Picture of Michael Lee

3 email rules to manage email

Written on June 6, 2021

With work email, I’ve worked to create a system to keep my inbox manageable and prevent it from becoming overwhelming.

The system comes down to three rules to manage my work email.

Email only when you decide it appropriate

This is a rule that I learned from using the app Tempo.

When setting up Tempo, it asks you to set up a time when you’d like to review your email.

This is a good ritual as you designate when you will interact with your email, instead of your email taking up precious mental energy and time.

A good way to enforce this is to set time blocks on your calendar.

I have one short block in the morning. This is to check that there isn’t anything urgent that my team needs from me that day.

I also have one time after lunch and then a time before my end of day routine.

After lunch is a good time as I’m trying to get back into the swing of work mode.

30 minutes before my end of day routine is good because, I’ve usually expended my energy for the day and I can spend the time sifting through email and putting them into place where I can deal with them appropriately the next day.

Delete, todo or reply

During my designated email blocks, I’m doing one of three things. I’m either deleting the email because I don’t need to do anything with it. This could be updates from our task manager or emails from services that I don’t need to take any actions on.

If the email is something I need to take action on and it takes longer than two minutes to respond to, then I will add a label of todo and archive the email.

What this does is puts the email in a different part of the screen.

Finally, if the email that I’m reviewing is something I can respond to and take action on and it takes less than two minutes of my time. Then I will reply to it.

If I’m expecting a response back, I’ll add a label of awaiting reply, otherwise, I will archive the email thread altogether.

Capture todos outside of the inbox

Finally, once I’ve gone through the review process, I’ll review my emails that I’ve labelled as todos and will move them to my task manager.

What this allows me to do is move my actual todos to a task management software called Jira. I rather handle work that needs to be worked on outside of email because there’s more visibility for the team that I work with.

Also, I’m able to build context around the task. Using things like comments, linked docs and other todos.

I find that more powerful instead of trying to do work in my email in deep threaded conversations.

How I manage my work email

Using these three rules is how I’m able to keep my work email managed as an IT manager.

It isn’t perfect, but it’s a system that works for me.

There was a time when email would cause me anxiety and got to a point where I was extremely behind in my email thus my work obligations.

By coming up these rules, I’m able to breeze through email and manage it instead of email managing me.

Dangerous, but not scary

Written on May 30, 2021

There are plenty of things that are scary but aren’t dangerous. And there are things that are dangerous but not scary. And those are the things that get you.

I’ve been reading Guy Raz’s book, How I Built This and this quote from Jim Koch, the founder of Boston Beer Company really stuck out to me.

Jim was describing the difference between him staying in his well-paid job prior to finding the Boston Beer Company versus creating a new craft beer and bringing it to the world through Boston Beer Company.

Jim Koch, then goes on to share a climbing analogy from his time as an instructor for Outward Bound—an organization that provides outdoor education to youth and adults—to really drive the point home.

One of the things we taught people to do was rappel off a cliff. It is a very scary thing to do, but you are also held by a belay rope, and that rope would hold a car. So walking off the cliff backwards is scary, but it’s not dangerous. Walking across a thirty-five-degree-angle snowfield on a beautiful late May afternoon with bright blue sky, on the other hand, is not scary at all, but it is very dangerous, because the snow is melting, eventually it is going to find a layer of ice, the water will lubricate that ice, and then you have an avalanche. That is dangerous but not scary.

When I read this and reflected on things that I take caution in, I realized, that I wasn’t discerning between dangerous versus scary. There definitely is a distinction and I think when you are able to clearly see the difference, then you can make the decision to move forward.

I think, often times, I see a situation and the fear for what lies ahead causes anxiety. But being able to stop and ask, “well is it scary?” or “is it dangerous?” is a very empowering reflection.

A lot of things might seem scary, but ultimately they won’t cause harm. While those things that are dangerous but isn’t scary, are the true things to avoid in life or get away from as quickly as possible.

Remembering who you are

Written on May 22, 2021

My son and I enjoy playing chess together. He’s 7-years old and has surprised me quite a few times with the strategies he has pulled off in our games.

In our most recent game, he had managed to corner my king into the corner of a board.

The king by itself isn’t that powerful. It doesn’t have any neat moves like the rook or bishop. The queen is definitely the cooler of the chess pieces; as it can move in all directions until it meets a friend or foe. While the king can only move a single space in all directions.

The piece that he was using to pursue my king was his queen. He kept pressuring me to move my king closer and closer to the corner of a board as with every move it was met with “check”—a sign that if I made a mistake in my next move, the game will be over for me.

The moment I almost threw in the towel

Eventually his queen and my king were side-by-side with me in the extreme corner of the board. Frantically realizing that I had nowhere else to run with my king, I was about to call it a game and congratulate him on a job well done.

But my son stopped me and pointed out that there was still one move that I could make and that we could keep playing our game. He reminded me that it was my turn and that as the king, I can overtake his queen because the piece was in an adjacent spot.

At that point it had dawned on me that I had forgotten my abilities as the king. I was so fixated on the problem at hand—the active pursuit—and my need to runaway to survive. I, in my mind had kept telling myself how weak of a piece the king is. But my son reminding me that I can overtake his queen piece was a reminder that although the queen is definitely a very cool and powerful chess piece, the king was capable of overtaking the piece.

This wasn’t just a lesson in a game of chess, but it was definitely a life lesson for me. There are many identities that I carry that make up who I am. One of husband, father and colleague to my coworkers.

And at times I fixate on the pressures and problems of life and career that I forget who I actually am and what I am capable of. It is easy in the thick of a situation to allow the dialogues of inadequacies or imposter syndrome to drown out your identity.

But it is in those moments when my family and my peers remind me of who I am and what I am capable of that I can snap back into saying, “I can handle this”. That the challenges I’m facing at this moment, I have all that I need to face them.

And those reminders don’t have to be profound.

They can be as simple as being called “daddy” from my children or a colleague asking for my opinion because I was hired for my expertise.

Perhaps if you’re reading this, you might be in a different life stage or circumstance than me. And the type of people I’ve described that remind me of who I am don’t exist in your life.

You can still be reminded of who you are—by yourself. If you’re in a place where you feel inadequate about who you are or what you’re able to do. One-by-one list out the things you’re faced with.

Once you’ve listed them out, take a moment to go through each point. At each point, pause and flip the script. For example, if you don’t feel adequate as a leader, tell yourself that you are a leader. And try to think about a time where you really showed leadership and others also acknowledged you for leadership.

Or one I struggle with often is being organized. I often find myself feeling unorganized and disoriented. But then I pause and tell myself I am organized. And in that moment, even if it is a small example, remind myself of a time when I felt organized.

You might be surprised what comes out of this when you’ve flipped the script on some of the things you believe you aren’t capable of doing.

Once my son reminded me that I could take over his chess piece—his queen, I thanked him and proceeded to do so.

He then toyed with me for a few more moves before he had me at checkmate.

Although I lost the game, he reminded me of how capable the king was.

Purposefully boring, but fun tech

Written on May 16, 2021

I’ve been quietly working on an app as a personal project for a few months now.

I’m not ready to share about it publicly yet.

But what I did want to share today was the tech stack behind it.

By today’s software trends, someone might look at my stack and think wow that’s extremely boring. But I’m quite happy with it.

Snapshot of project files on Github

The stack I chose consists of Hapi, Handlebars, Sass, SQLite3 and plain old JavaScript on the front-end.

All this is deployed on AWS’ Lightsail by way of dragging and dropping a bunch of files via SFTP.

One might ask, “But Michael why?! Don’t you know, you can use [insert list of trending tech stack and services]”.

Yup, I know.

I’ve professionally built applications using Ember, Vue on the front-end.

I’ve professionally built applications using Ruby on Rails.

I’ve deployed applications into the cloud using Heroku and Elastic Beanstalk.

Yes, I could’ve chosen any of these tools from my developer tool belt.

But I decided to choose this stack because I enjoy it and I wanted to learn as much of the benefits that a lot of the frameworks provide by doing it myself.

For example Ruby on Rails has a nice authentication solution called Devise. It has a sweet helper that allows you to identify the current user.

I had to roll my own solution. It ate a couple of nights development, but what I gained from the experience was understanding how pre options in Hapi work for performing actions before the main handler is called when accessing a route.

That and with the combined feeling of accomplishment once I achieved this feat was worth it for me.

As for the server for itself, I chose to use Lightsail because it is cheap, they’ve got a nice starting point for Node applications and I’m familiar with it.

What Lightsail gives is a light-touch server setup so I can have my app up and running quickly. Being able to SSH and SFTP into the server also affords me the ability to make backups of the SQLite3 database and compile static assets.

I could’ve hosted the application on something like Heroku, but the app would’ve had to have a different RDBMS like PostgresQL instead of SQLite3. I could’ve gone with Render as well, as their set up is actually a lot easier to get up and running. But because of the SQLite3 database, I would’ve had to set up a disk to hold the database and figured out how to get the two working together.

With Lightsail, I have complete control over all the pieces and I know how to make them work together because the set up is most similar to my local development set up. While Heroku and Render definitely makes the deployment process and management seamless, honestly getting it up and running and set up the way I wanted it was just a blackbox and I’d rather spend time developing instead of figuring out magic.

Some might read this article and the pieces of the stack described in it as extremely boring since it isn’t describing the latest and greatest web development has to offer these days. But I’m extremely satisfied because it allows me to build what I want, easy to maintain and is fun to develop with.

Your stack may be different from what I’ve described in this article. Perhaps it is also different from what trends or the developer community at large says we should all be using. What I hope you’ll find in this article is the encouragement to simply use what you’ve got that makes you productive and happy.

In the end, as a software developer, our main goal should be to create something that delights the people who use our software. As long as our software does that, people will not care what we choose to accomplish that goal. And as an added benefit, if the stack we choose also makes us happy while creating software, I think it’s a win-win situation.

Running a software business like a local restaurant

Written on May 9, 2021

I recently ran across Wildbit’s video celebrating 20-years of business on their website. Wildbit’s business is inspiring, especially as a software company.

You might know Wildbit as the makers of Postmark. If you don’t know who they are, check out their anniversary video as it is inspiring.

For me the video was inspiring in two ways:

  1. The first was when the CEO, Natalie at 3:12 shares what the future of Wildbit holds—that it might be more than just software.

  2. There’s a clip of Peldi Guilizzoni, founder + CEO of Balsamiq at 8:34 describing running a software business like a restaurant down the street.

Future of Wildbit

I love Natalie + Chris Nagele’s vision for the future of Wildbit and what it might hold. That it isn’t just a software company, but it’s a company made of creative folks, that builds things with many raving customers.

Instead of being beholden to what a software company “looks” like, they are imagining and planning for a future where they can build and do things outside of software.

I for one am interested in what that’ll look like and what they’ll produce from these plans.

Business like a local restaurant

I really enjoyed Peldi Guilizzoni’s description of what running a software business looks like for him.

Yes, we make software, but we run our business, the same way the restaurant down the street runs their business.

Take a moment and imagine going to your favorite local restaurant near where you live. Why do you keep going back?

Obviously the food is yummy, but it is also likely the restaurant provides you with a positive experience.

While you’re there they provide you service with a smile, patiently answer all your menu questions and bring you drink refills without you asking.

If they’re really good, they might even know you by name.

That’s the type of experience you get with a small business. And I think that’s what Guilizzoni is describing in his portion of the video of how he runs a business.

A business that cares for its patrons and survives by providing a service in exchange for a fair fee.

I wonder what would happen if more tech companies took this approach? One that’s focused on people-first instead of profit-at-all costs.

Simple email forwarding with Forward Email

Written on May 2, 2021

One of the drawbacks of having a bunch of domains for side projects is that it takes a lot of effort to set up email for them.

You might want to set up an email with your custom domains if you want to send out a newsletter coming from the domain.

The two options that I’ve used are, either setting up an actual inbox with a service like Fastmail or using AWS, or more specifically SES to set up the ability to receive email on a custom domain.

Both of these options have their drawbacks.

With Fastmail, you’re paying for and managing an additional inbox.

With AWS SES, it is a lot of technical overhead and it isn’t the cleanest solution.

Simple and clean email forwarding

I recently found a service called Forward Email and it solves both of the drawbacks mentioned above.

It is simple, you don’t have to manage a separate inbox and the solution is clean.

The process for getting emails forward to a custom domain takes updating three records with your DNS—two MX records and a TXT record.

Once the DNS resolves, any emails sent to your custom domain will be forwarded to an email of choice.

So let’s say I have a custom domain at pizzafriendsunited.com and my personal email is hi@michaelsoolee.com. By using Forward Email, when folks send emails to anything @pizzafriendsunited.com, it’ll automatically forward them to hi@michaelsoolee.com.

If you wanted to, you could additionally send emails from the custom domain simply by adding an additional TXT record in your DNS.

Super handy tool for projects

Next time you come up with a new project idea and you nab a new domain, check out Forward Email. It provides a simple and clean solution for handling emails without the need for managing a separate inbox.