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Email Processing

Brian Crain
Brian Crain
2 min read

When it comes to interacting with emails, I am often falling into patterns that are dysfunctional. But I have also figured out patterns that feel smooth and efficient. In this post, I wanted to describe both of them.

Dysfunctional Email

My email inbox has a emails in it that have been sitting there for a while. I open the inbox and glance at it. Maybe there are some emails that stand out. I read and answer them. I tend to first go to emails that are urgent, that are easiest to process or interesting. I might open the inbox and there are 70 emails. I quickly get down to 30, but most of those 30 have been sitting there for a while. They are things I have some resistance to, or that require some thought or action. I go and do something else.

I check email again at various times during the day. There are always open loops in the email inbox. Things that draw me back to it. Unfinished stuff. But there is also the rewarding thing of quickly archiving/deleting some email and thus reducing the amount that is in the inbox. It's an easy way to procrastinate from other things. It feels productive, but it isn't. And there may well be relevant emails that have sit in there for weeks.

Email Flow

I process emails oldest to newest. I do sequential processing. Before I have responded, archived or dealt with the older email in some way, I don't move to the newer one. However long it takes is okay. I go one email at a time.

I process emails once a day or twice a day at a fixed time and go through all of them. 30 minutes is generally enough to get through even a large amount of emails. I get to inbox zero every day and don't check otherwise.


One of the reasons why Email Flow works well is because it helps build a relaxed and confident relationship to the world. Whatever comes up, I deal with it as it comes up. One at a time. No deferring it until later.

On the other hand, Dysfunctional Email is really driven by cravings and aversion. Aversion to some emails and topics, leads me to defer it until later. Cravings for the illusory satisfaction of ticking things off, leads me to do the easiest first.

Email Flow is easiest if you get to inbox zero every day. Otherwise, you can't process oldest to newest, because you won't get to recent emails soon enough. But you can gradually build towards it. Do this by doing a session every day, e.g. of 15 minutes, for processing your emails oldest to newest in addition to your normal email routine. That way you can gradually remove the old backlog.