relationship with email. On the one hand email brings many good things—it delivers exciting news, encouragement from friends, and fun little notes from family members. It also has immense practical value—it delivers confirmation that the ticket order went through, or that the book we want is on sale. But, of course, there is a dark side as well—the endless spam, the email discussions that go on for far too long, the newsletters we didn’t sign up for, the chain letters promising bad luck if we don’t forward it to twenty more people. Email has become a mess of function and dysfunction. We need it, and yet we hate it.
Doing Email Badly
To better understand why so many of us do email so badly, let’s draw a comparison to a real-world object: your mailbox. Imagine if you treated your actual, physical mailbox like you treat your email. Here’s how it would go:
You walk outside to check your mail and reach into your mailbox. Sure enough, you’ve got some new mail. You take out one of your letters, open it up and begin to read it. You get about halfway through, realize it is not that interesting, stuff it back inside the envelope, and put it back in the mailbox. “I’ll deal with this one later.” You open the next letter and find that it is a little bit more interesting, but you do the same thing—stuff it back into the envelope and put it back inside the mailbox. Other mail you pull out and don’t even bother reading—it just goes straight back inside the mailbox. And sure enough, your mailbox is soon crammed full of a combination of hundreds of unopened and unread letters plus hundreds of opened and read or partially-read letters.
But it gets worse. You don’t just use your mailbox to receive and hold letters, but also to track your calendar items. You reach in deep and pull out a handful of papers with important dates and events written on them, including a few that have come and gone without you even noticing or remembering. And, of course, you also use your mailbox as a task list, so you’ve got all kinds of post-it notes in there with your to-do items scrawled all over them.
But we aren’t done yet. Even though you feel guilty and kind of sick every time you open your mailbox, you still find yourself checking your mail constantly. Fifty or sixty times a day you stop whatever else you are doing, you venture down the driveway, and reach your hand inside to see if there is anything new.
It is absurd, right? Your life would be total chaos. And yet that is exactly how most people treat their email. It is chaotic with no rules or procedures to control it. What do you need? You need a system.
Taming Your Email
We once again need to consider our foundational principle of organization: A home for everything, and like goes with like. On a high level, we now know that events, meetings and appointments belong in our calendar; tasks and projects belong in our task management software; and information belongs in our information management tool. That leaves email as the place for communication—communication and nothing else. Email is an abysmal task management tool and a woefully poor scheduling tool. It is tolerable only if we make it do the one that it does passably well: communications.
We can also use that principle of organization on a more granular level. Here it tells us that our email inbox is the place for unprocessed email and for nothing else. The inbox is not the proper home for archived email or for email that is awaiting our reply.
So let’s build a simple system that will allow you to tame your inbox. Your email system can be as simple or as complex as you want it, but the simplest method of all involves just three locations: A place to receive new email, a place to hold email you will reply to at a later time, and a place to hold email you need to keep for archive purposes. It really can be that simple.
The inbox is the place to receive email. No matter what email program you use, your inbox will be built-in and probably already full of email. You also need a place to temporarily hold email as it waits for your reply, so go ahead and create a folder or label called Reply. And then you need a place to hold email that you will be keeping for archive purposes. Most email programs already have this functionality as well. If your program does not, create a folder or label called Archive.
With our folders in place, let’s put together a workflow.