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Rethinking how I handle email

Email started to take too long, so I recently changed my approach.

At work, we try to avoid unbounded queues. In a distributed service architecture, they can be toxic and swamp otherwise well behaving services.

Email had become an unbounded queue. It kept piling up and swamping my day. Time for a change.

My new process

I adapted the recommendations from Manager Tools, and I now follow these guidelines:

  1. Schedule 30mins in the morning for email.
  2. No more than three time periods of up to 30mins during a day for email.
  3. If I start processing email, I must finish (empty INBOX)

The key for me has been pushing myself to finish if I start. This means that a spare five minutes cannot be spent doing email.

For things that I need to do, either I book time in my calendar or put an entry in my task list, possibly with a reminder.

When I end up with something that I want to come back to later, I’ll create a task to refer back to it, and park the email in a “Follow-up” folder.

For random notes to self, I now add a task. Previously, I was cluttering my inbox and compounding my mail problem.

I also switched to using Instapaper for saving articles from Twitter, also reducing emails to myself.


The last two weeks were a big improvement.

I am feeling less stressed by email, and more focused on important activites. I also feel like I have more time to handle unexpected events and to chat with colleagues.

I still catch myself checking email on occasion, however often my inbox is empty, so I’m slowly weaning myself of the habit.

For personal email accounts, I’m using a similar approach, although with a lower frequency of checking.

For my phone, I will occasionally check email there, and am a bit more relaxed about the process. I also set all mail applications to only check mail when manually asked.

Measuring email volume

Below is a chart of the email volume over the last two years for my work account. I was curious how much email I was receiving, and how much I sent.

For the last few months, I received around 3 times the number of emails as the same period last year. This is a factor of being involved in more projects, and the growth of the company. November last year was during a major project, and spiked in the number of emails I received.

I was surprised to find that I still send the same number of emails (~10-15 per day).

Email volume

The chart was generated via the IMAP interface to Gmail, and this Python script:

#!/usr/bin/env python

import imaplib

def count_of_search(M, query, mailbox='INBOX'):

    status, email_ids = M.uid('search', None, r'(X-GM-RAW "%s")' % query)
    return len(email_ids[0].split(' '))

mailbox_name = '[Gmail]/All Mail'
user, passwd = '', 'secret'

M = imaplib.IMAP4_SSL('', 993)
M.login(user, passwd)

print "Date,All Mail,Sent,Received"
for year in [2012, 2013]:
    for month in xrange(1,13):
        date_query = 'after: %d/%d/1 before:%d/%d/31' % (year, month, year, month)
        all_mail_count = count_of_search(M, date_query, mailbox_name)

        sent_query = '%s from:%s' % (date_query, user)
        sent_mail_count = count_of_search(M, sent_query, mailbox_name)

        received_query = '%s to:%s' % (date_query, user)
        received_mail_count = count_of_search(M, received_query, mailbox_name)

        print "%d/%d/1, %d, %d, %d" % (year, month,

The tricky part was finding a way to pass the X-GM-RAW parameter through to IMAP to enable Gmail search criteria. This allows you to use the same search expressions as from within Gmail.