As a topic, email is a perpetual fixture in discussions about productivity. It's easy to understand why. Email holds out the promise of wildly increasing your productivity by making it easy to communicate with people whose input you need or want for your work. Compared to phone calls or face-to-face meetings, email is attractive as something you can tackle on your own time - something that can't interrupt you as you take on your important work. And as a completely electronic system, it makes time- and space-consuming storage systems a thing of the past.
Yeah, right. In practice what email tends to do is sprinkle tiny distractions almost uniformly throughout the day. And even when you try to be good and not check your email - to buckle down and focus - fighting the impulse to check it becomes a distraction in and of itself. Finally, there is the anxiety of classifying and storing emails. As a historian who works with archives which have organized millions of documents into perfect hierarchical systems, I have an impulse to create a classification and storage system as minutely detailed as that of my archives. Believe me when I say that impulse leads nowhere good.
Finding the right approach to email is always a struggle. I've learned a lot from some very smart people who have been thinking hard about the subject for many years now. That said, the nature of my work at a university has shaped my email habits and led me to develop a cyclical approach to email.
What others have to say
The guru-in-chief when it comes to email is Merlin Mann, whose talk on the subject at Google is legendary. One of the points he makes is that email is not just about email. The way you approach email in many ways represents larger truths about how you spend your day and the things on which you choose to focus your attention and energy.
More practically, what Merlin suggests is checking your email only a few times a day and processing it to zero each time. Processing means dealing with anything that takes three minutes or less and putting anything that takes longer in an "action required" folder. He also suggests being minimally fussy with tags, labels, folders, and other storage "aids."
David Sparks and Katie Floyd at Mac Power Users have done a number of podcasts on the subject which include an introduction to the technical side of things - POP vs. IMAP, for instance - and a comparison of Gmail's browser-based client to other clients. They also talk about the philosophy of email in their podcasts. You can find these great introductions to the subject here and here and here and here.
David Sparks also has a new book out on the subject. It's a great guide not only to some ninja tricks for email, but also to thinking about the how and why of the way you approach email. One of the best parts of the series of interviews built into this media-rich book in which some people who have thought a lot about this subject share their email workflows.
My philosophy of email
Though many very smart people advocate this practice, I find that for me it's not really practical to check my email only 2-3 times a day most of the year. During the academic year I check my inbox quite frequently from the time I get up in the morning until about 7:30pm, Monday through Saturday. The main reason is that I get a lot of time sensitive emails: quite well-paying first-come-first-serve opportunities to proctor exams, calls for an additional presenter on a conference panel that are first-qualified-person-first-served, urgent requests from my advisor, and so on.
Students also generally expect a very rapid response from me. Now, I don't think it is right to expect a response in less than an hour (particularly if asking a question that could be answered by looking at the syllabus...), but students do and they nail you on student evaluations if you don't get back to them quickly - especially around exam time and when essays are due. Like David and Katie have discussed on MPU, it can sometimes be useful to manage expectations by not responding immediately earlier in the semester and with non-critical emails. This makes it all the more impressive when you do get back to them right away when they have a question they perceive as critical.
The counterpoint to this attention paid to email, however, is the time when I don't check email frequently: when the university is out of session. We academics work our asses off when school is out of session, it's just that this is when we do work that involves deep-thinking and requires long, uninterrupted chunks of time and attention. It's widely understood that emails won't get answered straight away during this time and that you probably shouldn't send emails to anybody if they can wait. This fantastic freedom - mentally, as well as in terms of time - is hugely beneficial. Some companies try to do something similar with email-less or email-light Fridays and other such gimmicks, but really the benefit comes when you are dealing with low volumes of email and low email expectations for longer chunks of time - a week, at least. If you have any opportunity to create or embrace this sort of step-back from email, do it. Your mind frees up in amazing ways.
All this meta stuff said, here are some specific tricks I use to help deal with email.
Learn keyboard shortcuts
You will cut the time it takes to process your email by two-thirds if you learn keyboard shortcuts for things like "delete," "archive," reply," and so on. Do it.
Use two different buckets for your email accounts
I have four main email accounts: one personal, one for Curve Writing, and two for my university (not by choice...). These email accounts feed into two "buckets": one gmail account from which I can handle my personal and Curve Writing emails and one email client from which I can handle all my university emails. What's nice about keeping these buckets separate is that I don't have to see university email after 8pm when checking my personal email. I'd rather not see a long email from a student confessing major anxiety about the upcoming exam because that makes me anxious right as I am trying to wind down for the evening.
Bypass the inbox whenever possible
I get a lot of emails that I want to keep getting, but which I only want to look at once in a while. Think coupons, announcements about a symphony performance, campus news, etc. I have about 25 email addresses set to bypass the inbox and go directly into a folder-type place called "1x daily". I check this - yes, you guessed it - once a day. Usually I have 10-20 emails and I just give their subject lines a quick scan before hitting select all, delete. Occasionally I make use of one, which is the point of keeping it around. Doing it this way helps keep my main inbox a place for "real" emails as much as possible. It also makes it easier to process. Setting up this sort of thing is pretty easy in Gmail and in most mail clients.
Unsubscribe from whatever you can
If you never use emails you receive on a regular basis - or if you don't at least glean some useful or interesting information from them - then unsubscribe using the little link they have at the bottom. If it takes more than 10 seconds to unsubscribe then they're in the wrong morally and you should use "report as spam" if your email system lets you (provided you don't need to receive other emails from that email address or a close cognate).
Don't go crazy with your sorting/labeling system
Pretty much any email system or program you use these days has an incredibly robust search function built into it. When you can search by name, subject, date range, subject, attachment size, keyword, etc., do you really need folders, tags, labels, etc.? When was the last time you actually used them to find something? Put everything you possibly can in a general "archive" folder. However, if you really do use a particular folder or label, keep it - but no more than what you regularly use. All credit to Merlin Mann on this point.
Use TextExpander for boilerplate responses
If you teach, you will understand immediately the value of having a boilerplate response to that most common of emails: "I missed class, what did I miss and what should I do?" It doesn't matter if you address that in your syllabus and go over it in class, you will get those emails by the truckload. Being able to type ";studentabsence1" (standard class, get notes from a friend) or ";studentabsence2" (in-class assignment, send me proof that it was a legitimate absence and your availability for a makeup in the next 10 days) and having a polite, fully typed-out email pop into place is a lifesaver.
Not only do boilerplate responses save you time, they saves you from the temptation to be snarky. Sure, some sometimes people deserve some snark - and more. But sometimes they're not thinking clearly owing to sickness or some emotionally trying event. You never know what's going on on the other end and it's best to err on the side of politeness. Boilerplate responses help with that.
Create text message alerts for emails that REALLY matter
When I am expecting an email that I really, really, care about I create a text message alert that will let me know the second it gets in. In theory I shouldn't do this because with emails that aren't time sensitive because it's going bring an excitement or disappointment that distracts me. But I'm human and as such my daily willpower is finite - why waste most of it quashing the impulse to check for these sorts of emails?
Right now, for example, I am waiting to here back about my applications for tenure-track professor jobs and postdoctoral fellowships at a bunch of places. So I created an alert that will send me a text message whenever I get an email that has "@nameofuniversitiesIappliedto.edu" as part of the "from" field. It saves me from checking my email an outrageous and shameful number of times a day like I otherwise would.
Somewhat surprisingly you there is no super straightforward way to do this or something like it yet (so far as I know), so I use a service called IFTTT (If This, Then That). This link explains how to do it pretty well. If you don't want to give IFTTT access to your email for security reasons (I didn't), then set up a rule in your main email to forward the super-duper-important-emails to a dummy email account and use IFTTT to alert you anytime your dummy email account gets an email forwarded from your main email.
The best way of handling email is the way that works for you. Take this all with a grain of salt, read how lots of other people do it, and play with several approaches yourself before you finally settle on one. But do give it some thought: email is here to stay as a part of our workflow that, for all its benefits, can create quite remarkable levels of inattentiveness and anxiety if mishandled.
[image from Keith Ramsey under the Creative Commons license]