Creative email handling

Get creative with your inbox

Do you have e-mail fatigue? Does your inbox constantly contain hundreds — even thousands — of e-mails? Does that number continue to grow? For many of us, e-mail seems more of a curse than a blessing, a source of stress rather than a useful and speedy means of communication.

A few weeks ago, I decided to deal with my e-mail problem. After soliciting advice from a more tech-savvy colleague, I implemented a new regime in which I employ a few tricks, and follow some rules. These have allowed me to regain control over my inbox and even helped to improve my work-life balance.

  1. Try very hard to end the day with zero e-mails in your inbox.
  2. Create e-mail folders called things like “Reply today”, “Reply at leisure”, “Readings and links”, etc. — whatever categories make sense to you.
  3. When e-mails arrive in your inbox, immediately deal with those you can, by reading, replying, or deleting them. Move those that you can’t respond to or act upon right away to the appropriate folder.
  4. Make sure that you actually reply each day to all the messages in your “Reply today” folder, lest it turn into your new inbox. Given the rate at which most of us receive e-mail, if you don’t respond to an e-mail today, you may never reply to it. So empty your “Reply today” folder by the end of every day.
  5. When you write an e-mail, remember KISS — keep it short and simple. The vast majority of your messages should only be 2–4 sentences long.
  6. Before you send important e-mails, read them aloud or — even better — sing them. If you stumble over the words, rework them until they flow smoothly and naturally.
  7. Set a good example and restrict your recipient list to those who really need to know its contents. Avoid adding recipients just out of habit. Sending messages to unnecessarily many recipients — and those in large organizations seem particularly prone to this — means that you become part of everyone else’s inbox problem.
  8. Let others know that you normally neither read nor reply to e-mails where you are CCed or BCCed. Then make good on this.
  9. Create a filing system to store the e-mails you’ve dealt with, but need to keep. My filing system for e-mails related to my business — I have a separate one for personal e-mails — includes five main areas: Company core, Creation, Sales & marketing, Operations, and Finance & legal. Within the Sales & marketing folder, I have subfolders such as Pipeline, Clients, Partners, and Dead pitches. These subfolders may themselves contain other folders, as necessary. For example, in the Clients subfolder is a folder for each of our clients.
  10. Quit your e-mail program when you do creative work so incoming messages don’t disturb you. Likewise, quit or silence your social messaging programs on your computer and other devices so you can focus on creating. As I’ve written before in this column, the brain’s cognitive limitations mean that multi-tasking doesn’t work. So first create, then communicate. Don’t try to do both at once. 11. Deal with e-mail once or twice each day, either preceding or following creative work periods — for most people, this is either at the beginning or end of the work day. Politely let people know that they shouldn’t expect instant replies from you, as you produce more and better work when you respond to e-mails in bulk and not as they arrive. 12. If an e-mail angers you, go ahead and hammer out a emotional reply, but do not send that reply right away. Keep it in your drafts folder, sleep on it, and the next morning read it aloud. If you still think it’s appropriate and constructive, then send it. Otherwise, rewrite it until it says what you mean to say.
  11. Does every e-mail you get need a reply from you? What happens if you don’t write back? Each time you’re tempted to reply, ask yourself what’s likely to happen if you don’t. Chances are that 80% of the e-mail you receive needs no action on your part, other than deleting it or filing it away.

You might wonder what these e-mail tips are doing in a column on creativity. Creative people should use their working hours to create, and not to deal with e-mail. But the daily tsunami of messages doesn’t care how creative you are, and will sooner or later overwhelm you. So adopt a more disciplined approach towards your e-mail and save your time and energy for doing what you love: creating meaningful new concepts and creative outputs. Adopting the above practices has worked well for me so far, and I expect that continuing them will only increase my creativity and productivity.

© Dr. Detlef Reis 2014. 
This article is published in parallel in the Bangkok Post under the same title on August 28 2014. All rights reserved.