Raw Thought

by Aaron Swartz

Do It Now

A year or two ago, I came up with a brilliant scheme for handling my email. The problem, I decided, was that there was just too much of it. Spam was mixed in with notes from friends along with important things from work and todo items I’d written to myself. What I needed to do was go thru and sort it — pick out the really important stuff to handle right away and move the junk to the bottom. So I wrote a little program that would let me go through and sort my email into neat little folders ordered by priority.

Well, here’s what happened: I sorted all my email, and then I didn’t answer any of it. I told myself that I shouldn’t answer the unimportant stuff until the important stuff was taken care of, then when I looked at the important stuff it seemed hard, so I decided to go read some blogs first. To this day, all those important emails are just sitting there.

Recently, I came up with a really dumb system for handling my email: just do it. I’d start at the top of my inbox, answer the most recent email, and move on to the next one. No excuses. No matter what the email at the top was — no matter how difficult or awkward or unimportant, I had to answer it. I couldn’t move on to another email and come back to it later. I had to answer the most recent email, no matter what it was.

By the end of the day, I’d answered a month’s worth of email.

We procrastinate because we are afraid. We’re afraid it’s too much work and that it will drain us. We’re afraid we’ll screw it up and get in trouble. We’re afraid we don’t know how to do it. We’re afraid because, well, we’ve been putting it off forever and every time we put it off it seems a little more fearsome in our minds. That’s why not putting things off is so liberating. We’re forced to confront our fears, not let them grow bigger by repeatedly running away. And when we confront them, we find they’re not so scary after all.

This doesn’t just apply to email, of course — it works for any todo list. But only if you say no to reordering, prioritizing, estimating deadlines, and doing the most important things first. Forget all that. Do it now.

You should follow me on twitter here.

January 8, 2010


Well, (a) Rands had a post along these lines about clobbering hundreds of bugs, and (ii) using terminal-mode mail with the window always in peripheral view allows me to answer any important message in 45 seconds.

posted by Joe Clark on January 8, 2010 #

“We’re forced to confront our fears, not let them grow bigger by repeatedly running away.”

How to do that ? How to convince “ourselves” to do right stuff on right time ?? This is the point …

posted by vahid on January 8, 2010 #

very true… however the counter argument is that if you plow through your list completing items as fast as possible, you may not be completing them in the optimal manner. That’s why we procrastinate on the important emails; because sending a hasty reply could have a large negative cost.

The trick is knowing which items you can knock out ASAP and which items require further rumination.

Another factor with email is that once it has sat in your inbox for long enough, sending a reply, no matter how well crafted, will seem rude. Therefore email has a inherent lifespan (maybe 2 weeks?). After that you can just delete/archive it with impunity.

posted by felix on January 8, 2010 #

I use gmail, get around 20 emails per day, and I always quickly scan through visually to find and answer the important emails first. Never had a problem with that. Sometimes it could be overwhelming, I agree, but I would still say you need to ‘prioritize’ rather than ‘moving from one email to another’ in a linear fashion. (from most recently received first). Some emails can take their time for our answers. Others need immediate replies.

posted by Mohan Arun on January 8, 2010 #

Given that Aaron said: “I wrote a little program that would let me go through and sort my email into neat little folders ordered by priority.”

Mohan Arun then said: “I would still say you need to ‘prioritize’.”

And the world exploded.

posted by Bystander on January 8, 2010 #

” I’d start at the top of my inbox, answer the most recent email, and move on to the next one. No excuses. ” I’ve always done it this way. I also immediately throw away mails I know I will never answer or is not needed to act upon.

Extremely few mails actually contains information that I might need later - and those that do is often sent to me by myself. Those are saved in folders (ideas, programming, friends etc).

posted by Daniel Larsson on January 8, 2010 #

I think sometimes it’s better to get the easy stuff done first because it takes not much time and having a few things off your list will give you a feeling of accomplishment. But your mileage will vary depending on the severity of your procrastination habits.

posted by Dan on January 8, 2010 #

um how do you let a months worth of email build up

posted by no on January 8, 2010 #

What you are doing with your inbox is in direct relation to the “Getting Things Done” methodology by David Allen. I would recommend you grab his book (called “Getting Things Done” — obviously) and give it a read. It may help you figure out a system to make you more productive and less stressed…

I am biased since I am currently working on a product that helps people with Getting Things Done - especially from a product development point of view (software product).

posted by Bryan Rehbein on January 8, 2010 #

Great wise Buddhist monk once said “It is harder to think of doing something than to do it”

posted by mempko on January 8, 2010 #

The branding on “Just Do It” is unfortunate, because it is such an awesome phrase.

Caveat on just doing your email: you need to not have your email open all day. Pick a time, and get through it. Let SMS be your interrupt-if-urgent messaging system.

posted by Ivan Kirigin on January 8, 2010 #

I totally agree. I reached this same conclusion myself not too long ago, and it has really made me more productive and focused (as a programmer).

Thanks for nicely summing this up :)

posted by Randall Degges on January 8, 2010 #

Who uses email much anymore? I find it weird that in 2010 people still get a lot of email.

I’ve notice that the number of emails I get has dropped precipitously in the past few years to the point that I only get one or two a day now that are actually looking for a response. Generally team members communicate via IM.

posted by Walter McGrain on January 8, 2010 #

You discovered the first step to productivity.

In 30 years you will discover 5 more and you will be really productive.

Or you can read David Allen’s “Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity” and have it all now.

It took me 15 years to get there half way (3 steps) and 2 days reading for the full road. Re-inventing the wheel does not pay.

posted by CCs on January 8, 2010 #

My grandmother had a saying: “Do it now, then it’s done” which I try to live by. Still, procrastination inevitably rears its head.

posted by Scott McMillin on January 8, 2010 #

Good one. Only thing I’d add is that you occasionally can’t fully handle an email because it requires more work, or research, or some other dependency… in that case best thing to do is forward it to a todo list and then get it out of the email inbox.

More on that method, btw, in my book “Bit Literacy.”

posted by Mark Hurst on January 9, 2010 #

Winners do

Whats Important Now

posted by Casey Drummer on January 9, 2010 #

work and personal email are different for me. at work, i have the 3 month rule: i keep 3 months of emails in my inbox, so i can search for stuff, and file a few things that i know i will need later. then i just dump everything older than 3 months. i don’t email many people for much more than scheduling things and followups. i use SMS whenever possible for urgent things (system alerts, communications with the boss, etc.)

email has no tone of voice, making it prone to mis-understandings and it’s admissible in court, so you should use it sparingly in a professional setting.

my personal email is the opposite. i use gmail so i just search for stuff, and only delete things like daily automated emails from job search sites or shopping sites. i don’t even delete mailing list traffic.

personal and business communications is a tool box. email is just one tool and it has a proper use. it is a supplement to, not a substitute for, the phone, SMS, IM, social networking, or a face to face conversation.

posted by chris on January 9, 2010 #

I have an even more efficient way to deal with email that I discovered in, admittedly, a moment of severe frustration; just delete them all. If ever a pile gets so long that I can’t even remember when I stopped completing items, I’ll delete them all.

If the information is truly that important, then either it’ll be resent in one form or another back to you, or you’ll eventually be prompted to go out and search for it out of necessity.

posted by haig on January 12, 2010 #

I heard a similar thought-process called “FAT” File-Act-Trash. You take your queue and for each item you have to do one of those three things.

posted by Phil Dhingra on January 13, 2010 #

To those who are still tempted to use some sort of advanced scheme after reading this post: Yes, advanced schemes can be good, but you’re still better off following Aaron’s advice for a short spell before planning one out. By doing this you will get a better idea of the sort of problem you are dealing with. Implementing an advanced scheme for a task you haven’t done much of or having done in a while is premature optimization.

posted by John Maxwell IV on January 25, 2010 #

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