Fighting email

During 2011 I have spent countless hours reading, replying and archiving email. There have been periods during the year when I have dished out an average of ~250 emails a week, i.e a message every 15 minutes for every single working hour. That, of course, not taking into account my personal inbox, which I treat completely apart. Instead of a means to ease my work, bearing with my inbox became my obsession.

Although my job is not answering email, struggling to keep my inbox empty stressed me so much that for many months my priorities and working schedule were set by whatever it was waiting queued in my inbox, a bold error that led me to prioritize clearing my inbox over the actual true important and productive duties. I was constantly overwhelmed by my inbox to the point that I started plotting it in an effort to try to visualize the mess and hopefully extract some ideas about how to put my relationship with email again under control.

I have not been alone. There are many articles, websites, tools, groups of interests, books, games and even t-shirts out there plenty of advice about how to deal effectively with email. I took a glance at some of them and tried to figure out how to put all of those principles at work. But things only started to change once I realized that my whole relationship with email had to be completely rethought.

Bearing that in mind, I gradually made some changes to my email accounts, my workflow and my online habits. Now, about three months later, I’m delighted to say that they seem to have worked, at least in my particular case, to bring back my inbox into a reasonable use. These were the tricks that had cut it for me:

  1. I started filtering notifications in a separate folder. Any bulk email which I need to receive but doesn’t require an immediate action and is not written by a human, ends up now in a different folder and doesn’t jam my inbox anymore. I supervise this new low-priority folder only once a day.

    It took a time to tell apart notifications from regular mail, and to adjusts all the filtering rules, but was worth it. As I need consistent filtering rules among all my MUAs, I use server side (procmail) filtering.

  2. I unsubscribed from (almost) everything. The very few mailing lists I was following are hosted in Google Groups, and I disabled email completely in these groups. I can still use the web interface if I feel like searching, reading or posting.

    I unsubscribed from all newsletters except a rare few which I find truly informative.

  3. I turned off notifications and updates from social sites. This means that I don’t get emailed when somebody follows, shares, mentions, tags, comments or whatever in Twitter, Facebook or the alike. Far from representing the end of my online social life, in practice very little changed.

  4. I gave an opportunity to new tools for communication. Using a chat for quick internal exchanges turned out to save many emails. And deserves a try if you frequently need to schedule an event with other people.

    I now try to move to the helpdesk (OTRS) any email which represents a task I cannot dispatch immediately. Using a ticket system eases delegation, preserves the context and hides all the emails related to a task under a single item.

  5. I unpublished my email addresses. I manually removed my personal email address(es) from almost any public website I could. When not possible, I replaced it with a all-purpouse generic contact address, which is managed by the team.

    When possible, I obfuscated my email address to hinder email harvesting spambots. In a high traffic site we run I replaced the email contact address with a CAPTCHA-protected contact form. For support requests and contact inquiries, HTML forms are easier to protect and more versatile, as they can be redirected without revealing the recipient.

    As my emails had ended up posted in online boards or mailing lists every now and then, I did also remove my email address from my signature.

  6. I activated email digests. So I receive one and only one daily message when multiple updates happen in an online conversation to which I absolutely need to be subscribed to, such as intranet groups. I instructed my team mates to rather call me for urgent requests.

  7. I got rid of most of the email forwards and aliases which I had set during the years. In a case I set up an auto responder telling the mailbox is deprecated, and asking to call me if really interested in get in touch. I turned off email catch-all in the very few domains where I still had it enabled.

  8. I stopped automatic emailing for event logging and automatic notifications. I radically stopped using my inbox for event logging, error reporting and status notifications. Logging from a distributed service isn’t trivial and there was a time where emailing to myself server status messages looked like a good idea. Then they followed cronjob monitors, nighty backup scripts output, watchdog processes, invoicing platform events, search form queries, stdout outputs, suspicious behaviour alerts… I radically finished it. There are online event reporting services to handle it correctly.

  9. I completely delegated contact inquiries and requests. Many contact forms spread across the websites we run used to address my inbox directly. While this was acceptable at the time those forms where set up, that turned to be a big mistake in the long run. Changing these contact forms to feed the helpdesk reduced my email load and dramatically reduced response times as the contact inquiries are now handled by the team instead of just one peson. Another positive side effect is the automatic message acknowledgement.