The Art of Plowing Through

There’s one bad habit that most people have (myself included) that leads to
an overflowing inbox.

There’s one good habit that, if adopted, can reduce the clutter
dramatically. I’ll go out on a limb and say that this one technique,
if adopted religiously, can reduce the size of your currently unmanaged inbox
by as much as 80%.

I’ll call it “plowing through” but that doesn’t do it justice because
there’s actually rationale and logic behind it. Others refer to it as “just do
it”; a take-off on the old Nike slogan.

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Count to 10, to 100, to 1000 if you have to.

As I’ve discussed before, email is not
. Really.

And yet we persist in treating as such.

Add to that the experience of getting an email on a topic you feel
passionately about, and it’s a recipe for a communications disaster.

I’m sure we’ve all been there. You’re on a mailing list or in some kind of
on-line discussion and someone says something that, to you, is outrageous –
literally provoking outrage. You then experience an urge, a desire, a
need, to respond, to respond before anyone else does, and to respond
strongly to put that person in their place. Perhaps you want to point out the
error of their ways and their thinking, and then perhaps move on to topics such
as their parentage and personal hygiene.

And that’s when all hell breaks loose.

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Use Plain Format – Substance Over Style

There’s a good chance I’m going to get branded as a techie-luddite (a
contradiction in terms if there ever was one) for the recommendation I’m
about to make.

I believe that 90% of your outgoing email should be in plain text format. Maybe more.


Aside from a collection of technical reasons I’ll get to in a minute,
it’s simple really: you want people to focus on what you have to say, not
how it looks. Lots of formatting, backgrounds, highlighting and using
many different fonts and styles are all things that distract from your
words. They’re more about making your message “pretty” to look at, and
rarely add value to your ideas.

I’m not saying never use HTML (or Rich Text) email, but I am
saying default to using plain text and only use HTML email when you
really need to, which is actually pretty rare.

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Email is never urgent. Really.

One thing that many people fail to realize is that email was never meant to
be “real time”. The entire email infrastructure is built to expect and properly
handle delays ranging from minutes to hours to even days. While most of the
email arrives nearly instantaneously, the fact is you can’t count on

Understanding that can be very, very freeing.

We’ll look at this from two perspectives: what email delays can mean to you
as a sender, and how understand that email can be delayed can affect how you
work with email as a recipient.

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One Simple Trick to Getting Less Email

In the previously
published essay
, I took the position that quite often you don’t have to
reply to an email you receive. In fact, while it’s frequently a knee-jerk
reaction to reply – even if only to agree with someone – it’s also frequently
the wrong thing to do and simply clutters up everyone’s inboxes and wastes your
time and theirs.

That essay closed with a simple little statement:

So if you need a selfish argument, it’s that only replying appropriately
will, as a side effect, also reduce the amount of email you need to deal with
as well.

Here’s the gem hidden in that statement: it’s not just about

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Is a Response Really Required?

Me Too!

Or as the geekier folks often write it:

me too!

I really don’t know what it is that causes it, but for some reason email
seems to bring out the “me too” in many people. You know what I mean: you’ll
have a discussion, either one-on-one correspondence or more commonly an
exchange on a mailing list, and at its close or at some other juncture, you’ll
get a completely content-free email or collection of emails from some of the

Perhaps we feel the need to let people know we’re listening. Perhaps it’s
the email equivalent of an head nod. The problem is, as I said, that it’s
otherwise completely content free. As a result, unlike an actual head nod, it’s
difficult to ignore. Someone must download it, read it, determine its value (if
any), and then dispose of it.

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Don’t Ask for Spam

I see a lot of people asking for spam every day.

Yes, I see people asking for spam.

It’s like they’re putting a large sign on their virtual backside saying
“Spam Me! Please!”

Oh, they don’t realize that they’re asking for spam, and if you asked them
if that’s what they want, they’d probably say “No, Definitely Not!” in the strongest of
terms. And yet, I’ll claim, strongly, that they’re doing so. Perhaps not
intentionally, but they’re asking for it.

Are you?

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The Most Under-Used Key on Your Keyboard

Man oh man, do people get bent out of shape about spam and the size of their
inbox. It’s simply amazing. I occasionally get questions out at Ask Leo! where people are clearly
extremely upset, apparently tearing their hair out at having to deal with

I just shake my head.

My advice?

Chill out, relax, get over it, and use the most under-used key on your

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Subjects are Everything

When faced with a flood of email in your inbox, how do you decide what’s
worth looking at? What are the criteria you use to decide where to spend your
valuable time?

I don’t know about you, but I actually look at the Subject field first.
Often before I even look at who the email is from.

Now, I can almost hear many of you already saying “Yeah, subject line, big
deal. Whatever. It’s not that important.”

You are so wrong.

My guess is that even you look at the subject of the message (before or
after seeing who it’s from) before you do anything. I’ll bet you immediately
look at anything that sounds important, on-topic or relevant to your situation,
and skip the rest – either for later, or for “when I get around to it”, which
is really just another way of saying “never”.

Now imagine you’re trying to get your email read by someone who’s incredibly
busy, and suffering form email overload because they haven’t been reading
Taming Email. What are they going to
pay attention to first? The email whose subject line tells them clearly what
the message is about.

It only makes sense.

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