If you’ve ever read a morning routine or two, you’ve seen the shame associated with admitting to reading email first thing in the morning. Many of us do it, and many of us feel we shouldn’t. Although I’m not into the shame game, no matter how you sugarcoat it, checking email first thing just isn’t going to help you be more productive. And that’s because it violates the two most important truths of email.

  1. Email is best done in bulk.
  2. Email is best done when you have less energy, not more. 

Understanding these truths is key to getting at why some email management systems work and some don’t.

Firstly, email is best done in bulk for the same reason that mono-tasking and batching your work are key ways to ensure you’re being as productive as possible. Switching between tasks can effectively(!) help you lose up to 40% of your productivity. Avoid this by doing one thing at once — like email.

The reason email is best done when you have less energy, not more relates to why real productivity is about managing your energy, not your time. Times of peak energy should be used for the most difficult things on your plate, and those that require intense focus. The vast majority of the time, that is not email.

With these truths in mind, here is how I manage the beast that is my email inbox (which runs at a couple hundred emails a day, currently). (Also, see a free ebook of tips here.)

My Email Management “System”:

I think of my email in terms of four categories, and I attend to each category accordingly.

  • Urgent – These are emails I respond to, well, urgently.
  • Daily – I respond to these in bulk on a daily basis.
  • Weekly – I respond to these in bulk on a weekly basis.
  • Never – I do not respond to these.

To better understand each category, here are the types of emails that make up each:

Urgent and Daily Emails

  • “Live” projects: Most of us have many projects on our plate in the course of a year in our work, home, and extracurricular lives. However, only a few of those projects are “live” at any given time. The wedding you’ve been planning that takes place in a week, say, or the presentation you’re preparing for Thursday. When a project is “live,” it requires urgent or daily attention. If a project is far-off, in incubation stage, or on the back burner, it doesn’t require such vigilance in your life, or in your email inbox.
  • Life-changers: This mixed bag is usually made up of make or break news (your adoption papers were approved! you closed the deal of the year! your mother’s participating in a flash mob!) or opportunity (a significant press opportunity! your favorite author wants to meet you!). You know these when you see them.
  • Inner circle emails: We all have a circle like this, and the folks inside get top billing, even when emailing their 10th semi-cute baby shot of the week. We all need circles — and emails — like these.

Weekly emails

For the most part, these emails are usually about another person’s agenda. They may include queries from people who want your help on something, pitches to do a job you may or may not want to do, or questions that aren’t urgent in responding to. These are emails you likely do want to respond to, but should not do so on a daily basis if you want to get your own work done.

Never Emails

We all have different standards for what these may be, and their volume varies greatly on whether or not you are someone who receives a regular stream of unsolicited emails.

With the concept of these categories top of mind, I then respond to emails as each category dictates — urgently, daily (in bulk), weekly (in bulk), and never.

For me, calling up the powers of the two email truths, email is best done in bulk, and email is best done when you have less energy, has been essential in developing a system that works for me, most of the time.

That said, like all good mammals, I regularly get off track. I’ll wake in the middle of the night unexpectedly, and grab my iPhone for a minute that turns into 20. I’ll pull out my phone to take a picture of an unsuspecting baby and wind up responding to an email that certainly doesn’t need my attention. Working to curb my email inbox is the challenge of our digital age.

Intentional work is the key to great innovation.

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