Thursday, January 03, 2013

15 Minutes of Email

I know I'm revealing my age (late 30s) when I tell you that I rely on email for most of my personal communication. I hate talking on the phone and realized that a mobile phone plan with 100 minutes was more than enough for me, and we don't even have a home phone. I don't even use those all up.

But I'm not young and hip enough to rely on texting or Facebook entirely, though I use those too. I text people I'm meeting up with re: plans, and use Facebook for folks whose email address I don't have.

I first got an email address in 1991 when I started college. It was long enough ago that not every student entering Caltech got an email address - only those who were taking a computer science class.  I think they changed the policy within a year or two and issued one to everyone.  But at first the only other people I knew who had email were folks at my school, and a few friends at Carnegie Mellon who were majoring in Computer Engineering.

By the time I graduated in 1996, even my parents had email. I currently have at least 6 email addresses (most of which route to my main personal Inbox).  I get a manageable amount of personal email, but still need to work to keep it under control.

I think it was Laura Vanderkam's 168 Hours that made the bold statement that clearing one's email inbox was not a worthy use of precious time, since you can just search for the messages you need. 

BabyM is alarmed by email clutter

I get that, but seeing a full inbox even with all messages marked as "read", gives me the willies. To me, it's electronic clutter, and just as unsettling as seeing our kitchen counter covered in mail, toys, and miscellaneous utensils. Yeah, I'm one of *those* people, who needs to see clean surfaces.  Even if everything is stuffed willy-nilly into a drawer below, the clean surfaces calm me.  But eventually I tackle those junk drawers too.

My new project is to tame the email demons, both work and personal. Work is easy right now - I'm on maternity leave and simply unsubscribed to all mailing lists and have a rule set up that deletes everything that's not addressed directly to me. Sadly when I go back, I can't keep it that way. But work email is a whole different species of monster and requires it's own process which I'll detail later.  I know you can't wait :)

I was seriously inspired a few years ago by Merlin Mann's Inbox Zero idea. I love the idea of not using my Inbox as a to-do list. A girl can dream, right?

So I'm tackling my personal email, in no more than 15 minutes a day. I have a timer. I got hardcore about this because I tend to linger and then completely fall into a hole where I start checking and responding to email, and end up idly surfing for things I might want to buy someday. Then it's 2am and I need to be up to feed the baby in either 1 or 4 hours.  Not a good situation.

It's such a simple process.  I close everything else but my GMail window. I start the timer and work for exactly 15 minutes. When I'm focused like this, it is CRAZY how much I can get done. Today I whittled my Inbox down from 145 messages to 83.

And then I'm done. No guilt for the rest of the day about "getting to email". No pressure to try and respond on my tiny phone keyboard while I'm nursing BabyM. No frenzied quick email sessions interspersed with spending time with T or M.  I can easily find 15 minutes to do a "lightning round" of email that will actually be productive.  And heck, it doesn't even have to be 15 consecutive minutes. 3 rounds of 5 minutes works too.

Yay for New Year Motivation. What about you? Got any email-related goals?


  1. Funny you should ask :) because I have diarised to sort out work emails for 30 minutes daily til the rest of them get back from holidays.

    1. Awesome! Yes, it totally works better to schedule it on the calendar!!

  2. I have 3 email accounts - hotmail, yahoo, and gmail. They are all at zero every morning. It is the first thing I do every day after getting the kids to school. I am also one of those people who needs to keep a clean environment, including email.

    1. I've seen photos of your workspace and it speaks to my own clutter-hating heart :)

  3. Like you, I can't stand emails in my Inbox. I've worked out a system for myself for using my work inbox as a to do list, and it seems to be working for me. Because having a list is half the fun, checking things off is the other half.

  4. Nope. I'm firmly in the "leave it in your inbox and search for it when you need it camp." I never delete any real email at work, I just archive periodically. This is a habit I developed when I worked as a contractor. You always wanted to have the email proof that the customer did indeed tell you to do X and Y and not Z.... My personal email has well over 1000 messages in it, too.

    I stay on top of my unread email- but once it is read, it just sits there.

    But then, I'm not someone who needs a clean surface in any aspect of my life, so there you go.

    1. There must definitely be a correlation about real life and e-clutter! And yeah, I also save stuff for CYA purposes, though a lot less than I used to.

      We used to have forced email archive deletion at work, and I HATED it with a passion. Glad they stopped doing it.

  5. Love this idea, thanks for sharing!!
    Oh and that photo of your baby is hilarious in this story :-)

  6. I'm with you. For now my email is manageable, but I like to keep the inbox empty and things usually tagged in folders. I still prefer my email to be offline on my desktop too. Then I can search for things during my internet-free work time.

  7. I am sure this makes me old as well, but I miss pine for email. I also sometimes miss the days when I had to go down to the computer lab for email - we didn't all have a computer (or a phone - couldn't have imagined that!) at our fingertips.

    The 15 minute idea is a fantastic idea. I get all crazy if my gmail inbox goes larger than one screen. I am going to implement this and see how it goes.


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