I started using it over 30 years ago in 1985, and while it's all relative, we can safely say that email is a relatively recent intervention into our lives, and one that can consume enormous amounts of our precious time and attention.
If we start by looking at the stats, the value of the tips I'm going to offer you here, should reveal their appropriate importance.
- CANADA: According to Carleton University researchers, people now spend one-third of their time at the office – and half of the time they work at home – reading and answering emails. And 30 per cent of that time, the emails are neither urgent nor important. That’s 11.7 hours spent at work and 5.3 hours at home — every week
- USA: Workers spend 6.3 Hours a day checking email, and millennials are so addicted to emails that half can’t even use the bathroom without checking them.
What's sad is that these articles offer no practical solutions, or even explore why we are so addicted to this one, very blunt tool.
So why do we keep going back to email?
- We love those easy, small wins - Managing our email gives us that empowering feeling of accomplishment.
- Getting important email soothes our ego - Being asked for our opinion or our effort validates our role and how we're spending our time. This makes it doubly hard to ignore the incoming email — by human nature, we crave that validation.
- Operant conditioning - A well-known psychology concept, defined as a type of learning that molds your behavior by training you to expect specific consequences after specific actions.
So here are some approaches that, if applied should help you put email in its rightful place.
7 STEPS TO TAKING CONTROL OF YOUR INBOX
- Not all mail is created equal, and people and businesses are always seeking our attention. Anyone can send you an email once they have your address, so . . .
- Make people who send you email do more work. The notion that all messages, regardless of purpose or sender, arrive in the same undifferentiated inbox, and that there’s an expectation that every message deserves a (timely) response, is absurdly unproductive.
- Do more work when you send or reply to emails. Pause a moment before replying and take the time to answer: What is the project represented by this message, and what is the most efficient (in terms of messages generated) process for bringing this project to a successful conclusion?
- Don’t respond. As the author Tim Ferriss once wrote: “Develop the habit of letting small bad things happen. If you don’t, you’ll never find time for the life-changing big things.
Empty your inbox!
- You'll be amazed how much better you feel with an empty inbox, but it will require a system of reminders and reviews is in place, along the lines of a GTD system.
- The visible (and often audible) responses to seeing an empty inbox says a lot about the relief one can feel when there are no more emails subtly, or not so subtly, calling for your attention.
- So can you deal with it in 2 mins or less? Then do it. You’ll spend more time organising and filing, and dealing with it later.
- Snooze It. Many software programs let you Snooze an email (archive it temporarily and have it return into your inbox at a set date and time).
- It’s going to take more than 2-mins, and now is not the time
- When waiting for a reply
- When you need to be sure something has been actioned
- When you want to review it at some time in the future
- Delegate it: If you have a team and can delegate it - move it on, with an appropriate "Waiting On, or Snooze to follow up.
- Someday / Maybe: Label it or file it into someday/maybe, that you review on a pre-defined schedule.
Sorting the wheat from the chaff
- There are some emails that don't deserve any of your attention, and these should be removed from your inbox rapidly, or automatically (filters such as those in Gmail can do this for you) .
- If the email is a newsletter you once signed up for and no longer need (or maybe you got on the list of inadvertently), be sure to take a moment and unsubscribe.
- Some communications that come unsolicited and don’t promise to bring you much value can be dismissed. However, if doing so runs the risk of creating a detractor who got annoyed because you didn’t answer their email, then have some automatic responses ready.
- I have these loaded in TextExpander, which lets me get a personalised email off in just a few seconds. It requires crafting some thoughtful language - but only once.
Inbox is a collection place, not a task list
- Your email inbox is not an appropriate tool for a task list, but so many of us use it that way. There are even tools being created which encourage this approach. Here's why I don't think this is an appropriate use of an email inbox:
- The subject line does not clearly communicate the next action.
- There’s no easy way to organise the list, by project or priority.
- Other people can add items - just by sending you an email!
- There are plenty of project and task management tools that do a far better job of ensuring you’re focussed on the right things at any given time, and if you’re part of a team, find one that facilitates collaboration. Such as:
- Asana | Things | Wunderlist* | Evernote | Workflowy * just been bought by Microsoft and likely to be replaced
- Organising travel arrangements, can be done simply, by running your email through a gmail/inbox account
- There are other tools too like www.tripit.com
- Who has more than one email address?
- Inbox when ready (below)
TIP: Get all email to land in one inbox, with replies to be sent from the email address the mail was sent to.
Limit and schedule visits to your inbox
- Turn off notifications on your phone.
- Try quitting your email programme or closing that tab in your browser, except for allotted times of the day. Take a moment to think about this. How many times a day do you 'check email' or are you one of those people who gets a 'ding' when a new email lands in your inbox, and that takes you there?
- If you 'check' email more than is justified (based on the return on investment of time), consider an incremental approach to weaning yourself of it.
- Set a maximum number of 'checks' each day and set times for these.
Filing / Tagging / Organising
- Go deeper, not wider
- 7 levels at the top level, then 7 levels below that, and 7 below them
- This will give you more than 300 'lists' in three clicks maximum, while being able to see all lists at each level and know exactly where you need to go to find or file something.
- There's a logic to this, and it has to do with the rule of 7 +- 2
- The constraint of having only 7 items in each of the first three levels of your filing or list hierarchy will force you to think about the categories which make sense. This is an effort, and one that will take time - but if you force yourself to take the time the reward will be quickly felt.
- You may choose to not label or file your email, and in some email software that's fine too, because some email services have a strong search function, that can search through all mail in a second or two.
- If you know the other party's name, some keywords from the communication or the rough time frame it was sent or received, you can (in general) find it easily.
- That said there are a few things worth tagging, labelling or filing into folders.
- Followups - I do this with the Snooze function, setting a time when it would be reasonable to have expected a response.
Inbox When Ready
Hide your inbox by default Search your archives and compose new messages, or adjust a draft message, all without getting distracted. See your inbox only when you deliberately choose to.
Set an inbox budget Decide how many times you want to check your inbox and how much total time you want to spend on it. Then, get visual feedback on how you're doing versus your intention.
Schedule your inbox lockout Define an inbox lockout schedule so you can focus on deep work and then batch process your mail at optimal moments.
Here's a how to use it article.
Want to jump in and install - https://inboxwhenready.org