The great Christmas email experiment of 2011-12

This year I took pretty much all the holiday time I could over Christmas, probably for the first time ever. As an experiment, I let all the emails I received over this period accumulate in my Inobx, with the exception of things like posts to mailing lists which get automatically filtered, labeled and skip the Inbox. Generally, I try to follow an Inbox Zero policy, which means my Inbox is usually empty and every email I get is either dealt with as soon as I read it or saved in a “Next Action” list to be dealt with later. That policy makes it much easier to carve out large blocks of time for more difficult tasks, like writing lectures, marking or programming which all require uninterupted concentration. I think this works pretty decently, and at least I haven’t had to declare email bankruptcy.

So, the point of this experiment was really to see how well my Inbox Zero policy is working as well as I thought and, in particular, whether the bulk of the email I deal with is sensible content that really requires attention.

Of course, the “experiment” as such is a little silly, after all this is email from a vacation period and out of term time, so the results are weighted heavily. Usually I get a lot more email per day and a lot more relevant, sensible email that needs attention and the aim is always to maximise the time spent on those emails and minimise the time spent on unecessary emails.

Starting point

Anyway, enough caveats. My starting point was this:

Inbox: 316

Action list: 50

Before going on vacation I cleared out both the Inbox and the Action List of everything that could be dealt with then. So, the starting point here is all the email accumulated over a short vacation and all the items on my to-do list that couldn’t be finished before the holiday started.

The data

Yesterday I spent a happy (!!) afternoon going through each email and either responding to it, deleting it, reporting it as SPAM or filing it. In a Google Docs spreadsheet I wrote down the sender (anonymously unless the sender was a company), sender type and action for each email or group of emails from the same sender. I say “email”, actually I mean “email thread”. So one email on my spreadsheet here could well mean a thread of many emails from various senders. However, what I’m interested in here is really the aggregate data from the 300 emails, which you can see on this table:

Aggregated data from 300 emails
So, there are two things I’m interested in here:
  1. Where is the email from? Is it from people I need to communicate with or from companies and others sending “news” and other updates that can be ignored or processed in a more convenient way, such as via an RSS reader. Obviously emails from colleagues (including external collaborators) and students are all important. Other senders vary considerably depending on the content of the email.
  2. How were the emails processed? Emails that were deleted or marked as SPAM are emails I don’t want to receive repeatedly, so are best unsubscribed from. Emails that needed real attention can be filtered to be marked as important if they aren’t already.

Where to emails come from?

330 emails broken down by sender type

330 emails broken down by sender type

So, thinking of this email as signal and noise, the signal here is email from students, colleagues, friends and open source projects. Of course, SOME of the other emails will be important too and will need some action too, but this is a rough guide. The total number of “noise” emails, according to the sender, worked out as 78 out of 316, or around 25%.

Now, 25% to my mind is astonishingly low. Given that most of the email that hits my account gets filtered out and never sees the Inbox in the first place, 25% is really not what I expected to see here. 

What happened to all those emails?

300 email conversations broken down by next action

300 email conversations broken down by next action

The other way to look at signal vs noise is how the emails were processed. The signal in this case is the emails that were actioned immediately or saved for working on next week, which was 73 out of 316 or just over 23%. That’s very close to the previous SNR, becasuse the sender of a message is a good predictor of its importance.

Again though, 23% is astonishingly low. The main culprit is web apps and social media apps that send frequent notifications, updates and other fluff. Often when you sign up to these things they subscribe you to all sorts of email alerts automatically, then it takes effort on your part to change your settings and unsubscribe. A better way to deal with this, if you use GMail, is to use the Gmail plus trick which allows you to filter out all these emails automatically.

A point about unsubscribing from mailing lists 

When you unsubscribe from an email alert you are informing the sender that you no longer wish to be contacted. The very LAST thing you then need is another email saying “Well done! You have unsubscribed” which you then have to deal with separately. Seriously, this is a terrible way to treat potential customers. Very few of the email alerts I unsubscribed to did this, but those that did really annoyed me.TripIt, Klout, SAA, Costa, the Electoral Reform Society and UCU: consider yourself mildly whinged at. Hurumph.

End point

Just for the record…

Inbox: 0

Action list: 89

Actioned immediately: 34

The take home…

This stuff is boring common sense. It’s motherhood and apple pie. You know it all already. So you’re doing this already, right?

  • Email is a huge sink of time.
  • Process email in batch mode, once or twice a day. Don’t let incoming emails dictacte your work schedule.
  • Unsubscribe to everything you can at the first chance you get. Better still, don’t sign up in the first place.
  • If you use GMail, use the Gmail plus trick.
  • If you sign up to a lot of web apps and different services with logins and passwords, keep confirmation emails in a specific folder or label (I use web-signups) so you can keep track of which services you already have an account for.
  • Filter and label emails automatically whenever you can. Don’t let anything into your Inbox that doesn’t need to be there (looking at you posts to mailing lists).
  • Learn the keyboard shortcuts on your favourite email client. Use them. Banish the mouse.
  • Deal with emails that can be dealt with immediately, immediately.
  • Keep a “next action” folder of emails that cannot be dealt with immediately. Don’t have them hanging around your Inbox making you feel guilty, nervous and demoralised.
  • Keep a sensible hierarchy of folders or labels to organise your email. Or use something like ActiveInbox.
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