Inbox Zero

How to Spot Those ‘More Than 2 Minute Emails’ Before You Open Them?

Spot 2 minutes emails
wrote this on March 13, 2014
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Have you ever paused to ask yourself how one identifies the amount of time it takes to process an email before opening it i.e. via title alone?

When we survey our email list, most of us would like to have some kind of estimation on how much time it’s going to take to process them. In order to do just that, I created a list that contains the types of emails we receive and what we can expect in terms of processing time, e.g., more than 2 minute email.

Why 2 minutes? According to the GTD methodology (Getting Things Done the art of stress free productivity, a book and method created by David Allen), if something takes you less than 2 minutes, you can do it immediately, if it takes you more than 2 minutes, you’ll process it into one of your lists…Actions, Projects, Someday, etc.

Our purpose is to try and explore various assumptions and rules of thumb about our behavior when we process emails.  These can be extremely helpful, since in my experience, the more you can automate processes, the less mental resources you need to apply.  In particular, you can help eliminate our constant inner debate: should I do it now or later?  As an added bonus, the result will leave enough unscathed mind power for the tasks that really matter.

Of course, every rule has an exception; however, by making a few assumptions, I’ve been able to streamline by email processing substantially.

A faster way to review 2 minute emails

Let’s begin, shall we?  (Note – rules below relate to processing email while in a work environment.)

1# Personal emails

Personal emails that land in your work email are out of context emails (by context I mean non-work related).  As such, they will take you more than 2 minutes because they take you out of your “work” zone.  Mentally speaking, going in and out of focus will often take more than 2 minutes.  Treat them just a like an interruption and manage them accordingly.

2# FYI/Memo emails

“FYI emails” are as a general rule of thumb less than 2 minutes emails because most of the time they don’t require any action from your part.  You can probably understand quickly what to do with them and process them into your reference folder.

3# Emails that open conversations/debates

It goes without saying that this kind of email is more than 2 minutes email. It’s quite tricky to identify these emails before you open them.  There’s no one rule that can tell you if this is a conversation/debate email or not. However, since we can identify from whom we received this email and most of us have a clear recollection of the past, we can assume what the email is going to be about via sender alone :-)

4# Promotional emails

Promotional emails are emails sent to you from websites that promote a product, an event or information via newsletters. This type of email splits into two categories, those promotional emails you’re interested in and those you’re not.

Those you’re interested in will definitely take you more than 2 minutes since they’re again taking you out of your in-context workflow. Those you’re not interested in will take you, of course, less than 2 minutes and should be removed from your inbox altogether.

5# Invitation emails

Invite emails are an action email.  The sort of email that requires from you a single action: accept, decline. Since the associated action is pretty straight forward, all invite emails are considered less than 2 minutes emails. There may be follow-up actions, e.g., buy gift, pick up dry cleaning, etc., but you can and should at least accept/decline.

6# Social emails

Social emails are emails about notification and messages you receive from social network you’re subscribed to, e.g., Facebook, Twitter, etc.  As a rule, I recommend removing all social notifications from your email.  However, if you insist, they’re considered more than 2 minutes since they take you out of the work email workflow.

7# Waiting for emails

Waiting for emails are reminder emails sent to you from someone who’s waiting for an action you need to perform.  This type of email is, of course, a less than 2 minutes email because it often requires a quick status update, e.g., I’ll have it later afternoon.

8# Returning emails


This kind of returning email is either an email that confirms something you’ve written or is trying to clarify something you’ve asked or said. This was a toss-up, since it’s usually 50/50 whether you to need continue this email chain to “discuss” and “debate” a certain point.  I usually flag these as more than 2 minutes.  PS – sometimes, I can tell based on the sender, the issue, and past experience if I should flag it as under 2 minutes.


This is an easy one.  The long RE: RE: RE: emails are without a doubt a more than 2 minutes email. Those emails are by far the most time consuming emails you’ll ever encounter, why? My rule is never to respond, but rather get on a call; and a call almost always take more than 2 minutes.


Forward emails are emails someone else identified as relevant to you, since some else already gave those emails a review and decided that you should handle them I would go and classify FW: emails as more than 2 minutes emails.

FWD:  Mass emails

I don’t know about you, but I never read mass emails which classifies them as trash immediately i.e. less than 2 minutes.

If I’m missing any email types you’re more than welcome to leave them in the comment with your opinion on how they should be classified.

Until next time!

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