10 Steps to Become an Email Ninja


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…

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.

Watch The Tim Ferriss Experiment, the new #1-rated TV show with "the world's best human guinea pig" (Newsweek), Tim Ferriss. It's Mythbusters meets Jackass. Shot and edited by the Emmy-award winning team behind Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations and Parts Unknown. Here's the trailer.

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Comment Rules: Remember what Fonzie was like? Cool. That’s how we’re gonna be — cool. Critical is fine, but if you’re rude, we’ll delete your stuff. Please do not put your URL in the comment text and please use your PERSONAL name or initials and not your business name, as the latter comes off like spam. Have fun and thanks for adding to the conversation! (Thanks to Brian Oberkirch for the inspiration)

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



  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.


  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.


  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.


  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


  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.


  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.


  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)


  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


  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.



  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.




  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.


  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.


  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!