“How to Win at Email” by Nikil Viswanathan

June 28, 2013

Although I’m able to charge a nice hourly rate, I’m all too aware that vast amounts of what I do doesn’t map to an hourly charge to any client. A considerable amount of my time is spent (in no particular order):

  • Writing blog posts
  • Replying to blog comments
  • Answering support forum questions
  • Dabbling in social media
  • Doing my company accounting
  • Reading and replying to email

While some, if not all, of these actions may financially benefit me in terms of selling more books, there’s no direct monetary association for them, and they take a considerable amount of time to perform. Time that could be better spent billing clients!

Of this list, too much time is spent in email. I suspect that’s something we can all attest to. The ironic problem with optimizing the efficiency of your routines is that you have to find the time to do so. Fortunately, I just recently read Nikil Viswanathan’s post “How to Win at Email“.

Viswanathan’s post suggests approaches I’ve seen elsewhere, but hopefully this time it will stick better for me. The specifics are generally geared towards using Gmail. Although I am starting to use Gmail more for a new work thing, I’m trying to apply the same theories to my other email accounts, too (i.e., to my Mail app).

The two most important ideas I took away from this article are:

  • Touch each email only once
  • Check your email only 2-3 times per day

As explained in the post, the first idea is made possible using filters and labels (in Gmail, although many email applications have the same ability). I know I waste some time re-reading and re-evaluating emails. The new approach is to address each email once: delete those you can, read those you can, and reply to those that will only take a couple of minutes. Those you can’t address immediately, get sorted into other boxes (e.g., To Do and To Read). This leaves the inbox empty!

For some time now I’ve used my inbox as my combined “To Do” and “To Read” list. There are many problems with that approach. First, new emails get thrown in with the old. Second, I need to frequently re-evaluate each email to remind myself whether it’s a “To Do” or a “To Read”. And, third, sometimes emails get lost. Particularly the “To Do” emails. That’s not good.

Next, and I keep meaning to do this, I have to do better about not checking my email frequently. It’s not a good use of my time, and I’m not sure that it’s better or worse that I know I often check my email as a procrastination tool. So checking my email less often is a new goal.

And with this new system in place, applied to the 600 emails I received while on vacation last week, I’ve now got to take a quick stab at some of the 50+ items in my “To Do” box!