Email Aikido!

E-MAIL AIKIDO (edited and adapted by Robert Gass from the brilliant ravings of Merlin Mann www.43folders.com)


Understanding that a handful of messages in any given day are far more important and timely than all of the others combined is perhaps the most important place to start if you ever want to see your inbox fit onto one screen again.

First: You have no control over the world’s demands on your time and attention, yet you are the single person who has any choice over how you deal with it.

Second, there is no way you will ever be able to respond to — let alone read in exquisite detail — every email you ever receive for the rest of your life.

Third, accept that your workload exceeds your resources — that you are the first and last filter for what deserves your time — and you’ll already be better off than you were even two minutes ago. Less can be so much more.


I used to think one-line email responses were the height of rudeness. That’s the past! Do not treat every message you get like the internet equivalent of an engagement ring. Let go, already. Lose the guilt.


Use templates for Basic “thank you” responses, Responses to frequently asked questions, and Responses to administrative information requests

“Here’s a link”
In combination with a templated wrapper, “Here’s a link that might be what you’re looking for…” is a great and super-fast (non-prose) response.

“Do you still need this?”
If you’ve sat on an e-mail for a long time, send a very low-threshold question to the sender: “Do you still need this?” Honestly, it might be the most time-saving question you’ve ever asked.

The “I don’t know”
If you don’t have an answer for something, please just say so. Definitely don’t do the opposite — tap-dancing gamely for three screens to try and seem smart.

“I have absolutely no idea” is a valid answer and gives the sender exactly the information needed to keep looking; “I don’t know — but here’s three people who might” is even better and might make you the big hero.

Seriously: is this an email you are ever going to respond to? If it’s more than a week or two old, either answer it or delete it now.

If this strikes you as unsatisfactory then ask yourself under what conditions, in your mind, will this email magically become more “answerable?” Delete it, move on, and don’t look back. Believe it or not, deleting fast and well is actually one of the most difficult skills to master, since it requires you to be straight with yourself starting from the moment a new message arrives.

The idea of not checking email for 30 minutes can cause hives, twitching, and minor bodily leakage. “What if I ‘miss’ something?” Are you checking the email…or is it checking you? Text or aim things that need a short response.

Think about how you might be able to break off those responses into “dashes” — ganging your related email work into a focused few minutes of hard-edged activity performed on a regular schedule.

Here’s a sample schedule:
1. New email check + scanning + super-fast responses: 2 minutes every 60
2. Non-critical responses: 10 minutes or 5 emails every 90 minutes
3. Processing “the pile”: 2 minutes every hour + 15 minutes at the end of
the day
4. Metawork: 10 minutes twice a week
5. Further culling, responding, and clearing “the pile”: Through the day, as
available, in 5-8 minute dashes

And apart from that? Email is off. Closed. Quit. You’re doing other things. Can you do it?

First, delete the obvious spam, chain letters, and kitty photos, unnecessary mailing lists and blog comments (sorting by subject is great for this), all the while identifying, flagging, and relocating all the actual important stuff to a “pending” folder — that’s the stuff that will take your real brain power and valuable time. Just get that sucker down to zero now. Fast. Go. Only when you’re at zero do you return to “pending,” concentrating on short responses and generation of to-dos. If you start getting exhaustipated, just take a break and return.

Give each message as much attention as it needs and not one iota more. Remember triage: if you keep trying to care for dead and doomed patients, you’ll end up losing a lot of the ones who could have actually used your help.

First: Understand why you’re writing

Before you type anything into a new message, have explicit answers for two questions:
1. Why am I writing this?
2. What exactly do I want the result of this message to be?

If you can’t succinctly state these answers, you might want to hold off on sending your message until you can. People get dozens, some hundreds each day, so they gravitate toward the messages that are well thought-out and that clearly respect their time and attention. Careless emails do not invite careful responses.

Although the possible topics and content of messages are theoretically endless, I’d propose that there are really just three basic types of business email:
1. Providing information – “Larry Tate will be in the office Monday at 10.”
2. Requesting information – “Where did you put the ‘Larry Tate’ file?”
3. Requesting action – “Will you call Larry Tate’s admin to confirm our meeting on Monday?”

It should be clear to your recipient which type of email yours is. Get the details and context packed into that first sentence or two whenever you can.

Write a great Subject line!
You can make it even easier for your recipient to immediately understand why you’ve sent them an email and to quickly determine what kind of response or action it requires. Compose a great “Subject:” line that hits the high points or summarizes the thrust of the message:
* Lunch resched to Friday @ 1pm
* Reminder: Monday is “St. Bono’s Day”–no classes

In fact, if you’re relating just a single fact or asking one question in your email, consider using just the subject line to relate your message. As I’ve mentioned before, in some organizations, such emails are identified by adding (EOM)—for end of message—at the end of the Subject line.

Limit to one screen:
There’s one visual trick most likely to improve your message’s success: fit it onto one screen with no scrolling. Got more to say? Put it in separate emails with—again—excellent Subject lines, and a descriptive, concise opener.

What’s the action here?
In the subject line, put FYI if it’s just for folks to see, FUN if it’s a fun thing, and RESPOND if its actionable or REQ for a request of someone. Apply to forwards!

(that one has been particularly helpful for emails amongst the staff at ruckus!)

A reminder never hurts:
If you’re following-up or responding to an email that’s more than a few days old, provide context right at the opening.

Never mix, never worry:
Unless your team really prefers to work that way, do not mix topics, projects, or domains of life in a given email.

I reckon that my biggest “secret” to inbox zero is no secret at all. It’s based heavily on David Allen’s Getting Things Done book, and consists primarily of quickly answering a few escalating questions about each email message in my inbox:
1. What does this message mean to me, and why do I care?
2. What action, if any, does this message require of me?
3. What’s the most elegant way to close out this message and the nested action it contains?
And the immediate To-Do:

1. Shut off auto-check – Either turn off automatic checking completely, or set it to something reasonable, like every 20 minutes or so..

2. Pick off easy ones – If you can retire an email with a 1-2 line response (< 2 minutes; pref. 30 seconds), do it now. 3. Write less - Ask for more information, pose a question, or just say “I don’t know.” Your well-written message can and should be as concise as possible. 4. Cheat - Use something like MailTemplate to help manage answers to frequent email subjects. 5. Be honest - If you know in your heart that you’re never going to respond to an email, get it out of sight, archive it, or just delete it.