Bernie Anderson
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the blog

Current musings, whatever they may be. 

How to Process Email: 3 Rules, 2 Tools, and 1 Wish

Email is a wild, unruly beast. It's both useful and a pain. Communication and spam. Wildly convenient and so much junk. It's a crest of productivity and time suck.

First - for those who know me. I'm not always the fastest on the email draw. Sometimes this has to do with season of life. Busy seasons will often mean email gets set aside - and out of hand. At other times it's about simple priorities. I let it slide.

But, like a persistent squeaky wheel (or an oncoming freight train) it can't be ignored forever. Like it or not, email is a part of our lives - and will be for the foreseeable future.

To move through email in the most efficient and timely way possible, I follow three rules and use two tools.

And I'd be one step closer to email Nirvana if my day job org would invest in a tool for our team.

Rule 1

Don't live out of an email inbox.

My goal is to live life in a proactive manner, rather than in a constant state of responsiveness. To do this, I refuse to live out of my email inbox. Email is meant to be processed, not used as a to-do list. My email process is not unique to me. It's simple and straightforward.

Essentially, email is either answered, deleted, deferred, moved to a to-do list, or archived for later reference.

The point being - all these move email out of the inbox. For me, this is important.

Rule 2

Work email inbox will be completely cleared to zero on a weekly basis (at least)

This happens with my work email every week. I'm not as religious about this with my other email accounts. But I usually drill through anything left in my inbox on Friday at Noon. At the very least, everything gets a decision made for it - even if that means deferment.

When email stacks up in the inbox, it morphs into something other than email. It becomes an ameboid blob of mush, growing daily. While not scary in of itself, what it contains might be terrifying. The unknown. I don't like that feeling. So, I don't let it grow. Dismantle the atomic bomb every week. It won't get big enough to explode.

Rule 3

No Email before 9:00 AM

In an ideal world, I would schedule two (maybe three) half-hour email sessions per day. I can't do that in the world I currently live (more on that in a moment). But, this is a hard and fast one for me. I am not responding to anything before 9:00 AM. The hours from when I rise (usually around the 6:00 AM mark) to when I start putting in hours for the day job (9:00 AM) are sacred for me. After walking dogs and a cup of coffee, my brain is usually firing on all cylinders - and I want this time for quiet, prayer, and writing. I don't want these precious hours wasted responding to email. The digital world can wait until 9:00.

Follow the rules and use the tools.

In following my three rules - I recommend two different tools that help me execute on these rules.

Tool #1

Airmail 3 for Mac and iPhone

I live in an Apple ecosystem. So, my apologies to Windows readers. Airmail is a Mac OS/iOS only tool. I did a quick search to see if there's a Windows alternative - but couldn't tell. I am sure there is. I simply don't know. Leave your recommendation in the comments.

Here are the features I love about Airmail 3 for Mac and iOS.

  • Smart folders (These are a game-changer)
  • Snooze Option (The magic voodoo for inbox zero)
  • Gestures (I can quickly and easily process email on my phone)
  • The ability to manage all email accounts in one place without (much) confusion.
  • Search is fast and accurate (which makes the "archive" option work)

I won't spend a lot of time detailing this features. I was a stubborn native Mail App user for years. But I tried Airmail 3 - and it was enough for me to switch. I have an Exchange account, an iCloud account, Gmail, and a couple of POP email address - all work flawlessly with Airmail 3.

Tool #2


I love Sanebox. I tend to sign up for more email newsletters than I should. The beauty of Sanebox is that all email I don't need to see right away goes into a "later" folder. I review this folder every couple of days. I also have created a couple of other useful folders. My "Saturday Morning" is great. Everything I want to review on Saturday reappears in my inbox on Saturdays at 9:00 AM - ready for leisurely reading with a second cup of Saturday coffee.

Sanebox is inexpensive when paid for over a two-year period. I get the "Lunch" for 2 years at a time. It's worth every dime.

1 Tool (I wish I used)


My Day-Job is with a wonderful organization who does amazing work all over the world. My only two real gripes with them are

  1. They are tied to a Microsoft eco-system. I get it. That's normal for the corporate enterprise world - and I've found a way to maintain my Mac space, for the most part.
  2. Email is the primary form of internal communication.

I wish we used Slack for internal communication. Email can be saved for external communication. I can only hope that one day we can live the dream.


David Allan said,

"You have to think about your stuff more than you realize but not as much as you’re afraid you might."

The same is true of email. You do have to think about it more than you realize, but not as much as you're afraid you might.

It's a tool. Use it as such. Email should not control us. It should make life easier.