free html hit counter The Rule of Ten - John Battelle's Search Blog

The Rule of Ten

By - October 25, 2004

Caveat: Totally off topic (sort of).

For some reason, I grow uneasy if I have more than ten emails unanswered in my inbox. I’ll stay at my computer late, I’ll forego creature comforts, if it means I can get the message queue down to ten or less before I sleep.

Lately this has become difficult, as the number of fun and/or important time requests, or reads/groks/responds, or emails that force other actions have risen to the point where my inbox often demands more of me than I can reasonably give.

A quick spin through my inbox reveals: A great paper to read from a colleague; I can’t respond to him till I read it, so it stays in my queue. There’s an appointment to book when I next go to New York, and a Very Important Person who’s emailed me wondering if we’re on. But I can’t confirm till I get an email from someone else, so…it stays in the queue. A voicemail from another New Yorker (I get vmail as email, thanks to VOIP), which I can’t delete till I call them back, and it’s too late to call, so the email stays in the queue. There’s an invitation to a breakfast panel, but I am attempting to limit my time now, as it’s All About the Book. Still, the person asking is great, and I would very much like to be in the company of smart people, it always proves fun and worth the time. I can’t make up my mind, so … the email stays in the queue. There are three comments from smart Searchbloggers, each with valid and interesting points which merit followup, but they require that I think, and think judiciously, and it’s late, and my kids are home so… their email stays in the queue. And so on. I’m down to 15, but I can’t seem to kill the last five….

Am I insane? Does anyone else manage their life this way? More to the point… does anyone have a better way?

PS – This is post #999 of Searchblog. Cool!

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12 thoughts on “The Rule of Ten

  1. Bill says:

    I do, or rather David Allen does.

    I used to have a very similar email style to what you’ve describe above, but totally switched to the approach describe in Allen’s “Getting Things Done.” The gist of his approach is maintaining a few queues (@Todo, @Review, @Waiting). For each thing that will take longer than 2 minutes, you file the message according.

    Great system if you get a lot of email and helps you tackle it in order of importance as opposed to first-read.

    Great book over all. I highly recommend it.

  2. I’ve got a pretty similar style, although my self-denial mode doesn’t kick in until about 20+ pending e-mails. A lot of times I’ll just leave e-mails in my inbox as meeting reminders that don’t really need a response but want to keep on my short term event horizon. I have this hope that I’ll actually hit 0 pending e-mails at least once before the end of the calendar year.

    It’s a heck of a lot easier than maintining a TODO list in some other application. Besides, to add to the list you just send e-mail to yourself ;-\

  3. Tim says:

    I obey exactly the same rule, except that in my case it’s the Rule of 10,000.

  4. nxdecybot says:

    To deal with this I have tried many methods, the only one that has worked for me is using the Opera M2 mail client.

    As mails come in that I cannot immediately respond to, I right-click LABEL them into a category filter (to do, call back, important, etc…). This is a very rapid operation that I can do immediately after scanning the message in the preview window.

    Then instead of dealing with a list that is ordered by time of receipt in my inbox, I can deal with things BY CATEGORY using the incredible filtering technology – kind of like an Outlook 2003 search folder but better – Opera M2 filters support regex!

    The alternative solution is to recognize that you are a “victim of e-mail tyranny” see here for six steps towards improving your life:

    BTW you filtered my nickname which includes the word rhymes-with-prude and starts with “N”. I am disappointed. In any case to contact me please replace the X with a U.

  5. Dan says:

    Similar to Bill’s post, with the further description that I keep separate Task folders in Outlook (right now I just have Work and Personal but have had greater granularity in the past), and when I create a new task I drag the email item to the body of the task item, which removes it from my inbox. At the start of each day I then print out my Task lists and prioritize them for that day and sometimes hand-write new ones that come up, which then get transcribed to Outlook at the end of the day.

    Its a decent system, but unfortunately I don’t always follow it every day…

  6. Another vote for Getting Things Done — Atkins for your to-do list.

  7. 10?


    I’m trying to keep it under 100 and it’s really, really hard.

  8. MikeM says:

    “does anyone have a better way?”

    The best 3 days I have had in weeks were days I did not turn the computer on. One day I took the kids to the Aquarium in Monterey and the other two I headed up into the Sierra foothills to look at land for sale.

  9. Susan Mernit says:

    Yes,I struggle with how to file active items in email–and get uneasy after about 40.
    My clumsy solution is to save the emails as text files in a take action folder, just to get them out of the mail queue.

  10. Abel G says:

    I find very usefull to label emails with colors and have logical views for every label, as thunderbird or opera mail does.

  11. David Evans says:

    GTD has a great PDF of the optimum workflow that I pasted to my wall. 50 items in inbox max. As an aside there is no good task manager for OSX so I fired up MovableType 3.11 and created categories and sub categories in a ToDo blog. Now I just have to tweak the templates to keep “hot” items at the top and a few new fields for “status”, links to external files, etc. Perhaps someone will write a killer plug-in to improve upon this idea.

  12. YinYanger says:

    Just use Opera for Mac and you can use its custom filters + labels!! You can put a single e-mail into several custom filters (for projects) and use the label (category) to set its status 😉