Batch Processing

or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Conquer the Email Monster


Ever since I read Getting Things Done by David Allen, I’ve been attempting to organize the chaos of never ending paper and emails in my life.  One of the concepts I liked from his book was batch processing your email (or other) inboxes. This means checking, processing, and acting on emails only during set times (say, in the morning and the afternoon) rather than constantly dealing with email in real time as it comes into your inbox. I’ve tried it before and succeeded on a few occasions, but now with my new project, I want to be more strict about it.

Today, I was strict. I only checked my email twice and by the second time, I reminded myself that I would not be checking it again until the following day. Being an iPhone person, this is very difficult. When the little unread email badge keeps increasing rapidly, my mind worries. What if it’s time sensitive? What if I piss off one of my clients by being slow on the reply? What if I lose a client because he finds someone else to hire? As these things jumped through my head, I had to keep reminding myself that it was not necessary whenever I was tempted to pop open that locked iPhone or open my Firefox tab and just have it innocently open on the side of my desktop.

People can wait.  I need my email to work for me, not the other way around.

One of the more challenging things with batch processing email is getting people used to the notion that you will no longer be immediately responding to every email. Although I would love to spend all of my time lecturing everyone who has ever sent me an email about the benefits of batch processing email, I think the best way to get people accustomed to a slower-than-normal email response time is just to start doing it. This may sound harsh, but people will eventually figure things out, and if something is truly urgent there are dozens of alternative ways for people to get ahold of you (say, a phone call!).

It has been an ordeal to get to this point. Some things that have helped me include trying to keep my inbox relatively clean, having appropriate tags or folders for emails, and being continuously ruthless with the archive button. I also have lots of message rules that automatically put tags on certain emails and some that make certain emails skip the inbox automatically. With the latter emails, if I feel inspired to, say, look at all the email forwards people send me, I can find all of them in a certain folder,  but they don’t clutter up my inbox or distract me because they are automatically moved to that folder. Being able to star emails (or flag, or any other way to mark emails) is also important, so that I can prioritize important or time sensitive emails and won’t forget about them.

This is how I process my emails, and it’s a system that works for me and that I’ve developed over many years – you may find that certain techniques work better or worse for you – what is important is that you find a system that actually works. That being said, if you have any ideas, let me know in the comments down below!

Now the next big challenge will be conquering the Facebook, Twitter and RSS Feed monsters!