Taming the White Whale - Email

28 January 2020

How do I coordinate with 8 people in different groups? How does an airline tell me about changes to next week’s flight? What’s a good way for a long-lost friend to reach me?

The most popular online communication tool is one of the oldest: email. It’s used for everythig: personal messages, alerts, marketing, etc.

Email is a beast that follows our every footstep.

Its flexibility makes it a challenge. I get emails with varying mental and time requirements. How can I process the emails I receive? How can I send emails that gets me the responses I’m looking for?

I want to organize my communication, and make it optimally useful at minimal cost.*


Email sits in the intersection of security, identity, privacy, communication, and human perception.

There are assumptions we make:

Consider identity. I bet you have an email address, or more than one. They are part of your identity. Heck, you may advertise them on your blog, or a business card.

Second, ubiquity. Email has powerful network effects and utility. Anyone can contact you, and you can respond to them instantly. Network effects influence your life.

What about privacy? Someone can find your email address by Googling your name. Email is a public way to contact you. Your phone number and physical address have some expectation of privacy. Your email address, not so much.

Security is a big consideration. Institutions you interact with use email to authenticate you. For example, online banking requires an email address. Your phone company, landlord, and airline all know it.

If I had nefarious intentions, knowing your email address gives me a way to target you. It’s the skeleton key to your online life. Good email security fundamentals are critical.


I categorize email by its intended use:


Some of these intended uses overlap. Others conflict.

Let’s categorize the way I use email a differetn way, by sources and destinations:

Interaction Patterns

There are common email interaction patterns:

Quick Items

I use email to send quick messages, alerts, or announcements. These messages take only a few minutes to resolve.


Some emails are a knowledgebase. This is common; that’s why Gmail’s main interface is search.


Modern email apps group a conversation into a thread, so it’s shown together. This is a great idea.


An email is often useful at a certain time. For example, that email confirmation about my flight? I want receive it soon after booking, and then ‘snooze’ it until a few days before I travel. It’s clutter in the interim.

A missive from a friend, on the other hand? I want to see it immediately.

Make Tools Yours

Tools are for your use. They should suit your needs, not the other way around.

I use different email accounts for different purposes: for friends, for work, and for my career. Each account has different settings for notifications, app integration, and privacy.


Email is a tool for transmitting text. This has great advantages (permanence, legibility). It also has drawbacks (tone of voice, no body language). There’s a margin of error, and it’s pretty big. Words are ambiguous. Connotations and idioms are not universal.

With any communication tool, there is a gap between what you intend to say and what people perceive.

People don’t read email. Many people spend < 60 seconds reading an email. Many things compete for our attention; giving everything short shrift is natural.

Email suffers from the timing and frequency constraints that bedevil all communication. Being effective is key.

Here’s what I do:

Email is useful sometimes:

I use standard formats:

Work Communication

Tl;dr - <one-sentence summary>

The Long Version:
<process + data>

Announcements + Notifications

I send announcements at times.

Hey folks, here's the details for <event/subject>

* When - 
* Where - 
* What to Bring - 
* Important Topic - 

The consistency and format works well for distracted people.


Search is a different beast; my words interact with a search utility, and not a human.

I use keywords. If I’m writing about a trip to LA in March, I’ll include words like ‘family’, ‘flight’, ‘travel’, ‘itinerary’, ‘March’, ‘California’, ‘LA’, and ‘Los Angeles’.

I can search using key words/phrases to find this email, quickly. This is an old trick. If you get an email with a plane ticket confirmation, or an Amazon order, it has key words & phrases in it.


These are very short. For example, today I wrote a reminder to myself, to get my niece some books:

niece books

…that’s it. Just enough to jog my memory. I’ll route it into my to-do system later.

Email is a tool. Its effects depend on our intentions, and our methods.

I use email in specific ways because I’m perennially busy. I’d rather spend my time on better problems than puzzling out the optimal format for each email.

How do you use email?