Changing how I handle emails

This past week was pretty hectic:
- On Monday, I flew up to Kirkland and back to catch up with the Webmaster Central team.
- On Tuesday, I drove up into San Francisco for a Web 2.0 dinner
- On Thursday, I hosted a visitor from Italy.
- On Friday, I ate Buck’s in Woodside for the first time.
- On Saturday, I spoke at WordCamp. I’ll check with Google PR to make sure they’re okay if I put up the PowerPoint. In the mean time, Stephanie Booth live-blogged it.

I also managed to talk to folks on my team and get work done, but I didn’t have a lot of spare time (e.g. to blog about some of the stuff above). When I looked back over the week, my biggest time sink was email. Handling email is getting to be the largest fraction of my time.

I’ve tried all kinds of tricks to reduce the email load:
- I archive any mailing list that I don’t really need in my inbox.
- I try to check email fewer times during the day.
- I write replies to emails, then save them as drafts for a while before replying, so I don’t get stuck in a cycle of replying, getting a response, and quickly emailing again.

This week (with a little prodding from a friend), I realized that it’s still not working. I’m barely keeping my head above water, email-wise. I need a different approach. I can see a couple options:

1. Go “lossy.” Let a few emails drop on the floor. I’m already doing this from time to time, like when someone emails out of the blue asking for an interview or something that would take too long.
2. For emails from outside Google, shard the workload and ask for help.

I’ll probably do both, to some degree. If you’re emailing me from outside Google and expect a personal reply, you might want to lower your expectations going forward. If I can reclaim some of the time that I spend on email, that will let me spend more time with my webspam team, my wife, and blogging about random stuff. :)

47 Responses to Changing how I handle emails (Leave a comment)

  1. Good luck with climbing Mt Email Matt – I think all of us that struggle to balance work / business / blogging / home life can understand exactly where you are coming from :-)

    The thing I find about email is that the biggest time waster (as you’ve alluded to) is ‘email ping pong’ – a little tip I’ve found useful is to sometimes go low tech and use the telephone if it looks like things are going to get drawn out – you can often convey a lot more in a 5 minute conversation than in 20 emails ;-)

    M

  2. Harith

    Matt,

    At work, I have an “email ranking” system:

    - Priority AAA: emails from management and the boss. Reply to asap.

    - Priority AA: emails from web developers. If I judge the case gonna cost me 20 emails exchange, I set up a 30 minutes meeting instead.

    - Priority A: external emails. Reply to as time allows.

  3. I think you need an um… um.. administrative assistant (no gender implied, as to not make your wife jealous)

  4. Hey Matt!
    Thank you very much for your time, I had a wonderful experience at Googleplex, and now I’ll do the impossible to get to work there :-)

    Best,

  5. Great daily tasks that most of us want to get rid off and begin using Google Mobile Text to speech application where we just replies to email by a voice command. Do not forget Matt that if you are using Gmail you might have some friends email ending up in the spam box, keep attention on this it happened to me several times knowing that it is a person that Gmails me several times a day.

  6. Matt, get an assistant helping you! A secretary, if you like. I know this is odd for a computer geek and hard to swallow, but it really helps, if you find a trustworthy person. Currently my wife helps me on Fridays with the office organization and a new supporter filters the simple tekkie questions away from my desk: voila, i can post more on WMW ;)

  7. Matt, I had a similar problem, and found a elegant, low-tech solution:

    Answer all emails in 5 sentences or less… I got this from Mike Davidson’s blog:

    five.sentenc.es
    (read his original post on it here, well worth reading http://www.mikeindustries.com/blog/archive/2007/07/fight-email-overload-with-sentences)

  8. Peter

    Hi Matt,

    did you already look at “Getting Things Done” by David Allen?
    (Link: http://astore.amazon.de/consult-21/detail/0142000280/302-7364370-9918443)
    David Allen describes some effective (!) ways of managing your daily life and has a special chapter where he describes how to manage one’s (email) inbox.

    A guy like you should have a look at it :-)
    Perhaps you do like it. I do.

    Greets,
    Peter

    PS: There’s something like a GTD cult out there :-)

  9. Matt

    Have you ever taken a speed reading course?

    I went through one at a conference last week and am now up to 1500 words per minutes from around 400, with fairly good comprehension and retention, though that certainly needs some more work and will improve over time.

    That could help you to reclaim a lot of time in other ways.

    If you need a recommendation, just email me.

  10. Marvin

    Hey Matt,

    you should check GTD (Gettings things Done), a selfmanagement-system from Paul Allen.

    I think u can better organize it that way.

    Greets,
    Marvin

    P.S.: Im from Germany. So dont look at my English ^^

  11. When I made the change from filtering OUT of my inbox to filtering IN, it made a huge difference. And also not being afraid to pick up the phone when the back-and-forth of short emails starts getting ridiculous.

  12. You should follow the advice in the 4 hour workweek.

    He advocates checking and replying to email at only 2 times during the day: Something like noon, and right before you leave. That way with lunch or home impending you force yourself not to spend a lot of time on it. (of course, I hear that most googlers don’t really go home)

    Then let people know the times you’ll check email with an auto reply. He says it’ll cut down on the amount of stuff people ask you… if they know they’re bothering you.

    In past jobs, when I’ve recieved an email that looks like it’d start a chain of 3 or 4 replies I’d simply walk into the person’s office and tackle whatever needed done. That may work too.. if people know you’re going to come over there, they’d be less likely to email you before exhausting all other methods themselves.

  13. Matt, you’re a popular guy, there will be no load off the emails. :)

  14. Hi Matt I second what Ryan says about the 4 hour work week.
    Its helping me increase productivity and efficiency.

    Its a great read
    I’ll even link to the actual amazon url, since your a fan of amazon.
    http://www.amazon.com/4-Hour-Workweek-Escape-Live-Anywhere/dp/0307353133

    Jason

  15. Didn’t you know, Matt? You’re our husband now. Your wife doesn’t have rights to you! WE OWN YOU! :D

    What about creating a generic email for some of it? Say “webspamteam@!google.com” that can act as a trouble ticket system and can be shared by all the Google-types (much like certain web hosts use.)

  16. Have you tried adding a filter (well, in Gmail) which sorts certain senders you talk to a lot into a different folder (aka label).

    > I write replies to emails, then save them as drafts for a while
    > before replying, so I don’t get stuck in a cycle of replying,
    > getting a response, and quickly emailing again.

    Interesting trick.

  17. Matt I’m sure you have some filters in place. Also start doing filters with, are the address in this address book, in this address book and so forth.. You will find it clears a lot of chaff doing that… but then again you might know that.

    BTW – I did run across some .info domains that are useful, but I’ll digress from that. :)

  18. MadGenius

    Matt take it from someone else who use to be a work addict. Family has to come first. About 16 months ago I found out I had diabetes and at that point realized working 16 hours a day wasnt the way to happiness.

    Financial freedom is great but the time that you have to spend with your family, to coin a phrase is PRICELESS.

  19. You’re looking healthy in the photo with the Italian guy. Looks like you dropped some weight or something.

    I’m surprised someone like you doesn’t get an assistant at Google. Could help with the e-mailing and so on.

    Good luck…

  20. They only do it because it works.

    One correspondent (?) only deals with his email once a month, whilst a tad extreme, I think it might be the right idea.

  21. I’ve started surreptitiously rerouting my spam email to my 76 year old mother.

    Now, if I could just get her to stop reading the dirty ones out loud….

  22. If you are noticing trends in emails (same questions) may be good to answer in form of a blog post. That way future emails can be sent a post link and hopefully get answers there, even if from others in comments.

    One Hour with Wife per 10 Minutes of Email is good as well. :-)

  23. It’s an age old problem….. Sorting out your close contacts, urgent, non-urgent, “newsletter-read later”, random emails, queries…….. I was finding considerable loss as when I do not reply to something semi urgent and there may be several at any given time, I end up losing them in the crowd.

    What I tend to do now it chuck all “must reply” into 1 box, newsletters into another one for “special interest” and all others I reply to at my own leisure, albeit sometimes a week later or never!

    Sucks but too many emails spoil the soup.

  24. 5 sentences or less. I like that..

    Peter, I’ve dabbled in GTD, but I’m not a full-fledged convert.

    Andy Beard, it’s more like I need a speed-writing class. :)

    “What about creating a generic email for some of it? Say “webspamteam@!google.com” that can act as a trouble ticket system and can be shared by all the Google-types (much like certain web hosts use.)”

    M.W.A., that’s exactly what we’re thinking of trying, but having the mailing list be internal, and forward my external emails to some folks to help tackle the load.

    Philipp, now you know why you got an email late Friday night last Friday. :) I did change the forward-external-email-to-an-internal-list filter to exclude family. There’s a few people I talk to for fun as well, but even that adds to the overall email load. :(

    MadGenius, very well said.

    Nick, I have lost 5-6 pounds mainly from trying to eat mindfully a little more. I’m also learning to suck in my stomach when someone’s taking a picture. ;) I do have an administrative assistant that several tech leads share, but I haven’t asked for help with email up till now. A lot of the emails are pretty technical, so we’re looking at the best way to handle that.

    Michael Dorausch, that’s a good ratio of wife-to-email time. I do tackle the most common questions and turn them into blog posts, but I also tend to get a lot of random stuff sent my way.

  25. Rakesh Pradhan

    It’s an age old problem….. Sorting out your close contacts, urgent, non-urgent, “newsletter-read later”, random emails, queries…….. I was finding considerable loss as when I do not reply to something semi urgent and there may be several at any given time, I end up losing them in the crowd.

    What I tend to do now it chuck all “must reply” into 1 box, newsletters into another one for “special interest” and all others I reply to at my own leisure, albeit sometimes a week later or never!

    Sucks but too many emails spoil the soup.

  26. Hi Matt,

    If you cannot improve your efficiency, then may I suggest that you can change the conditions causing you to have the problem in the first place.

    Perhaps you might want to have a publicized “Email me only if…” policy. If people respect your time and inputs, and I’m sure they do, then they can try to follow your guidelines to get the desired response from you, pronto. Then, you can state the guidelines for folks to try to follow when they try to communicate with you.

    For example:
    - If the email requires my immediate follow up / action, type: “FYIA: {brief synopsis}” into the subject line (remove the “I” if not urgent)
    - Requiring just a Yes or No: “Yes/NO: {brief synopsis}”
    - For Your Information (not urgent): “just FYI”
    - FYI (immediate): “FYII”
    - just for fun: “FUN stuff” or better, email it to my heavily protected by anti-Matt-Cutts-spamware personal email address for my review at a later more convenient time, whenever that will be ;-)
    (err, I think you get the drift..)
    Of course, these are not comprehensive and are just suggestions. You can always make an exceptions for Eric, Larry and Sergey, and for the Mrs ;-)

    (As an aside, I think that the comment spam protection does not sound quite about right. Shouldn’t it read: “what is the sum of x AND y ?”)

  27. I’ll be the outlier here and offer the advice that will certainly get me a switft kick in the virtual backside:

    Blackberry

    Heh. In all seriousness though, I get two benefits (plus, yes some of the headache) from dealing with email in real time. First, it’s pretty much always done. I use the spare moments to check it and delete and reply. Second, it allows me to deal iwht thing much more quickly, which ultimately (in my role) results in a lot less email churn, since problems solved early on are problems that don’t generate followup email.

    Let the flogging begin. :)

    greg

  28. I agree that e-mail has become the biggest time consumer for almost any webmaster. It can be so time consuming wading through the junk mail and link requests. Is there a good spam filter program that other people are using? I try to only check e-mail twice a day, but it’s tempting to click Send/Receive in between projects. Does anyone here use any of the services that require users to verify their e-mail to get on your white list?

  29. There are sites in some sectors being absolutely ravished by scrapers and outright full-page content thieves (some link and some don’t) and a couple of sectors are REALLY bad.

    A lot of gifts categories are one area that’s prone, and anything bridal is a really hot one – mainly because of the number of possibles and the high dollar/click amount potential for some product lines.

    There are some full-page content thieves running networks, and by following the trail of their gaggle of footer links, the “company” that’s the source of that rot can be found out with just a little snooping around.

    Links from those (when they even give them) really shouldn’t be tallied in for victimized sites, it’s pathetically discouraging.

  30. OK, so I whined in the wrong comment section, off base for this topic. Apologies offered. Meant to be for webmaster console features – sorry, my bad.

  31. Josh

    I feel your pain on this one Matt. When I was running a non-profit I was constantly buried by my email. I finally had to hire someone to help with it. Teaching them to be able to tell which people they could answer and which needed to be forwarded to me was the hardest part. I missed out on a few interviews that would have been worthwhile because the assistant hadn’t heard of the publication but would have been a great audience.

    Giving family and friends a special email address was especially helpful since they kept getting lost in the mess everyday. Every time I found out I missed something from family I would have guilt pangs for days.

  32. Concerning 1. going “lossy”, gmail’s “archive” is great, because you can always find those emails you didn’t read.

    Concerning 2, I wouldn’t mind helping you read your email, I’ll even do it voluntarily! lol

    Also the sen.tenc.es idea from mikeindustries falls in line with the book Mr. Lincoln’s T-Mails | What Abraham Lincoln Taught Me about Email google search

    Basically he used telegraphs efficiently by keeping things short and to the point.

  33. Hi matt, one thing about google recognizing underscores in blogs, does this mean that ftp_binary will show up in searches for ‘ftp binary’ or it is only for blog systems detected by googlebot, especially the un_search_friendly ones?

  34. nevermind, answered my own question, dashes are still numba one!

  35. Is forum seo pretty much the same as those tips?

  36. Create a new email group for outside issues. Take turns delegating it to other Googlers. Problem solved.

    Sincerely,
    http://www.nextgoogleceo.com

  37. zwetan

    well I know a great google tech talk that could help you :)

    Inbox Zero

    video here
    http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=973149761529535925&q=user%3A%22Google+engEDU%22&pr=goog-sl

    related blog posts here
    http://www.43folders.com/izero/

    I tried it this weekend, in my case it works great :)

    cheers,
    zwetan

  38. Bergy

    Wow. I can’t believe you’d never eaten at Buck’s before! That’s one of my favorite places. You should go there for a brunch sometime… their coffeecake is to DIE for.

  39. Good advice. I drown in email. And I then worry that sometimes I’m missing something important!

  40. Twitter more, email less.

  41. Messinge

    Here here for MadGenius!

    Wired magazine had a good snippet a few months ago called ‘how to get shit done’ at http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/14.08/howtodesk.html – not advocating email bankruptcy but good general tips for day to day that would help make more time for email…

  42. I get hundreds of emails a day
    Its very time consuming and i starting to think i should hire someone :)

  43. Email and other repetitive tasks can be cut down by letting your actual correspondents know you don’t check email until lunch time, or by even cutting it down to one or two days a week. If you set up your folder or labels for folks you want to hear from, as mentioned above, that helps.
    Anything not sorted can then be scanned for junk by the subject line and mass deleted. Some good ideas for freeing up time and using energy for doing what you eant to do can be found at http://www.jamesbrausch.org

  44. Regarding the ‘spam protection’ script. I have the same little script on some of our web forms (and no, I didn’t copy you). However, this past weekend I’ve received over 200 spam-mails through one of the forms. My way to take care of that:

    Make it so they have to be able to ‘read’ it. i.e. instead of 10+4, ten plus four. Seems to be working…

    ‘zero’,1 => ‘one’,2 => ‘two’,3 => ‘three’,4 => ‘four’,5 => ‘five’,6 => ‘six’,7 => ‘seven’,8 => ‘eight’,9 => ‘nine’,10 => ‘ten’,11 => ‘eleven’,12 => ‘twelve’,13 => ‘thirteen’,14 => ‘fourteen’,15 => ‘fifteen’,16 => ‘sixteen’,17 => ‘seventeen’,18 => ‘eighteen’,19 => ‘nineteen’,20=>’twenty’);
    /* element number not needed in array, but added for reference */

    $numa=rand(1,20);
    $numb=rand(1,20);
    $numc=($numa+$numb);

    $filepointer=fopen(‘verify.txt’,’w’);
    fwrite($filepointer, $numc);
    fclose($filepointer);

    echo ‘‘.$numbers[$numa]?> plus <?echo $numbers[$numb].’‘ ?>

  45. I’m still on the ground. I founded my own company recently, and it had a significant success (higher than my expectations). Thus, handling company emails became a problem. We use Google Apps.

    Then, I discovered an amazing feature on GMail (Google Mail) – filter!

    I have created several labels: Urgent, within 15 minutes, within 30 minutes, within 1 hour and whenever.

    Now, since I know that Joe from the marketing sector is going to bug me about some useless stuff (sorry, Joe!), I command (through filter) all messages that come from joe.j@bogmil.com to be automatically labeled as “whenever” and be marked as read.

    However, when I get an email from my investor, it is automatically starred, and labeled as urgent.

    Works pretty good!

  46. Hiring an assistant may be a good option there..

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