When I recently reflected on flexibility vs. discipline a number of things came to my mind where I am not applying enough discipline, at least not by my own standards. One of them, with little surprise, is email.

There are days where I simply live in my inbox, waiting for the next batch of emails to come and respond to them in the most flexible manner. Email is a prime example of everything that is wrong about being flexible only. You could actually start your day without any plan or goal, open your email and work for 10 hours — easily. However, no satisfaction guaranteed.

Email is also highly reactive as most of the time you only respond to external impulses and by doing so you don’t have any time left to engage in proactive work following your goal, vision or desire.

We have all read a million time that we should check email only a few times a day, ideally at predefined times. If we check it, we should process it to zero.

Simple, very simple.

The only reason we are not sticking to this is lack of discipline. We only keep searching for a better email management method because we are not disciplined enough to build the habit required.

OmniFocus can help you establish the habit, but you’ll have to bring the discipline to the party. One way OmniFocus can help is by adding the right repeating tasks to your routines.

The Email Regime

When I wrote about flexibility vs. discipline I immediately implemented the following tasks, which sit in my ‘Daily’ house keeping list and repeat every weekday:

- Check email and process to zero (6am)
- Check email for emergency (10.30am)
- Check email and process to zero (1.30pm)
    - Check "waiting for" emails
    - Check tickler smart mailbox
    - Check flagged emails
    - Check mailer list folder
- Check email and process to zero (4.30pm)

One of the compromises I have made is that I check emails first thing in the morning. No sure if my job really requires it, but I just feel better. Usually not too many important emails came in after I checked the last time the day before, so processing them to zero isn’t a big deal.

It is the morning where I am most creative and productive. Consequently I try to take on the bigger, more difficult junks of work during these time. To not interrupt the ‘flow’ too much, I only open Mail.app at 10.30am for a quick emergency scan. Primary purpose of this scan is to make sure nothing important (!) requires my immediate (!) attention and that my calls & meetings, which I try to have mostly in the afternoon, haven’t moved.

At 1.30pm it is time for the daily 360° email maintenance. Processing the inbox to zero is priority number one. However, this time I also look at various other folders and by doing this on a daily basis it actually requires very little time and effort:

  • I look at all mails I have sent and tagged “Waiting For” (using MailTags 3), following those up which are overdue or still pending.
  • The ‘Tickler’ smart mailbox I have setup looks for emails that have a tickler date assigned (again MailTags 3) and shows them sorted by it. If any of these emails is due or overdue, I can take the required action.
  • Emails that I need to review, mainly because they are very long, or action are simply ‘Flagged’ in Mail.app - I don’t really add each of them to OmniFocus, but it’ll take me another post to explain why.
  • Finally I review my ‘mailer list’ folder, which is where all these emails go on which I am neither in ‘To’ nor in ‘CC’. Some of them are relevant, most of them get deleted straight away.

Finally, at 4.30pm, I check emails the last time for the day by processing the inbox to zero again.

Don’t even touch it

Now the discipline comes in when you can resist touching your email outside of these times. Every time you feel the urge to write an email make a task entry into OmniFocus instead. You can even use the notes field of the action to capture the entire email or just an outline of what you’d like to send.

email-daily-of-routine Process and write your emails in batches at the defined times. In between those times your email client should be only one thing: Closed. I have experimented with taking accounts offline by adding the corresponding icon to my Mail.app toolbar, but it turns out some of my IMAP accounts still get fresh email, hence I decided to simply quit Mail.app outside of my pre-defined email times.

Make your email smarter

Smart mailboxes are great and they become magical if you use tools such as Mail-Act-On or MailTags with them. But the true life savers are mail rules. They can make your email processing so much easier and shorter if applied in the correct way. I will cover my approach to email automation in one of the next posts. Meanwhile implement your email routine in OmniFocus and stick with it!