7 Deadly Sins of Email

Email is a powerful tool that will be with us for years to come. And with it, you’ve got two choices. Control your email or let it control you.

Below are 7 Deadly Email Sins that you should avoid to be the one who wears the pants in the inbox relationship.

1. Opening email first thing in the morning.

When you open your email first thing in the morning, you are opening up Pandora’s Box. There is both good and evil that could be waiting for you in there. However, the sin comes from the false urgency you get from all of the good, the bad and the ugly emails.

Why is starting your day with email so deadly?

Willpower tends to be higher earlier in the day. That means you’ll be able to provide your best energy and effort to your most important task (MIT).

When you open and respond to email first thing, you are basically telling the world, “What I had in mind for today is not nearly as important as what you had in mind.”

Responding to urgent requests early will also train the requestor to send you more urgent requests. You will then find yourself spending more time working on “other people’s agendas” rather than your own.

Tackling email early in the day is one of the most sinister of sins because responding to emergencies can make you feel productive, responsible and even important.  However, more times than not this habit prevents you from creating long term, lasting value.

Starting your morning with a number of little emergencies found in your inbox has the tendency to creep into the rest of your day. If you’ve ever found yourself exhausted from work at the end of the day despite the fact you did not accomplish anything you intended to… early am email could be the reason why.

What you should do instead

Decide one important thing to do in the morning and do that before anything else.

To get into this habit, my girlfriend and I will ask each other what we are going to do before email every evening. I enjoy this routine because it clarifies what I plan to accomplish (because I have to explain it to someone who is not a productivity blogger) and it let’s both of us know what we are doing at work.

I then write the task down and make sure I do it first thing. Using this method, I get at least 1 step closer to my goals every day. Getting out of the morning inbox and consistently accomplishing your top priorities has the potential to make the biggest impact on your life of all the deadly email sins.

2. Using your inbox as a to-do list.

Does this scenario sound familiar to you?

You open your email (hopefully after getting some real work done) and you scan the 20 – 30 new messages that wait for your attention. You find two or three that look like they probably need some action so you open them up first to see what’s inside. You were right – all three of them need action. The second seems most time sensitive so you get to work on that and leave the other two in your inbox so you can refer to them later.

Seems like a reasonable workflow. Because it seems so reasonable many, many people use this strategy to varying degrees of success.

So why is this a deadly email habit?

Well… let’s finish the above scenario and spot the inefficiencies that come along with the inbox task management method.

You come back to you email inbox 3 hours later. You have accomplished the task that was assigned to you and now you are going back for the next important tasks.

By this time you’ve received 12 new emails and one of the tasks has been pushed to the next page in your inbox. You scroll back for that, but in that time there were a few headlines that caught your attention and another email that looks like it could be actionable. You open those emails up. One has a link to a 3-minute video and another an interesting article that draws you in for another 10 minutes. You also re-read the prior actionable emails to re-extract that action need and then re-prioritize what should be done next given the amount of time you have left in the day.

If you have a fairly clean inbox, do not receive multiple new emails every hour, have co-workers who write requests in succinct, actionable manner and have the will power to avoid being distracted by easier or more interesting topics, then this method will work for you.

However, that’s a lot of ifs. And there is a better email habit that will take change and willpower out of the mix.

What you should do instead.

Two things. First get in the habit of processing your inbox to zero every time you open your email client.

If you use Gmail, I suggest trying out The Email Game that makes zeroing your inbox a faster, more enjoyable process by timing how long it takes to respond to each email and opening up the next email as soon as you’ve responded, labeled or archived the current.

Then find a task manager that you enjoy and use that to write down all of the action items your email brought your way. You can find suggestions in the following task management article that will also serve as good primer to effective to-do lists if you don’t already have a system in place.

I believe Asian Efficiency reader Rick Mathes describes the benefit of inbox zero, task management list combo well:

“My goal is every night before I go to bed, the inbox is at zero and every email is in my trusted system where I don’t have to go look for it, when I’m ready to see it and act on it, it’s just there.” – Rick Mathes small business owner in Austin, TX that receives 150–200 emails a day

Your email is for communication, not for task management!

3. Living in your inbox.

This bad, sinful email habit usually comes in combination with using your inbox as a task management tool. It also extends further to junkies who are always hitting the refresh button constantly waiting for that next hit.

This behavior will assure that you are always working from the reactive quadrant of the Eisenhower box:


Overcome this by deciding what tasks you want to be working on during the day the night before. Learn more about how to do that with a highly effective evening routine.

4. Receiving notifications on your phone.

A bad email habit that will lead you to venturing to your inbox more than you should is having too many notifications on your phone and computer. The correct number of email notifications to have is zero.

You should only get emails when YOU want them. As said previously, email is a way to organize other people’s agendas and it should not interrupt you unnecessarily. Don’t just turn sound and vibration notifications off, but remove those badge notifications that will tell you how many emails you have left.

5. Agonizing over answers.

Another common problem many, including myself, suffer from is taking too much time to craft the perfect email that is:

  • concise
  • funny
  • perfectly edited
  • respectful
  • …..the list goes on

The first thing to remember is that if you feel like it may take more than 3 or 4 paragraphs to explain your message, then you might want to consider picking up the phone and calling them. This will allow you to use your tone and inflection to get the message across clearly, and gives the other party a chance to ask questions in the moment.

If calling is not an option – because you don’t have their number, it’s an awkward time of day, you want documentation to prove the communication took place – then write the full email.

Do this more efficiently by getting all of the ideas down before going back and looking for errors. This is a common technique writers use because it saves them from needing to shift from their creative writing part of the brain to their analytical editing part of the brain.

Another tip is to look for opportunities to use bulleted lists to save writing long sentences and paragraphs. Using a bulleted list not only saves you time, it makes your main points easier to see for the email recipient… making it more likely that they will take the actions you want.

“The meaning of communication lies in the response it gets.” – UCSC Psychology Professor Richard Bandler

6. Not setting up filters.

Setting up email filters, particularly filters that will allow less important emails to skip your inbox completely is another habit that effective emailers use. My suggestion for this is setting up filters for emails you’ve been cc-ed on.

Thanh shows you how to do this as well as other vital email filters in this classic Asian Efficiency post.

7. Not using canned responses.

The last deadly email habit is not using canned responses. These pre-written emails leads to hours a week saved not re-writing the similar emails or even parts of an email.

You can create canned responses in Gmail by going to Settings > Labs > Canned Responses.

Canned Responses in Gmail
Step 1 Enable Canned Responses and Save Setting

When you activate the Canned Response add-on, you will then be able to save emails by clicking the triangle at the bottom right hand corner of the email and following the steps shown below.

New Canned Response in Gmail
Step 2 Save Common Emails
Naming canned responses in Gmail
Step 3 Name Canned Response
Using Canned Responses in Gmail
Step 4 Insert Emails and Save Time and Energy!

An even faster way to use canned emails is, when you write an email or even parts of an email that you know you are likely to write again, consider using TextExpander.

TextExpander is a Mac application that uses keyword shortcuts to expand into the full, mistake free text. For example, if I type [ ihope ] then [ I hope to hear from you soon! ] appears. As a bonus, the bigger text to expansion ratio, the more time you get to smirk at yourself for saving. I get a little boost every time my [ fb ] turns into:

Thanks for the feedback. We’re taking every comment seriously to improve our products. We really appreciate it.
Also, if you have questions, just shoot us an email. We’ll be glad to assist you.

In Closing

Email is a powerful tool that will be with us for years to come. You’ve got two choices. Control your email or let it control you… I suggest the former.

More Email Tips

If you want more tips and hacks for dealing with email, make sure you subscribe for updates on the Escape Your Email. We have an email system that allows you to spend only 30 minutes a day on email. Sign up here and we’ll let you know when it’s available.

P.S. For email sin numero uno, putting out other people’s fires isn’t the only reason to avoid email in the morning. Good news waiting in your inbox can also serve to sap up your most productive working hours.

Let’s say you or your company won some award or have a positive piece of publicity for an impactful project you’ve recently completed. Reading and re-reading the article or details of the award will send you down a rabbit hole of celebrations, congratulations, and thank you’s that leave the important work that got you there out of the limelight.

P.P.S We just came out with a comprehensive video guide to TextExpander that includes a referral link that will give you a 20% discount on the software.  


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  1. Great points and so wish I could exercise #1. I work for a property management company where various emergency issues occur. Checking our email first thing is crucial. Managing properties all over the country, you never know what comes in between 5pm and the following morning and we need to tend to them asap. If one of our properties got broken into and our realtor sent us an email at 11pm the following evening, then we need to get on the phone with the police, file a report, order a rekey, etc.

    We also have an ’email response time’ rule. Not to mention if I’m cc’d on something where I’m asked to complete a task, if I don’t get to it within a specific time frame, I’ll be asked, ‘did you see the email to do such and such’?

    Unfortunately everyone’s situation is different. If you’re self employed and run your own business you can probably adopt your own rules regarding emails, but for those of us who have to follow rules in place, it’s a bit difficult.

    You do make some very valid points, however. I’m a stickler for email etiquette – especially a clear, concise subject line (which I plan to blog about) so I appreciate this

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