10 Steps to Become an Email Ninja

110 Comments

Photo courtesy of R’eyes

Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Leo Babauta, who writes about simplicity and productivity on his blog, Zen Habits.

I don’t know about you, but I get dozens — if not hundreds — of emails a day.

Unlike most people, however, I’m able to process through them, respond quickly, and get my inbox empty in 20 minutes (checking perhaps 2-3 times a day).

In fact, I respond so quickly, and empty my inbox so quickly, that friends have called me an “email ninja”.

Let’s look at some simple strategies for being able to get your inbox to done in as little time as possible…

Pre-empt
The first stage of any email strategy is to stop any unnecessary email from getting into your inbox in the first place. When I said I get perhaps hundreds of emails a day, I deceived a bit — most of those emails never make it to the inbox. They go straight to the spam folder or the trash. You only want the essential emails in your inbox, or you’ll be overwhelmed.

1. Junk. I recommend using Gmail, as it has the best spam filter possible. I get zero spam in my inbox. That’s a huge improvement over my previous accounts at Yahoo and Hotmail, where I’d have to tediously mark dozens of emails as spam.

2. Notifications. I often get notifications from the many online services I use, from Amazon to WordPress to PayPal and many more. As soon as I notice those types of notifications filling up my inbox, I create a filter (or “rule” if you use Mail.app or Outlook) that will automatically put these into a folder and mark them as read, or trash them, as appropriate. So for my PayPal notifications, I can always go and check on them in my “payments” folder if I like, but they never clutter my inbox.

3. Batch work. I get certain emails throughout the day that require quick action (like 10-15 seconds each). As I know these emails pretty well, I created filters that send them into a “batch” folder to be processed once a day. Takes a couple minutes to process the whole folder, and I don’t have to see them in my inbox.

4. Stupid joke emails. If you have friends and family who send you chain emails and joke emails and the like, email them and let them know that you are trying to lessen the huge amount of email you have to deal with, and while you appreciate them thinking of you, you’d rather not receive those kinds of messages. Some people will be hurt. They’ll get over it. Others will continue to send the emails. I create a filter for them that sends them straight in the trash. Basically, they’re on my killfile. If they ever send an important email (which is rare), they’ll call me eventually and ask why I haven’t responded. I tell them that their email must be in my spam folder.

5. Publish policies. As most people who email me get my contact info from my website, I’ve created a set of policies published on my about page that are designed to pre-empt the most common emails. If people follow my policies, I will get very little email. For example, instead of emailing me to ask for a link, they can save the link in my del.icio.us inbox … for suggestions or comments or questions, they can post them on a couple pages I created for that purpose. I’m also planning on creating an FAQ page for more common questions and issues. These policies remove the burden on me to respond to every request — I still read the comments and questions, but I only respond if I have time. My inbox has been under a much lighter burden these days.

Processing the rest
So now that only the essential emails come into your inbox, the question is how to get it empty in 20 minutes? I should warn you that the “20 minutes” time frame is how long it takes me — your mileage may vary, depending on how practiced you are at the following methods, and how much email you get, and how focused you keep yourself. However, in any case, you should be able to get your inbox empty in a minimal amount of time using these methods.

I should also note: if you have a very full inbox (hundreds or thousands of messages), you should create a temporary folder (“to be filed”) and get to them later, processing them perhaps 30 minutes at a time until you’re done with that. Start with your inbox empty, and use the following techniques to keep it empty, in as little time as possible.

6. Have an external to-do system. Many times the reason an email is lingering in our inbox is because there is an action required in order to process it. Instead of leaving it in your inbox, and using the inbox as a de facto to-do list, make a note of the task required by the email in your to-do system … a notebook, an online to-do program, a planner, whatever. Get the task out of your inbox. Make a reference to the email if necessary. Then archive the email and be done with it. This will get rid of a lot of email in your inbox very quickly. You still have to do the task, but at least it’s now on a legitimate to-do list and not keeping your inbox full.

7. Process quickly. Work your way from top to bottom, one email at a time. Open each email and dispose of it immediately. Your choices: delete, archive (for later reference), reply quickly (and archive or delete the message), put on your to-do list (and archive or delete), do the task immediately (if it requires 2 minutes or less — then archive or delete), forward (and archive or delete). Notice that for each option, the email is ultimately archived or deleted. Get them out of the inbox. Never leave them sitting there. And do this quickly, moving on to the next email. If you practice this enough, you can plow through a couple dozen messages very quickly.

8. Be liberal with the delete key. Too often we feel like we need to reply to every email. But we don’t. Ask yourself, “What’s the worst that will happen if I delete this?” If the answer isn’t too bad, just delete it and move on. You can’t reply to everything. Just choose the most important ones, and reply to them. If you limit the emails you actually reply to or take action on, you get the most important stuff done in the least amount of time. Pareto and all that.

9. Short but powerful replies. So you’ve chosen the few emails you’re actually going to respond to … now don’t blow it by writing a novel-length response to each one. I limit myself to five sentences for each reply (at the maximum — many replies are even shorter). That forces me to be concise, to choose only the essentials of what I want to say, and limits the time I spend replying to email. Keep them short, but powerful.

10. Process to done. When you open your inbox, process to it to done. Don’t just look at an email and leave it sitting in your inbox. Get it out of there, and empty that inbox. Make it a rule: don’t leave the inbox with emails hanging around. Empty and clean. Ahhh!

For more from Leo Babauta, check out his blog, Zen Habits, or subscribe to his feed.

Related links:

How to Do The Impossible: Create a Paperless Life, Never Check Voicemail Again, Never Return Another Phone Call…

The Art of Letting Bad Things Happen (Plus: Weapons of Mass Distraction)

12 Filtering Tips for Better Information in Half the Time: RSS, Del.icio.us and StumbleUpon

Posted on: January 9, 2008.

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110 comments on “10 Steps to Become an Email Ninja

  1. Nice article Leo!

    The trick is to take action immediately, never leave an email read and not taking any action on it. That’s when they start to pile, not only in your inbox but also clutters your mind.

    Two others tips:
    Auto filter as much as possible. Gmail is great for this. I get very few promo emails, because I filter them all out.
    Use specific labels/tags/folders for common tasks. I have one label called Travels which holds travel itinerary for flights, and for airport pickups of friends.

    I wrote a quick 4 step guide on the topic that I use regularly (if anyone’s interested): 4 Steps to Banish Email Clutter

    Cheers,
    Tina

    Like

  2. Great tips overall. I agree with being liberal with the delete key. Sometimes an e-mail just doesn’t warrant a reply. If it’s particularly important, I’ll send a short “I got your e-mail” reply just to let them know it came through, but that’s about it.

    Like

  3. Regarding #4, why tell people who refuse to stop sending junk mail that their mail must have gone into your spam folder? I’ve been in just that situation: I’ve asked several people to stop sending me junk, and when they refused, I’ve auto-deleted their mail. When asked why I haven’t replied to non-junk mail, I explain straight-out that because they refused to honour my request, I decided to delete all mail. From then on, we can try it again.

    Like

  4. Thanks! I became an email ninja tonight — after reading this post. I’ve got one email account down to 14 messages. The other was at 500 messages and is now at 40. It’s a start. Amazing how much junk I held onto for no good reason.

    Like

  5. This post goes great with the one about the guy who spoke to Google. Do you still have the hyperlink that goes to that video?
    I liked the simple process of “delete, delegate, respond, defer, and do” I personally implemented this and it has saved much some of that valuable Non Renewable resource, TIME!!!!!
    Furthermore, this is like any other skill. Repetition is the mother of skill, (anthony robbins ) Something I noticed to when doing this is that you really can’t be doing something else while you do this. You will notice this b/c you start leaving one email and so forth in the inbox, when you catch yourself doing this do the following: Get off the fon, stop the sms, and any other distraction that is making a chore out of reading these emails.

    Look forward to what the other bloggers have to say. I have been on here for about 4 months and it has really added value to my daily activities.

    Best Actions,

    Jose Castro-Frenzel D-TX

    Like

  6. I can be more verbose in personal communication, but I’ve done the 5 sentence e-mail thing in a number of business contexts and found it works really well.

    As for e-mail, well I’m still neurotic about that.

    Like

  7. I’ve been using a similar system ever since I read Getting Things Done by David Allan. One thing to point out that he notes that I think is very valuable:

    Don’t archive your email in dozens of different folders and sub-folders. It takes too much time and adds the burden of recall later when you are trying to find something. Create one archive folder and use a mail client with a good search function.

    Like

  8. Great post, Leo. I read the book a few months ago and have since started my low-info diet too. I recall you mentioning that you only watch DVDs. Selective ignorance is the way to go!

    I actually wrote a review on The 4-Hour Workweek: “What would you do if you just had a heart attack and could only work for two hours a day? What about two hours a week? After coming across this question in the book, I knew the answer was simple. It’s about eliminating everything you don’t need and filling your life with what you do. Since then, I’ve stopped watching TV (except for my favourite shows), stopped listening to annoying DJs on the radio, stopped watching the news bulletins several times a day, cut back my online subscriptions from nine to two, and cut back my print subscriptions from five to one. It may be hard to let go of all the data, but do you honestly need to check your email and other messages several times a day? Besides, if anything that important happens, you’ll know. Why not spend some time discovering the likes of Tolstoy and Twain, something I recently decided to do? I’m up for the challenge and can’t wait to get started!”

    (From http://www.varsityblah.com/need-for-speed)

    Like

  9. Great article! And I love reading Zenhabits.
    If you use GMail another good way of collecting and deleting notification eMails and newsletters is to set up a filter and choose “star it”. After a quick glance over your inbox you can just proceed to trash them all in one go. I also recommend using the hotkeys which you have to activate in your preferences.

    To eMail free mornings,

    Oliver Rendelmann

    Like

  10. Leo, how do you manage to keep your inbox clean with gmail while putting specific messages into folders? Since gmail doesn’t have folders (only labels), you can’t really remove it from your inbox.

    Thanks!

    Like

  11. i thought you only check your email once a week?

    ###

    Hi Craig,

    This is guest post written by Leo Babauta. He and I have similar complementary techniques but different frequencies.

    Cheers,

    Tim

    Like

  12. Great summary of some common sense ideas. (common sense isn’t always practiced! :( ) Once again, Mt Babauta comes through with valuable information, Great work Leo.
    It does bring up the point though of “What do we take for granted that others would relish knowing”. A great idea for a blog article.

    Like

  13. Great list. For me 6 was the thing that eluded me for ages. Then I found rememberthemilk.com which allowed me to just forward my emails to it, but adding a due date and a priority (there’s also a way of setting tags so I could specify things like ‘on the train’ or ‘at home’ so that I’ve got a context for when I might be able to get them done).

    It’s so much more effective than having an ‘action’ folder in my email inbox, or a bunch of flagged mails. I’ve got no association with the site so I hope it doesn’t come across as spammy, but I really do find it great (and it’s free).

    I’m sure there are similar systems out there – the key thing is being able to simply forward a mail and have it filed in the future for action.

    Like

  14. Hi,
    I have an approach which works for me, and thought I’d share it with all.
    I am a Database Support professional and receive 1000s of email notifications and stuff every day. It is indeed very overwhelming.
    So I created a folder named “Action Items” and created a rule to move any mail where my name is in the “to” field into this folder.
    Ofcourse I have other rules too, which sort and send mails to various folders.
    So the net effect is that out of the 1000s of emails, the action items folder contains only 5-6 mails, which call for immediate attention. The rest, anyway I process a leisure.
    Great post by leo as usual!

    Cheers!
    -Anand

    Like

  15. Timely article as many of us are trying to get more organized as part of the new year, new you routine. My company has been pushing the David Allen “Getting Things Done” method which includes many (if not all) of the steps above for email management. Of the many tips for keeping a tack on spiraling information and “to-dos”, these methods for managing email give me the most bang for my buck in helping me to manage my general stress and anxiety levels. An empty in-box makes for more peace of mind

    Thanks for the tips.

    Like

  16. Email ninjas always beat email pirates.

    My favorite process-to-done shortcut is the DMZ. This works especially well in Gmail. If you’ve got an inbox with 100s or 1000s of emails, mark them all for a new tag or folder called “DMZ” and archive them. Boom: Inbox zero.

    If it’s really important, someone will nag you — or you will nag yourself — or better yet, it’s on your GTD project list — you can always search for that mail later with Gmail’s search capability; however, I guarantee you will never see 99% of those emails again, with zero negative consequences.

    Like

  17. 1. Googlemail’s spam filter has problems and so you will not receive all email through them. OK for personal low-priority mail, but don’t use it for important stuff.

    2. Notifications – you can filter some of them, but auto-filtering notifications can be a little dangerous. Someone might do something to an account of yours which lets them hurt you (see davidairey.com for a recent example) so you need to see some notifications promptly.

    I’d agree with the rest and I’d also add “11. Use Canned Replies” because many emails are variations on a theme. If you notice that you’re writing a similar email to one you’ve sent before and you think there’s a chance you’ll write one again, either copy the old one out of your sent mailbox or put a copy of the new one into a drafts or ‘greatest hits’ mailbox, so you can edit+resend it more quickly next time.

    Like

  18. Nice tips. It’s a sign of the times there have to be articles like this with the misuse of e-mail prevalent.

    I agree with the five-word reply. Even though I’m a writer, e-mail is just a convenient way to get a message across fast, so my replies are very brief.

    Like

  19. One note about processing email: My habit is to work in chronological order, oldest to newest. However, if you do that, make sure the email you are replying to isn’t part 1 or 2 of a long conversation. Nothing is more frustrating than getting direction or suggestions to a problem that’s already been solved.

    Also, these suggestions may need to be tweaked for business folks. For instance, if you are part of an organization that must maintain records for legal reasons, make sure you create archive folders and move email to them instead of liberally deleting them.

    This also helps when so and so claims three months later they didn’t get some bit of information or request you made that caused such and such deal to fall through.

    The ultimate key is getting excess email OUT of your inbox and somewhere else.

    Like

  20. These are great tips – but I’m a little surprised that the author isn’t crediting David Allen. A good chunk of being an email ‘ninja’ is just applying the processes of the classic book “Getting Things Done” (GTD). The other classic source is the “in-box zero” article over at 43folders.com.

    Not to trash these excellent hints, but I think GTD and 43folders.com are the ‘primary sources’ – check ‘em out.

    - Karl

    http://www.instarmusic.com

    Like

  21. Tim

    Look at you…outsourcing your own blog and thinking we wouldn’t notice.

    I’m off to Africa for my 30th. It was numero uno on my list. I’ll let you know when the porsche boxster arrives. :)

    Like

  22. One more massive time saver some might not know about – ‘snippet expanders’ for your computer.

    While the five-sentence approach to emails is great sometimes, if you’re doing sales or PR or many other things there IS going to be asymmetry between input (‘tell me about your band’) and your email output (‘thanks for your request, let me tell you blah blah blah..’).

    The fix is using tools like TypeIt4Me or Textpander – http://smileonmymac.net/textexpander/ – they let you turn tiny shortcuts ‘ksigb’ into a complete signature – or a page worth of boilerplate. Write a greeting or closing sentence a lot? Turn it into a shortcut. Type a particular web address or phone number a lot? Shortcut it. Once implemented, this is a MASSIVELY efficient way to communicate, because you’re not data-starving your recipient. Give them lots of info, if that’s what they want, yet not spend lots of time writing.

    I refused to migrate from OS9 to OSX until my favorite text expander made the jump. Look into this, you won’t regret it.

    - Karl
    —————————————–
    Music: http://www.instarmusic.com/
    “Excellent” – NME, UK
    —————————————–

    Like

  23. I receive about 1500 emails a week at work as I think I am attached to every distribution list there is I think and so it is impossible to read every one. With rules in place pushing the mails in the do not care folders I set up, I still have about on average 60 to 70 emails every morning.

    I flick through my emails giving each one about 5 seconds of my time, the non critical ones I delete. I also find that everyone communicates by email these days so a single email gets duplicated a dozen times just with a different person’s opinion so I find the one with all the threads and delete the rest. Some I do reply to and some I mark to look at later.

    At the end of every week I take all the messages out of my deleted folder and archive them by department or person just to cover myself in the event that I have deleted something I shouldn’t have so I can say “oh yes I remember that” and then scrabble about searching for something I know nothing about. Works for me.

    Like

  24. Nice post Leo, and Tim I really like your blog too – a great complement to a great book.

    On the email subject one thing I keep in mind to help me get over the desire to write long replies is to remember just how little effort is to write emails – when you can replicate content or addressees its easy to be profligate.

    Email is a short, sharp, instant communication method – let’s treat it as such!

    Like

  25. Thanks for the great comments, everyone!

    @Jason Unger: Labels and folders work pretty much the same way. If you put a label on something, you can then archive it, and it’s just like filing it in a folder. You can click on the label and find all the emails with that label. The only difference is that with labels, you can assign multiple labels to an email, while you can’t do that with folders.

    @MJ Ray: In my experience, Gmail’s spam folder is very very rarely wrong. I’ve never had a real email go into the spam folder (I check it weekly). I’m not saying it’ll never make mistakes, but it relies on its users to update its database, so it’s always improving. It’s the best I’ve used.

    @Karl: I owe a huge debt to both David Allen and 43 Folders, but to be fair, these concepts were not invented by either of them. Many people learned of them for the first time from GTD, but David took great principles from time management and put them together into a great comprehensive system that’s different from any other. The principles, however, are much older than GTD … especially the principles of inbox processing I discussed in the article. It’s hard to find the original source, so I left out attribution.

    Like

  26. Hotmail used to have a search function. you could type in the names of newsletters, regular daily email, etc that you get several times a week and it would call them all up on a single page. From there it was so easy to file or delete. Anyone know why it’s not there anymore? or was it just too much like right for msn to keep it? I am so angry about this. After 10 years of having the same hotmail box and finally discovering a way to manage it they decide this function is not useful…geez

    Like

  27. @Leo: trouble is, the stuff googlemail gets wrong never reaches the spam folder. It doesn’t even get accepted by their servers. I run mailservers for some ISPs and I’ve traced emails which didn’t get to googlemail destinations for customers, which is how I know this. googlemail is much better than AOL or Yahoo, but still not as reliable as a random European ISP, in my experience. Maybe their spam filtering is best-of-breed on what they do accept, but it’s hard for you to measure how it performs overall, including the outright rejects. I think this comes under “5. Publish policies” and warning senders that your email is unreliable.

    Like

  28. USE INSTANT MESSAGING! – By instructing your friends, family, co-workers to IM you you will eliminate at least 40% of the one to two question emails that you get barraged with all day.

    Some say “IM takes too much time, its just another distraction”. It all depends on how you use it. A DVR or Tivo can help you watch more TV or less (skip ads); it depends on how you use it.

    For the best Instant Messenger check out http://www.chatstat.com

    Kim Curtis
    San Diego

    Like

  29. I’ve recently started using a new technique to help Keep my Inbox clean. I’ve setup a second Inbox that stores every message that I receive. I call this Inbox “Processed”. I never look at messages in there unless I need to dig up an old email. Now, instead of having to archive messages when I’m done with them, I instead just delete them out of my Inbox, safe in the knowledge that a backup of that message has already been archived for me in the Processed folder.

    Like

  30. Really a great article. I didnt know you could set up filters that could send certain emails to different folders. Looks like I will have to get a gmail address soon. I learned a couple other things too. Thanks for the info.

    I too get hundreds, nearly thousands of emails a day. I simply cannot keep up with it, and end up deleted most of them.

    If you actually want to get your messages go with gmail. Most email send to my yahoo account bounces. You will notice that alot of opt-in forms require you to have a gmail account because yahoo, and hotmail have become so unreliable. I have had personal emails to my girlfriend blocked because they were tagged as spam by hotmail. Crazy isnt it?

    Like

  31. Three other things I do…

    (1) Everywhere I go, I use a different email address. Since I have Google Apps for my domain, I have it set up so that myname.whatever@mydomain.com all go to myname@mydomain.com. It allows me to drop a customized email address everywhere I go, on the fly. Then if any address ever gets on a spam list, I know who sold it / gave it away / had a security breach, and I can drop kick all future mail to that specific address into my immediate delete folder.

    (2) Moved as much as possible to RSS. Even Facebook will give you a customized RSS feed of all of your notifications. I receive only a small handful of high-value email newsletters these days, the rest I get their RSS feed or tey don’t communicate with me any more.

    (3) A lot of emails, like ones from my bank, are more task oriented than communication oriented. So I have a filter to email those directly to Remember the Milk. I can create a Smart List (haven’t got around to it yet) to automatically consolidate them there to check off when I get to them.

    Like

  32. Another handy tip — be sure your deleted folder empties out automatically when you sign off! It’s too tempting to go routing through there if it’s not all gone! Thanks for the great tips and resources!

    Like

  33. I completely disagree on the whole clean inbox thing. Afterall, it is called the inbox because that is where the things that need to be done go.

    For me at least, once it is out of sight, it is indeed out of mind. I have to keep things in full view so that I know what needs to be done. In Outlook, I just flag my emails with different colored flags based on their importance.

    There would be no way I could categorize a batch of emails all needing one single action. They are almost all different.

    Like

  34. Thanks for the article. I think there are actually three aspects [1]:

    * Get Fewer,
    * Get Faster, and
    * Get Control

    In other words, reduce what’s coming in (yes, that includes sending less!), improve your skills at processing (use a variation of the 5Ds (DELETE, DEPOSIT, DELEGATE, DO, DEFER), and put email in perspective – it’s a tool (addictive and powerful at that – I call it a productivity chainsaw) and needs to be used appropriately (you don’t have the dinger on, right?)

    [1] Got the email blues? Only three things you can do: Get fewer, Get faster, Get control

    http://ideamatt.blogspot.com/2007/10/got-email-blues-only-three-things-you.html

    Like

  35. i created filters n labels in gmail long back, making a lot of mails (esp. notifications) skip the inbox and labelled. one thing i’ve learnt is too many labels is an insult to the gmail’s search feature. use OR keyword if you want to filter mails from multiple email addresses.

    in my case, communication category emails are less and mailbox usage is just 8% as of today. i prefer archiving, when i’ve so much space n so good search in gmail.

    yahoo mail has filters too…but limited n last time i checked they asked to open mail in classic view to view filter options. both yahoo and hotmail should have their inbox renamed as Spam. They’ll be 100% efficient.

    lastly, all this inbox cleaning makes me ask one simple question. if you access gmail via imap on phone or thunderbird (example), you can only see the mails in inbox n if mor than 90% skip the inbox, don’t these steps then work against us? i wish to know how to fetch unread but archived mail.

    thanks for the article.

    Like

  36. I dont know how I got shifted to this new version of yahoo. I find it very difficult to work. I can see my address book, delete does not work, I am not able to open attachments nor compose a letter. How to get back to older version
    Dr HH khan

    Like

  37. Nicely written. I especially struggle with limiting the length of my emails. Sometimes I just get so fired up about what I have to say…

    I was even told during a review to limit what I had to say! It was kind of embarrassing. Again, nice list. I’m printing it and pinning it up in my semi-cube.

    Like

  38. Pingback: Being Organized
  39. I’ve been using a similar system ever since I read Getting Things Done by David Allan. One thing to point out that he notes that I think is very valuable:Don’t archive your email in dozens of different folders and sub-folders. It takes too much time and adds the burden of recall later when you are trying to find something. Create one archive folder and use a mail client with a good search function.

    Like

  40. In step 8, you say “Be liberal with the delete key”. Assuming you are not talking about junk mail, or chain letters, what email could I delete otherwise?

    Like