Email Three Times A Day - Part 1

Questions This Guidance Answers: 
  • How do I manage my email?
  • How do I get to inbox zero?
  • What do I do when I get pushback?

This guidance recommends doing email three times a day. ONLY three times a day.

Our first podcast on email, in 2005, should have been a 10-part series. We talked about far too much. And, in the interest of time, we left a lot out. Email hasn't gotten any easier. Time to revisit, expand, and update our core guidance.

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Great Guidance

I generally have agreed with this guidance since I first heard it a few years back. However, I've struggled with the discipline necessary to adhere to it consistently.  This morning, for some reason, I decided not to quickly glance at my email inbox when I picked up my cell phone after waking up.  In fact, I didn't check it until I put the action on my calendar after I arrived at the office.  

A few hours later I saw the topic of this week's MT cast - great timing!  I believe I'm well on my way to fully implementing the recommendations.  In my mind, following this guidance is a small, repeatable gesture I can make to demonstrate and remind myself that more of my time needs to be organized around truly important activities and less around the urgent (but not necessarily important). 

We're on Google Mail in my organization, and I love that the Google email app on my mobile devices does not, as a default, tell me how many unopened emails are in my inbox - out of sight, out of mind - which makes it much easier.

Mike - 3177

Well done!


Stick with it.  SO much of managing is NOT smarts, it's DISCIPLINE.

Let me know how it goes.


Responding to questions..

 Limiting email to 3 times per day has given me time to focus on other topics and has reduced distractions.  Sometimes, I falter, and I get back on the 3 times per day path.

Is there an effective way to respond to a call asking for my thoughts to a topic that was in a recent (less than 2 hours old) email where I am on the cc list.  Callers frequently assume that I've already read the email and jump directly to asking for a response (e.g "Do you think 2 weeks will be adequate to revise the drawings for Judy?").

My response is usually something like: "I'm sorry, I missed something here.  Is this in response to a recent email?"  In the middle of responding to the question I refrain from discussing how often each of us looks at email.

Is there a better way to approach this situation?



3 times is actually.... 1 too many for me

Good podcast (as usual, thanks for all your casts in fact).

I usually don't watch email the morning (I don't even fire outlook until lunch). When I come to the office, I have a goal for the day and I can be productive the whole morning. Many people I know have emails deciding their schedule for them for the day.

It's really proactive vs reactive/fire-fighting mode.

I have an auto-respond that tell people what time I check email and if this is urgent they need to call me or come to my desk.

Regarding your scheduling comment, "Getting things done" has a similar approach: processing the information is a different task than acting on the information.

Keep up the good work.


For Gmail/Google Apps users , give ActiveInbox a try.  Most features are free, the full version is $25/yr.  It fits perfectly with the MT e-mail philosophy.  I have no tie to the company, just a long-time user.


Also great background material is the original Inbox Zero video:  It's the same core message about email management from a slightly different perspective.



Corner cases

I'm a long time listener, started in late 2010, enjoying your casts enormously, very grateful to you for sharing your knowledge and experience with us, you're responsible for a lot of my 'wow' moments in the last two years, totally dig your 'make a world a better place' mentality.

Great  guidance, started doing that ~6 months ago, works perfect. I also clear my inbox, what's left in it after I'm done - is my todo list which I'm reviewing every time I'm doing email again. This is because not all email can be easily converted to tasks, and it's kinda working for me for now, so it's ok.

I typically agree with what you say, and this is a rare case when I believe you're being a bit too rigid. As this is only the first part of the cast, I'm about to say might be coming in the later parts.

Since I've started doing email 3 times a day - I've found two exceptions, both are rare but important.

  1. Support roles
  2. Urgent emails

First, some background info on me - I'm a high C/S, I have no trouble doing something new as long as it makes sense. I'm a software developer in video games in Europe, and this might be specific to any or even all of those.

1.1  Support roles - temporary

For permanent support jobs, communication is a major responsibility, so it's self-explanatory. However, even individual contributors sometimes switch to support roles temporarily (e.g. the first few days after you've implemented something big you'll want to stay tuned to potential issues people might have with it).

1.2 Support roles - additional responsibility

It has to do with email sometimes being the only standard tool for quick communication. For some roles like a coordinator - you'll have to do email more often if not constantly for the same reason - communication is an important part of your job and many people would be affected by half a day delay in it if you're a bottleneck.

The good thing - is that there are very few positions like that, and the rest of us could ignore email until lunch, and in the worst case coordinator would come to our desk.

2.  Urgent emails

If you're lucky and your company has a mature culture for email communication - only the important emails you're getting will be marked 'Important'. Not all of them are urgent, but since there's no 'Urgent' flag, the urgent email will often be marked as 'Important' instead.

If that's the case - you could set up your email client to retrieve emails automatically, but only show the pop-up for the email marked 'Important' or 'Urgent' if it's available. Has been working great for me for months.

That's it, keep up the good work, looking forward to more management and career wisdom from you guys!

Good points, but

I think you're confusing the role and the person.

You're right that in a support role, quick communication via email is expected. And most organizations pride themselves on responsiveness to their customers (internal or external).  In that case, I think it's more effective to have a standard "group" email account for this purpose.  I.E.  

That way, the coordinator (or whoever is responsible for the group account), can provide the quick response. It also provides more consistent coverage, as someone else can cover the account if the primary is unavailable. 


I think the term "Urgent email"  is an oxymoron, however. If the issue is urgent, I encourage people to pick up the phone or go to my desk. Not only is the issue addressed more quickly, it is typically resolved the first time. In person or phone is just a much richer form of communication. And I hate when I catch myself sending 3 or 4, back and forth, emails about a subject. When I should have just picked up the phone.

Thanks Mike!

I didn't mention this, and yes, you're completely right, it's an email distribution list that coordinator would monitor.

I did separate role from a person, since role can be either temporary or one of many which one particular person can have and be responsible for.

Could you elaborate why you believe I confused them?

As for the urgent mail - you're right again, phone or even talking to people face-to-face is preferred and 95% of the time is the way to go.

Sometimes  however, you either don't know who to talk to specifically, or you need to let the whole team know of something both important and urgent and team's ability to work (can be as many as 200-300 people) depends on that info. Here are some examples (caution, it's getting technical):

  • various issues with infrastructure: shared drive is out of space, version control system malfunction, etc.
  • a feature in an internally developed software that is used by 70% of the team is broken and prevents a big part of a team from doing their job
  • version control system lockdown before the next product delivery
  • unscheduled urgent maintenance in the office

All of those happened in the last month. They are rare, but it's better to know when they do happen.

Finally get it

I have been a devotee of this concept since the first cast but I missed a couple of details that made this so much better. I never actually got rid of the email. I left it sitting unread in the inbox for future reference. This morning, after listening to the cast last night, turned off the automatic send and receive, processed my morning email and moved all of those old emails and recently processed emails into a subfolder called @processed. This folder sits right below my @work, @waiting for date, and @waiting for Action folders. The feeling of seeing that white  space in my inbox where there were no emails?

Oh my gosh. A weight was lifted from my shoulders. I know that I now will not have to worry about things sneaking back in while I have my back turned and can go back to worrying about real work not email. 

Thank you so much for fine tuning your guidance on this. It made my day! (By the way that single exclamation point is from a screaming D)

Hi Elfulgore

Sorry if I wasn't clear. I'm using role in terms of a group role or a support role.

In your first example where a shared-drive fills up or the version control system crashes, it's likely any of the 4 people on the system administration team can fix the problem. Any of the 4 admins with the support role can fulfill the support request.

If someone needs to notify the system admin team of the issue, it's inefficient for them to try to notify each individual member. And, it's grossly inefficient for the 4 members of the team to constantly be checking email looking for support requests.

My point is that if 200-300 people can be affected by a problem, an email, even an "urgent" email, is the wrong form of communication.

Hey Mike

What would be a better solution to communicate a generic problem to 200-300 people in an urgent manner in your opinion?

Non-Believer at First

 I listened to this case and completely balked at Mark throughout.  There was no way that 3 times a day would work with the volume of email.  I have followed this guidance for the past week and each day have cleared the email box.  Not being distracted by a constant notification has allowed focus on other items.  My cell properly 'dings' if an email comes in from certain VIPs that may need a quicker review, but for the most part everything can wait until the review period.  Also using the tools in Exchange such as rules, categories and follow-up, I easily review those that need first attention.  My plan is to keep this ongoing.  Nice recommendation.

Doing it!

 It took me two weeks to "catch up", but since then I've been doing it: e-mail only 3 times a day.

The cognitive leap I had to take to make it work was separating "Work" from "Communication".

E-mail is Communication, not work. So I'm moving e-mail I need to work on to my Calendar, or Task List, or sometimes whiteboard.

I couldn't get Outlook to stop receiving e-mail (tried all the options and lots of time on google) so instead I just stopped that e-mail popup and changed Outlook to use Tasks as the default location instead of my Inbox. Working like a charm.

And yes, I do use my IPhone as a backup.

I'm actually able to focus on my real job now. Thanks!!!