How to manage your email: or, A tiny skill that some people claim doesn't exist
Feb 14, 2013

I thought you might like to learn an easy little skill that most of the world doesn't even know exists. First, the context. I recently spotted three articles - in the New Yorker (here), the Atlantic (here), and the New York Times (here) revealing what you might call the "email confessional." This type of article has been written for several years now, so you may be familiar with it. You know, "we're overwhelmed with email, it's impossible to tame, and alas, there will never be a solution."

Since publishing Bit Literacy almost six years ago (it's now a free ebook on the Kindle store and iBookstore), it's been interesting to see these stories pop up every month or two - always with the same conclusion: there's no solution, and we're forever doomed to be stressed and overwhelmed by email. Occasionally the articles will mention, in passing, another option that they don't think will work, such as...

a widely-reported-on productivity theory, such as "Getting Things Done." The writer then concludes that the system is too complicated for most people to practice (which is a common response - I've met many people who tried that method and gave it up, because of its complexity, and almost no one who claims to actually have managed to practice it).

a trendy quick-fix like "email bankruptcy," the process wherein famous and highly sought-after journalists and luminaries delete all of their emails and then email their colleagues, "I'm far too busy to read your first note, so send me another one." At this point the writer notes the obvious flaw that most people aren't able to delete all their email and stay employed.

That leads me to the "easy little skill" for today's newsletter: a quick three-step process that will permanently solve email overload. It's also the method described in Bit Literacy, which my team at Creative Good and I have been practicing for over 15 years. It's simple to learn, takes a few minutes to practice each day, and doesn't require special software, a particular email platform, or a long description of rules and regulations to adhere to.

Here it is, in three sentences.

Step 1. Move all your action items out of the inbox, and onto a todo list. (The inbox was never designed to manage todos, which need dates, priority ranking, categories, and the ability to edit the text inside. No email program allows all of this.)

Step 2. Archive (or delete) everything else from the inbox. You can always search for anything you need to retrieve.

Step 3. Work from your todo list, not the inbox. After steps 1 and 2 the inbox will be totally empty, so this will be easy to do.

Aaaand that's it. Three steps and you have an empty inbox. After the first time, you can accomplish steps 1 and 2 once a day - you might do it in the morning, or last thing in the evening - within a few minutes.

Of course, according most press accounts, this process doesn't exist, or doesn't work, or is simply impossible. But at Creative Good we have used it for years to run our consulting practice and our Gel conference, write two books (here and here), create a mobile productivity suite, and so on. Pretty amazing to do this with a method that doesn't exist!

I will note that our own todo list, called Good Todo, works in tandem with the method above. For everyone awaiting an invite to the latest hot-startup productivity app, while you're waiting, you can sign up for Good Todo for free. After you've signed up, you can log in via the iPhone/iPad app or the Android app. For Step 1 above, just forward the action-item email to and you're done.

Of course, once the inbox is empty, there's an extra challenge ahead of actually doing the work on the todo list. You'll be well prepared. When your todos are properly on a todo list - fully exposed and editable, not crammed away in an inbox somewhere - you will be ready to get to work.

That is what you want, isn't it?