Study Hacks Blog

Beyond the Inbox: Rules for Reducing Email

April 14th, 2020 · 21 comments

In my last post, I warned that a sudden shift to remote work could inadvertently push knowledge workers into a state of inbox capture, in which essentially all of their time outside of Zoom calls ends up dedicated to sending and receiving email (or Slack messages). As I hinted, I think the best solutions here require radical changes to how these organizations operate. In the short term, however, I thought it might be useful to provide a few ideas about what individuals can do right away to avoid the perils of this state of capture.

It’s important to first bust a popular belief. The key to spending less time in your inbox is not simply to check it less often. This advice is out of date, echoing a simpler time when emails were novel. In recent years, of course, this technology has (unfortunately) become the medium in which most work now unfolds. Ignoring your inbox for long stretches with no other accommodations might seriously impair your organization’s operation.

What’s instead imperative is to move more of this work out of your inbox and into other systems that better support efficient execution. You can’t, in other words, avoid this work, but you can find better alternatives to simply passing messages back and forth in an ad hoc manner throughout the day.

Here are three concrete rules along these lines to help clarify what I mean…

Rule #1: Never schedule a call or meeting using email.

In our current moment in which casual conversations in the hallway or impromptu office visits are impossible, you have to be using meeting scheduling services that allow people to select a time from your list of available times. Use calend.ly, use Acuity, use the features built into Microsoft Outlook,  and if you’re setting up a group meeting, use Doodle. But do not let this coordination unfold as a slow back-and-forth exchange of messages, as this is guaranteed to keep you in a state of constant, agitated inbox checking.

Rule #2: Immediately move obligations out of your inbox and into role-specific repositories.

I currently inhabit four professional roles: writer, teacher, researcher, and director of graduate studies for my department. For each of these roles, I set up a Trello board that includes a column for: things I’m working on actively, thing I’m waiting to hear back about from someone else,  things on my “back burner” that I’m not yet ready to tackle, and  a list of ambiguous or complicated things that I need to spend some time on figuring out. Every email I receive immediately gets moved to one of these columns in one of my Trello boards.

This might seem arbitrary, but it’s actually critical to keeping me away from endless inbox wrangling. It means, among other benefits, that I can focus on one role at a time. For example, when I’m spending time on my role as director of graduate studies, I’m only exposed to information about this role — preventing energy-sapping context shifts. I can see the whole picture of what’s on my plate, and make smart decisions about what I want to work on in the moment.

Seeing the status of my obligations in one place also significantly simplifies the process of consolidating multiple tasks and identifying systems that might make work more efficient in the future (I’m in the process, for example, of launching an FAQ page on our departmental web site that instructs our graduate students how to execute many common activities without needing to send me ambiguous emails).

This approach is an order of magnitude more efficient than instead collapsing all of these obligations into a haphazard jumble piled up in a single undifferentiated inbox.

Rule #3: Hold office hours.

Setup a recurring Zoom meeting for set times every week where you guarantee to be present. As much as possible, when people send you an ambiguous request or initiate a conversation that will require a lot of back and forth, point them toward your office hours schedule and tell them to stop by next time they can to discuss. It’s a simple idea, but it can reduce the number of attention-snagging back-and-forth electronic messages in your professional life by an order of magnitude.

Us professors, of course, have long used this strategy to moderate student interaction into more sustainable patterns that work better for all parties involved. In our current period of widespread remote work, however, this should be much more common. (I actually proposed this idea in a 2016 article I wrote for the Harvard Business Review; it’s also promoted in Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson’s 2018 book, It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work).

21 thoughts on “Beyond the Inbox: Rules for Reducing Email

  1. Arthur says:

    Doodle is one tool to schedule group meetings, but whenisgood.net and when2meet.com in many cases are much better.

  2. Deb says:

    I got introduced to your work last year and then found the blog which has a lot of ideas worth thinking about, I had numerous questions but my only option was going through the older posts to find answers.

    I’m sure other new readers are in a similar position. Unfortunately, the posts are ordered chronologically and that’s not very helpful when one is looking for ideas related to a certain topic.

    I’d like to suggest that you set up an FAQ page, redirecting new and old users towards posts organized by topic to find answers. This will help reduce email and would be great for new readers.

    Also, is there a possibility of a QnA in the future?

  3. Brian Jones says:

    Hi Professor Newport,

    Thanks for the great post! Just curious if you have heard, or read, about any particular companies or individuals (outside of teaching) that have switched to using office hours? I am deeply persuaded by the argument, but just wondered if you had seen this elsewhere.

    Thanks again!

    1. Study Hacks says:

      Basecamp does them…

  4. Rudy Breda says:

    Great work and guidance. In addition to the above, I have learnt lately, the use of asynchronous communication tools is great for WFH whereby people can add their input on the deliverable, or work product at their schedule is helpful. There are some great articles available around. Maybe if you can provide your guidance on this topic. I too was thinking of the ‘schedule’ approach as way to get more effective. Remote work or WFH with a team is very operating system then at the office, and for all of us thrown in the deep end, will take some adjustment. Some of these habits hopefully will last when back to normal and allow deep work. Stay safe.

  5. Hello Cal – great post today. I have struggled with the advice to not look at email but as a manager in a globally dispersed company with client management responsibilities … well, its just not a practical suggestion. Neither is Inbox Zero. I appear to have achieved a balance now following similar approaches you give in your post.

    I do have one question. You mention Trello Boards in your post. I don’t recall you mentioning them in previous blogs over the past couple of years I have been following you and reading your books. I assume you are using the commercial Trello product. I would be very interested in finding our more about how you are using them.

    Thanks for the increased frequency of your blog posts. Very much appreciated and a thoughtful start to the day.

    Stay well,

    Dave

    1. Study Hacks says:

      The key point of this post is that “looking at email less” is not the goal. Without any other changes, simply checking your inbox less will cause problems. The real goal is to instead move more work out of email altogether and into more efficient systems.

      1. Marc says:

        While I agree that looking at email less frequently is not sufficient, it does seem necessary to at least reducee context shifting, right?

  6. Nolan says:

    Thanks for another great post Cal. How often and for how long do you hold office hours each week, especially in the current moment of Zoom?

  7. David Cimino says:

    How do you “move something” to Trello from email? Just make a card? I’m setting up Trello and am trying this out.

    1. Study Hacks says:

      You create a new card from scratch. The act of needing to look at the email and translate it into a summary is useful. Notice, I often paste the subject line of the email onto the card as well, so if I need to look up details from the email later I can find it easily in Gmail’s search feature.

    2. Zack says:

      Trello has an email-to-board feature so that you can send the email directly to Trello and it’ll create a card.

      In the upper right-hand corner of a Trello Board, click show menu, click the more button near the top, and lastly click email-to-board settings. Copy the email address for that board and save it to your contacts!

      1. Joe says:

        I’ve had to fight to get this at my office, but they’ve finally approved it. It was ridiculous before as we have a storage limit on our email, but they wouldn’t allow a simple plugin to move things out and keep from having to go back and clean out old emails later.

  8. Jessica says:

    Actually I totally enjoy the slightly increased number of e-mails while working remotely compared to having people walking into my office all the time. I´m not a 200 plus e-mails a day kind of person, so that´s never been much of a problem.

    At the company I share an office with a colleague, and there´s days when we´re almost going crazy by the frequency people are coming by, asking for this, looking for that. We already thought about locking the door so people would think we´re gone. And that day will come. It´s way easier to focus at home with having most of the communication switched to e-mail and me getting to decide when and how often to check my inbox.

    Also, when we went into working remotely my boss and I found instantly a good routine. I´m sending her my results, she sends me an answer in which she points me towards the things she would like me to adjust, done. More complex things are discussed during phone calls.

    Due to a higher intensity of undisturbed work at home I´m thinking a lot about frequency and quality of breaks right now. I would love if you could write a blog post on your experiences or routines with that!

  9. Dan C. says:

    Hi Cal, I’m curious about using Trello as a tool…the friction of moving between email and Trello seems to be an issue for me. What do you think about setting up an email inbox to do the same thing? This guide has been useful to me: https://klinger.io/post/71640845938/dont-drown-in-email-how-to-use-gmail-more

  10. Collin Brake says:

    For a couple of years I have been dividing my work between deep work and shallow work per the advice in your book. I’ve been needing more and more, however, to create subdivisions of these categories, to avoid (quoting this post) “energy-sapping context shifts,” and this seems like a useful methodology!

  11. Guy Ferri says:

    Good day sir! I am a professional leader having just left Nestle after 18+ yrs. As I prepare my next chapters along my professional journey, I found your post most impactful. I have spent the last 4 yrs leading significant IT projects {+$75MM} with a global team. I have personally seen how “work” has morphed into an insurmountable challenge in the areas you speak of. I remain troubled by the impacts to individuals, culture and productivity. Your advice is spot on in my view [you already knew that]. While the technology choices can clearly improve the experience, I believe there is an equal or even greater challenge – transparency & leadership in how teams are encouraged and led to work [or not]. I will begin following your posts as I hope to gain from your intelligent views. Kind Regards.

  12. The crappy thing about emails is that a majority of management culture EXPECTS you to check emails every second of the day as if your full time job was managing the inbox. For meetings, I prefer that it just get thrown on the group calendar (on outlook/sharepoint or where-ever) – It’s an easier expectation to just tell your staff to eyeball the calendar every morning.

  13. Gary Leavelle says:

    I wrangle my MSFT Outlook Inbox in conjunction with MSFT “To Do” app. Flagged emails with a date, if needed, become To Do’s automatically in the “To Do” app. Otherwise, inbox emails fade into Priority C oblivion when not tagged.

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