Not All Email is Created Equal

Despite getting less email with our recent changes, I still get a decent amount of email.  Some of it needs a reply from me, some of it needs to be looked at and reviewed by me but doesn’t require a reply, and the rest of it isn’t very important at all.

I’ve written before about how I handle my email. I still think that the majority of people leave their inbox open all day long with little alerts popping up every time new mail arrives, and I still think that doing so is a very very bad thing for productivity. Unless your job is customer service, you’ve got other projects to work on that need your undivided attention, and keeping your inbox open is a constant distraction that kills your focus.

Here are my rules for email, 2010 style:

Check it as infrequently as you possibly can

I check my email once in the morning before 9 AM (that’s when we ship orders), and once in the evening at or after 5 PM. On warehouse days I check it again at noon (we ship orders again at noon), and on weekends I check it only once per day at whatever time is most convenient for me.

In my case, no important email ever goes 24 hours without a reply. On business days, most emails are answered in less than 8 hours, and all emails that fall before 5 PM get answered on the same day. That’s pretty good considering how little my inbox is open.

The only email that is more time sensitive is our website monitoring service. If our server goes down, I need to know about it ASAP. For that, I configured my email to forward a text message to my cell phone.

Use Google Apps for Business

Even if you think your mail server does everything you need, there are several advantages of moving your email hosting over to Google:

  • The ability to log into Gmail from anywhere and review your email
  • Gmail search, which might be the best email search I’ve used
  • Gmail SPAM filtering, which might be the best SPAM filtering I’ve ever used
  • Your email is up even if your server is down
  • A Google IP address for your sent mail (my feeling  is that a Google IP address is less likely to trigger SPAM in someone’s email folder when you send a message…)
  • Powerful filtering options
  • IMAP functionality
  • POP3 support (I use this to access my Hotmail account that I’ve had for years.  I don’t want to close the account because of how long I’ve had the address, but I also want it accessible and backed up with the rest of my email)
  • You can also integrate Google Docs and other Google services into one company intranet.

You can then use your favorite IMAP client to check your mail. Especially if you use multiple computers or devices, IMAP is a must. It’s also great for when you switch computers or have a hardware failure – you can literally be back up and running in minutes, whereas POP3 backups and restores can be a pain.

Receive all of your work email in one spot

This might not apply to many people. I have probably 50 email accounts that I get mail for. Several accounts for all of our sites. A site might have an address for questions (info@), payment (payments@), me (adam@), and more. All of which are forwarded to my one adam [at] pureadapt [dot] com account.

There’s simplicity in opening one inbox. There’s also practicality in that once you have Google Apps set up and your IMAP clients set up, there’s no tweaking involved other than forwarding the new email address to your main one.

I then use Thunderbird identities to tie multiple identities to that account. For example, most people see my name as “Adam McFarland”, but if I reply to a SportsLizard email, the customer will see my name as “Adam @ SportsLizard”, if I reply to a Detailed Image email, the customer will see my name as “Adam @ Detailed Image”, and so on.

Filter, filter, and filter some more: not all email is created equal

By having all of your email in one spot, you can create this ultra-efficient tool that sorts through all of your emails and only shows you the important stuff…which was the long-winded point of this post. There are some emails that you need to see all the time. Other emails you only need to see once per week. Others you don’t need to see at all, but need to have a record of in case they need to be accessed. Gmail’s filters are powerful enough to do pretty much anything that you want them to do.

Here’s the breakdown of the types of emails I get, and how I prioritize them (ordered approximately by the magnitude that I get):

  • SPAM – auto filtered into SPAM folder, reviewed once per week, deleted after review
  • Cron jobs (automated processes that run on our servers) – auto filtered to skip the inbox, no answer required, saved for 1 week  and then deleted
  • Sales receipts for Detailed Image – auto filtered to skip the inbox, no answer required, saved permanently in folder to search
  • SportsLizard Price Guide subscription emails – auto filtered to skip the inbox, reviewed once per week, saved permanently to search
  • Newsletters – auto filtered to skip the inbox, reviewed once per week, deleted after review
  • Emails from customers – straight to the inbox, answered immediately, saved permanently in folder based upon site
  • Emails from my blog – straight to the inbox, answered within 48 hours, saved permanently in Young Entrepreneur folder
  • Emails from my partners or important services that we use (banks, hosting, etc) – straight to inbox, answered immediately if necessary, saved permanently in Pure Adapt folder

There’s a VERY big different between a weekly LinkedIn update and an email from a customer who is having issues checking out.  By de-cluttering my inbox, I never see the LinkedIn email come through.  I don’t see it until I do my weekly newsletter review on Tuesday.  But the customer email is in my inbox along with other important emails.  Having 90 of my 100 emails get filtered out because I don’t need to see them, ensures that I focus on the 10 that are important.  It also ensures that I don’t accidentally look past an important email because it gets accidentally deleted when I’m deleting 25 cron jobs or accidentally archived when I’m archiving 30 Detailed Image receipts.

When you do email, do email

Email is just like any other task for me.  I want to get it done as quickly as possible and then move on to the next.  I don’t have a million other things going on when I open my inbox.  I glance quickly at each email and how much work it will involve, and then glance at the clock and determine my goal for closing Thunderbird and getting on with my day.  I tend to spend between 5 minutes and 30 minutes answering email, with the average probably around 10 minutes.  If all you’re focusing on is email, it really doesn’t take all that long, even if your customer replies require a little investigation.

I try to apply this rule to everything I’m doing. If I’m working on a blog post, I close everything else and just focus on the blog post. Other than music, I tend not to have anything else running. Multitasking is really inefficient – you get more done if you just rip through one single task at a time as opposed to trying to do 3 or 4 at once.

Clear the entire inbox every time

No questions asked. If something doesn’t need a reply, it goes in a folder. If it does, I reply right then and there. If I need to wait to get back to them, I still reply telling them it might be a few days before I get them an answer (a common courtesy) and then add an action item to my to do list…and then file it away in a folder. There’s almost no scenario I’ve encountered where I can’t clear my inbox immediately.

At the end of the day, not all of these techniques will work in your situation. It’s important that you have a system that really works for you. That does however mean that you actually put some thought into what will really be best for you and your business, instead of just accepting that email will distract you all day long because that’s what it does to everyone else.

9 comments on Not All Email is Created Equal

  1. Tim says:

    Great post, I think too many get caught up in the fad of technology and a time saving tool for sharing information can rapidly be turned into a time consuming nightmare. My business partner complains about getting literally 100’s of spam emails a day, I get a few a week at most. I currently use the Mac Mail email client, everything synchs so well with all other systems on my machine it’s too good of a system to ignore. However, remote, secure access anywhere is also extremely attractive.

    Another EXTREMELY cool feature users can use with Gmail, that is as effective for simpler lives and easier to get going is Gmail Tags. They are color coded, super simple to set-up and you can tag a message with multiple tags and it’s VERY easy to organize and find information and having it all available in one spot that is accessible anywhere you have a computer and internet. If someone falls into the less then 100 emails a day, forwarding everything to Gmail and using appropriate Tags, which are color coded so it’s even simpler, is a highly effective, fast and simple system.

    • Adam McFarland says:

      Tim – that’s an interesting point about the SPAM that your partner gets. There are a ton of great SPAM filters out there. I get about 500/week (give or take a few hundred depending on the week), but only 1 or 2 get through to the inbox. Very rarely does it catch anything that shouldn’t be caught. Ironically, I think the only email that ever got caught in my SPAM that was important was that one that you sent me a few months back 🙂

      I’ve also had luck with Thunderbird’s built in fitler (it “learns” a lot better than Gmail ) and also SPAM Assassin on the server level. In this day and age there’s no excuse to have SPAM getting in your way. Scanning them once/week like I do is more than enough.

  2. Jakob says:

    This is an awesome post. I too try to keep the inbox empty but I frequently fall off the wagon and things end up piling up until I can find time to do a cleanup. I’m curious how do you keep your todo list? I’ve tried remember the milk but it kinda sucked for me…

    • Adam McFarland says:

      Haha. I agree that RTM kinda sucks. I actually use their widget for the Google homepage which is much better than their default interface in my opinion. My girlfriend uses Teux Deux which seems pretty cool but I haven’t been able to play with yet. I really like having the widget on my Google start page because that’s my default page when I open Firefox and it has all of our important company stuff all on one page (Gmail, Google Docs, our wiki, etc).

      I’ll do a post at some point in greater detail on how I use my to-do list. It amazes me that no one has done to-do lists “right”…which is why I started iPrioritize way back in the first place, and why I’m always tempted to pick it back up and improve it again. Hopefully I’ll get to it at some point – unfortunately I don’t think there’s much money in to-do lists so it would just be for my own pleasure.

  3. Joshua Holt says:

    Another great post Adam! I practice something very similar when it comes to email, although I do allow myself to check more frequently. I am going to have to take a look at Thunderbird though as I’ve never used it and it sounds like a favorite for you. The gmail web interface has always been very handy for me and, of course, the big draw of using a “in the cloud” service is that you can access it from any computer anywhere you can be connected to the Internet.

    As to your last point about clearing the Inbox, it was the great Merlin Mann that illuminated me to the power of an empty inbox via his internet famous Inbox Zero video: It sounds like you’ve already adopted his principles.

    I’m still going to have to consider the “one email to rule them all” approach though. I’m not sure if I want to blur all my email accounts into one. Right now I have gmail set up so that I all my emails come into one account but I have the ability to change the “from” field based on which email address I want to send from (all within gmail).

    Finally, Things is a great Mac app for to-do lists. I’ve been playing with Producteev ( for a web-based one, but I think the best is some variation of the paper format (I use notecards). I’m sure you’ve read Nev’s take on all this:

    • Adam McFarland says:

      Josh –

      I’m definitely a fan of inbox zero. One night about a year ago I read I read through all of the posts.

      I too have used note cards and/or paper at times, and may go back there in the future. What keeps bringing me back to the computer is recurring tasks for things I do daily, such as “post DI daily special to Twitter” (and even more so for personal things like “pay rent” or “change contacts”) and tasks that are really far way (like “get car inspected” which is a yearly thing in NY). Producteev looks pretty interesting though, I’ll have to take it for a spin.

      I think your Gmail setup achieves the same thing as my “one email to rule them all”. I previously had all POP3 accounts downloading locally to Thunderbird so it was a pain to switch computers – both in terms of migrating messages and setting up accounts. Plus there was no web interface.

      As far as Thunderbird, I’ve grown to love it, but if you like the Gmail interface there’s really no reason for it. I think Gmail is ok – I’d really like it if I could set it to not group conversations sometimes. For instance, the Detailed Image Order Confirmation emails all get grouped into one conversation with thousands of threads, when I really want to keep them separate.


      • Joshua Holt says:


        Tasks that are really far away (and occur on a specific day like “pay rent” or “get car inspected”) go straight to my google calendar. I only put things on my calendar that I have COMMITTED to happening on that day, so things like Rent or Car Inspections would easily make that list. For me it’s an issue of mental clutter — I don’t need to know about those things except for on the day (or close by) when they’re due. My to-do list is for tasks I want to get done today. As for your daily tasks like “post DI daily special” or “change contacts,” all I can suggest is to buy a stamp (or maybe pre-print it on index cards).

        I definitely agree with you about Gmail auto-grouping based on the same subject. It’s both a major bonus and a major bummer about the service. I assume they’ve not thought up a good way to fix that. If I received a lot of emails with the subject “Order Confirmation” I would probably switch to something else too.

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