Matt Gemmell

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Managing Email Realistically

tech, business & email 6 min read

Don’t worry: this isn’t yet another Getting Things Done love-in. GTD probably works, but it doesn’t work for you (or me). There are plenty of great apps to help you manage your life and your tasks, like OmniFocus and so on, but they won’t work for you. You won’t devote the time to organise all the stuff.

You won’t create contexts, and you certainly won’t file stuff appropriately. You won’t do your weekly review. You’re also probably not the overall person in charge of the next Mars mission. Those systems are not for normal people; they’re for obsessive-compulsives who just happen to prefer filtering email than counting toothpicks or quadruple-checking that the oven is off.

You, however, are a normal person, and the time you’d spend on all those formal task-management rituals is better spent aimlessly surfing the web, or even going home early. You’re just an ordinary lassie or laddie who gets too much goddamned email.

I am fully there with you. I want less hassle, not another job to do.

To effectively manage our email, we have to accept a few basic truths. They’re hard truths, but that only makes them even more valuable. Here they are:

  1. What’s important to other people is not (as) important to you.
  2. You are inherently lazy and egocentric.
  3. Ruthlessness is a hell of a time-saver.

With those facts, we have the basis of a truly workable email-management system. The simple rules I use are as follows, and are based on categorising email by when (or if) I’ll reply to it.

Reply immediately

  • Friends and family. I put friends first, deliberately - you have a certain obligation to respond to family, but their messages are probably stupid. Friends, on the other hand, are likely to be sharing something genuinely interesting and/or amusing, and there’s nothing with a higher priority than that.

  • Close and trusted acquaintances who explicitly say they need something urgently (these are the only types of acquaintances who are even allowed to say that - everyone else can piss off).

Reply within 24 hours

  • Clients, or other people who are (formally) paying you money. Got to keep those people happy. That’s just common sense. They’re not as important as family and friends, but they’re a close second.

  • People it would be wise to keep happy. Who falls into this category depends on what you do, but generally it’s the big hitters in your field. Well-known people, who can help you by your mere association with them. Luminaries. Bloggers. Journalists whose names you know. People with a lot of followers. Me, personally. You get the idea.

  • People who have given you things; it’s only polite. It doesn’t matter if it’s an unsolicited promo code for an app (as long as it’s not scatter-shot PR), a $5 donation for your code, or something from your Amazon wishlist - say thank you, and do so promptly. As you were presumably taught to.

Once a week

Set aside a bit of time (not at the weekend - that’s your time; sneak half an hour of Friday instead) to reply to some of the kinds of emails you might actually keep in your inbox for a few days.

  • Charity replies. Not begging-letters from actual charities; you should delete those immediately. Instead, I mean replies to personal communications from people you don’t know, responses you’ve received from your blog, non-work enquiries about your products or your code, and so forth. Stuff you don’t need to ever reply to, but it’s charitable to do so. Or, y’know, just archive them instead.

  • Brand-building or business-building emails (giving interviews, providing feedback, answering enquiries from miscellaneous journalists whose names you don’t already know). A little investment - and I do mean a little - can pay off later.

Delete immediately (ideally automatically)

  • All notification emails from social networks. Those are for inside the apps themselves. Turn that crap off; you have to be able to quit your Twitter client.

  • Anything from LinkedIn (it’s always spam - especially recruiter enquiries).

  • Anything from Facebook. It’s like Twitter, but your mum is on there - it cannot possibly be good.

  • All PR, product information and newsletters. If I’m likely to care about it, someone I like more than you will tell me about it.

  • All app update emails. I’ll see an update notification inside the app if I use it regularly. Otherwise, why would I care?

  • Anything you won’t want/need to look at after this week.

Everything else

  • Archive it immediately. Don’t bother reading past the first line.

Ruthlessness tips

Here are a few tips I’ve formulated over the years for maximum email ruthlessness. These will not make you seem like a nice person to everyone who sends you email; instead, they will give you more time to spend with people whose opinion you actually care about.

Darwinian importance

The importance of an email isn’t something you need to spend time thinking about. If it doesn’t immediately and obviously make you feel you should reply to it within the next day or two, it’s not that important to you. Archive or delete it.

If it’s sufficiently important to someone else, that person will expend effort to make it come back to you. If the email does not come back to you, you would have wasted your time replying to it. Win-win.

Ten max

Don’t have more than ten messages in your inbox. There’s no reason you’d need to be in that situation. If you have multiple projects and clients, chuck the emails in per-project non-inbox folders; your non-work email shouldn’t ever get past ten unanswered messages at any time.

If you literally don’t have time each day to do that simple piece of filing, you’re getting too many work emails, and you need to actively start cultivating a reputation as a simmering psychopath who may or may not bring a weapon into the office if he gets just one more stupid email.

See no email

Or rather, see no full emails. Enable a two-line preview of messages in your message list, so you can see the first bit of content without actually loading the full thing. Don’t let your eyeballs meet the full text of most emails. Make snap decisions, and aggressively trash or archive things right then and there.

Quantum view

Take a lesson from quantum mechanics: an email isn’t definitively important until you see it. If you don’t see it, it’s not important. It remains in a dead-alive, important-unimportant superposition of states. And who cares about emails like that? Not me.

Don’t chase email, or worry about missing it. Let it come to you. If it doesn’t, then what you don’t know usually won’t hurt you.


People are terrible at clearly outlining what they want from you. They waffle, and then when they do get to the point, they’re vague. This wastes your time - but you can turn it to your advantage. Almost any email that requires you to do something will have made assumptions of some kind; you should immediately ask for clarification on at least one of those assumptions. This has several wonderful effects:

  1. It gets the email out of your inbox. You replied, so archive it. Boom.
  2. You give work to someone else who just tried to give you work. Vengeance.
  3. You show yourself to be detail-oriented and precise. And, someone who’s vengeful and not afraid to hurt other people. All of those are excellent and useful additions to your reputation.

Be polite

Thank people for their message. It seems delightfully polite and olde-worlde, and people will be more inclined to have a positive view of you. Best of all, if you’re responding to an angry or insulting email (hello, blog comment-tards), you’ve already made the other person feel like a dick.

Stay out of the trash

Don’t check your Junk or Trash folders, ever. This is a key piece of advice. People will tell you to check those folders periodically, in case you missed something - that’s crap. Web sites even tell you to check for their mail there.

No. If your message hit my Junk or Trash folders, one of two things happened:

  1. You wrote a cruddy message that seemed like Junk or Trash, and it was accidentally flagged. Your fault. Go away and write a better message.

  2. You wrote a cruddy message that seemed like Junk or Trash, and I had anticipated this and deliberately caused it to be flagged. I am a genius.

I also refer you to the Darwinian Importance principle above: if your filters accidentally caught something important, someone will eventually tell you. Don’t do that person’s job for them. Instead, spend some time on YouTube like a normal person.

Does it work?

So that’s my system. The big question is: does it keep me permanently at Inbox Five Or Fewer, and make my email client a happy place to be?

Of course it doesn’t. I’m a human being (and thus inherently lazy and egocentric), and so are you. If you stick to all of those rules, you’ll always have a nigh-empty inbox - but you won’t stick to the rules, and neither do I.

Like me, you’ll semi-regularly find yourself with 50 messages in your Inbox. My advice in that situation is just this: archive the oldest 45 of them, regardless of the above rules. Give up immediately. Then pat yourself on the back for taking definitive action once again, you hero.

I’m @mattgemmell on Twitter. You can email me too, at matt at this domain. Lots of luck with that.