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The Best Way to Manage Email Is With Pen and Paper

If email is a to-do list someone else writes for you, might as well just write down the ones you actually need to respond to.

I am not the best at responding to emails, primarily because, like many of us, I get a lot of them. I have 331,000 unread emails in my personal Gmail inbox and 58,000 in my VICE email inbox, a number that my girlfriend recently described as “a lot of emails.”

As my dear friend Emanuel Maiberg wrote yesterday, no Gmail redesign or magic app is going to cure your—and especially not my—email woes. There is some technology that has helped me get at least a bit of handle on email: a pen and paper.

There’s a quote that’s often attributed to retired Silicon Valley VC bro Chris Sacca—“email is a task list that’s created for you by someone else.” This is more or less correct, and in a perfect world, we could all ignore all emails forever. But I need people to answer my emails to do my job and live my life, and (some) people need me to answer emails as well.

The goal is to take the tasks your email inbox has created for you and distill which ones you need to actually do. The trick—the reason I have roughly 400,000 unread emails and am still alive—is that you can ignore the vast majority of emails without dying or getting fired or whatever.

The best tool for managing this is paper and pencil, because various studies have shown that we retain more information when we write it down rather than type it, and a personal study of my own habits has shown that I can’t ever remember to use Evernote or any other digital to-do list. And so when someone asks me to do something in an email, I write it down so that I remember to do it later. When I have time to do it, I respond to their email.

It’s not a perfect system, and if I owe you an email, I am very sorry and it’s OK if you nudge me. But so far, it works better than any app or update will.