A picture of a US mailbox from Nick Byrd's "5 Email Workflow Policies"

5 Email Workflow Policies

Like most technology, I love and hate email. In this post, I’ll list some policies designed to make my relationship with email more about love and less about hate.

1.  Check email only once or twice a day

I have difficulty achieving flow without having extended periods of uninterrupted time. And there are lots of things that can interrupt. Email is one of them. So I have, from time to time, made a rule about checking email only once or twice a day. That way I have greater opportunity for long chunks of time between checking my inbox.

Ding! [Email notification]

Oh, right. I almost forgot. This policy only works when I remember to block email notifications — e.g., with Do Not Disturb mode. (Find out about Do Not Disturb modes on Windows, Android, macOS, iOS.)

2.  Don’t check email during downtime

I have found that downtime is increasingly important for my productivity, happiness, relationships, etc. And few things can spoil downtime more reliably than checking and/or answering email. My downtime tends to happen on nights and weekends. So I try (try!) not to check email during these times.

3.  No email conversations

Email is not an efficient medium for conversations or meetings. So I try (again, try!) not to conduct such interactions over email.

So when students try to start conversations over email, I ask to discuss it in person before/during/after class, during office hours, or by appointment. And when students ask me to comment on an attached draft of their paper, I offer to talk about it in person — more on that in “4 Student Feedback Policies.”

To be honest, this policy is difficult for me to follow, especially with colleagues and supervisors. It can be tempting to think that I have to continue whatever conversation/meeting my colleagues start via email. But I have to remind myself that it’s usually not a fruitful exercise (for either one of us).

Exceptions: the rare circumstances in which email is the best or only medium by which to converse or meet.

4.  Unsubscribe from as much as possible

Distracting emails can really hamper productivity. So I am pretty quick to delete and unsubscribe from distracting emails.

Exceptions: I am still subscribed to PHILOSOPPhilos-LInstitut NicodGoogle Scholar alerts, PhilPapers AlertsPhilEvents Summaries, and GovTrack.us.

Aside: one time I made $1000 by responding to spam. No joke. More details in “True Story: I Responded To Spam… And It Paid

5.  Use Email As A To-Do List

Since my email has to be checked daily and since emails can easily be marked read/unread, flagged/unflagged, etc., I end up treating my inbox as a to-do list:

  • Unread and/or flagged emails constitute my to-do list.
  • When I complete a task, I mark an email as read and/or I remove its flag.

Exceptions: email has not become my one-stop, unified to-do list. I still have a couple other places where my to-dos live — e.g., on a whiteboard in my office and on an app in my phone. (If you have any experience with a more unified to-do list, please share it in the comments!)


Policies are just that: policies. And policies often need exemption clauses. So I regularly make exceptions to these policies — e.g., when it is extenuatingly difficult for someone to access me in person.

Deep Work

The discussion of email in the book Deep Work (2016) has probably influenced my thinking on these email policies. It’s an extremely easy read — I think I listened to the whole thing while exercising — and it is helpful for more than just email. You can check it out by clicking the cover below.

Featured image via Pexels.com

Published by

Nick Byrd

Nick is a cognitive scientist at Florida State University studying reasoning, wellbeing, and willpower. Check out his blog at byrdnick.com/blog

2 thoughts on “5 Email Workflow Policies”

  1. I hear these complaints about e-mail a lot these days, mainly from folks who came of age just as cell phones matured. One thing stands out: The complaints are all couched as from victims of e-mail.

    Contrary to your points, my research activities could not easily exist without the Gmail/Google environment—properly enhanced with plug-ins and utilities–along with a rigorous approach to deploying and refining these powerful tools. So:

    Check email when it comes to mind. Do not leave everything to one or two sessions which will invite enhaustion and deterioriate your e-mail ecology (i.e. e-mail in the environment of your other utilities).
    Take advantage of the many gigabytes of redundantly backed up storage. Put everything there: Notes, hyperlinks, PDFs, presentations, links to tables, photos, videos. Turn your activities into a secure online library accessible across all your devices.

    Use e-mail for focussed, compact conversations. Use social media for idiotic and transitory communications. Even better, get rid of social media and discover the actual source of your exhaustion and timewasting spam. E-mail provides a rich set of opportunities to set up discussion groups, forward and invite comments, all backed up and searchable from your main electronic library.

    Use the tagging tools and filters provided by your software. Review them annually, and occasionally read how-to articles and the Help files. Use alarms and notifications to select important e-mails and deliver them on your schedule.

    In this way, e-mail (particularly Gmail with extensions like Gmelius and Print Friendly) can become a secure, productive, and REWARDING workspace. Emphasis on rewarding. Make e-mail rewarding, and your complaints about it will vanish.

    1. Hi Malcom,

      Thanks for the advice. Admittedly, I am already doing it. I use Gmail and Gmelius; I use email for focused, compact conversations — when a better alternative isn’t available; I store my notes, PDFs, presentations, etc. in the cloud. I collaborate with Google Docs. And I find all of this rewarding.

      I used to have your “kids these days” attitudes about social media, but I was eventually proven wrong. Social media ended up connecting me to colleagues with whom I would otherwise not have connected. So social media thereby gave me access to otherwise inaccessible feedback on my work and other professional capital. Social media also connected with non-academics in fruitful and edifying ways. So I find that social media is also rewarding — in part because I use it in ways that you do not recommend.

      Don’t get me wrong. I agree with you insofar as social media can be a repository for “idiotic and transitory communications”. Indeed, it might be mostly that. But it is just false to think that it is or should be only that.

      I hope your habits continue to be rewarding. Thanks for commenting.


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