10 Steps to Become an Email Ninja

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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. Thanks for this informative post. As a student of business, I receive tons of emails (lessons, research data, etc) and it can sometimes be overwhelming. I agree that jokes and other forwarded mail are junk and people should be more considerate in sending them out. One dilemma though, in my quest to learn as much as I can, I have subscribed to more than a hundred blogs and thus am getting loads of mail and have a habit of keeping them in case I need them for reference. Should i just “read and delete”?

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  2. It seems like I always have so much junk mail in my inbox. I am constantly cleaning and blocking email senders but yet more people get my email address all the time. Thanks for the great post.

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  3. This was a side post after I read the 9 list of things NOT to-do. I’m definitely going to use this approach with my emails….too many times i log in, delete a couple and then save the rest for later. I tend to skip around through the inbox lol but I’ll give going from top down a shot and make it adamant every time.

    Thanks for the insight!!

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  4. I disagree with the “Get them out of your inbox” attitude.
    #6, ‘Have an external to-do system’ actually adds an extra step. Since the email inbox actually READS like a to-do list, why not treat it that way & archive once “DONE”?
    Also, there are personal contexts in which leaving things IN the inbox help to “anchor” one’s week a little, & seamlessly mesh public & private lives (like friends’ convos appearing next to business ones… – it’s like having “warm fuzzy feeling” photos around one’s office…)

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  5. Great post – I recently started a Kickstarter project which aims at reducing email interruptions by delivering most email in batches. It resonates a lot with your post and encourages some of the habits you suggest. If you have time please take a look.

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