How processing email is different than reading email

  • Home
  • /
  • Blog
  • /
  • How processing email is different than reading email


How do you work with email?

I mean, really, how do you work with email?  Do you read every one? Do you file every one after reading it? Leave them in your inbox? Create any tasks from email?

Email is the knowledge worker’s rabbit hole with worthless meetings a close second. We spend a great deal of time working and writing emails — even more than talking on the phone. But do we really know how best to work with email?

I know that when I’m pressured by work with minutes between meetings, I’ll click open every unread email just to see if there is some crisis awaiting inside. That’s because I once had a manager who had a crisis waiting inside and you needed to be checking your email. Like all. The. Time. It created a crappy practice. All those great tips that say to only read your email twice a day? Not for me. Not at all.

So, yes, I am guilty. I scan, look for the emergency, read for hidden bombs…and then have 100 read emails in the inbox still.

I still aim for the right process, despite my imperfections

What should email perfection look like? This:

When you check your email, you process it, not just read it. Tweet this

No matter how many times a day you check your email. Process it; don’t just read it.

Processing email

Okay, what does “processing email” mean?

My idea of processing is this: You read the email once, appropriately address the contents of the email, and then delete the email.

The trick, of course, is what does “appropriately address the contents of the email” mean?

In my case, I follow the “Getting Things Done” methodology for time management. I should note that I follow it poorly, but that’s my ideal. When it comes to email, or with any other input into your world, you need to decide what the email means to you and what the next action is to do with it.

There are categories for the email: You delegate it to someone else (rare for us Cubicle Warriors…), you file it as reference material, you delete it, or you create a task/next action from it. And then you delete the email. The goal is a zero — yes, zero messages — in your inbox. Nothing there.

Processing email requires thinking

It’s the “thinking” part about processing email that gets us into trouble. We don’t have time to really think about an email when we’re two minutes between meetings and we’re just scanning looking for bombs. That’s what gets us into trouble with email — pretty soon, there’s a hundred emails in there that we’ve scanned. But can we delete them? No, because you and I both know there is a lot of tasks in there what we casually skipped over when we were looking for bombs. But, the tasks are there.

The only useful thing I’ve come across for ensuring that you are “processing email” is that you need to tell yourself that you are now going to “process” email. Not scan it, do a quick read, or whatever — but process it. Even if it is just three emails for the two minutes between meetings, leaving 20 other emails unread, you process the three emails.

Here’s how you process email:

  • You start with a ruthless attitude towards email and how much time it takes you to process it.
  • You read the email. Like, actually read the email.
  • Determine if there is something there that you need to do as a result of the email. If so, you create a task with the next action to take so you can move the task into your task management system and not your email inbox. A task includes delegating the task to someone else, if you are fortunate enough to be able to do that, but you still need to track that task to ensure the other person completes it.
  • If there is no task for you to do in the email, is it reference? Reference is something like “the 2015 IT freeze periods” if you work in IT. You’ll need to see if a particular weekend is a freeze weekend for migrations so you should keep this email in a reference folder, properly labeled, so you can refer to it. I keep time codes, policies, calendar items, counts, etc., in my reference folders so that when someone asks the question or you need to know, I can immediately go there and get the answer. That’s reference. It’s not actionable now, but there is a good probability you will need to reference that material in the future to answer a question.
  • Finally, if it’s not a task, not reference material (and not a meeting invite), but simply something you get because you need some context, get the context and then delete the email. Delete it. Because of my position, I get copied on a copious amount of email. Great; I read it — and then delete it.

If you ruthlessly process your email doing the steps above, you’ll have a much clearer view as to what you need to be doing in your work because tasks from email made it to your task management system. Plus, you’ll not have some email administrator pinging you telling you your email box is full so please delete some emails. Seriously, if you have a thousand emails in your inbox, you can’t know what tasks are lurking in the box. And if you’re only hope is to search your inbox (not your reference folders…your inbox…), then you have way, way too many emails sitting in your inbox.

Here’s what to do next

Today, for the rest of the day, process your email as described above. It will feel weird because, perhaps for the first time, you are consciously thinking about what to do with that email you are staring at. It will take a long time while you practice this process. It will not feel right. It won’t be intuitive.

But keep processing your email; not just reading it. Over time, it will become more and more second nature to you. When you can process email without thinking about it, you’ve arrived.

Personally, I’m still not there. But I keep at it. And I’ll succeed.

  • Hi Scot,

    This post finally got me to process the 186 unread emails in my inbox. I had declared email bankruptcy only a couple of weeks ago, but got swamped again. I used the Todoist plugin to gmail to put those todos hidden in the messages into a GTD system. If you haven’t used it: it might help.


    • It has been hard for me, especially since it seems every major project forces me to change the way I track stuff! I missed one day this week (sick) and, Wow, you really get far behind. I’ll keep looking at task management, fail, and keep trying again. Thanks for the comment, Jan.

  • {"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}