One of the biggest problems that I commonly hear from my friends is that processing email is completely unmanageable. The most important thing to remember is that your attention is the most precious resource that you have, and you need to guard it jealously. All of the following principles flow from this fundamental insight. The following seven steps will get you most of the way towards inbox sanity.
Turn Off Email Notifications
The very first step you need to take to reclaim your valuable and limited attention is to turn off any form of email notification. If your phone vibrates, knock that off immediately. If your mail client gives you a popup or rings or displays a red badge, change the settings. If you are keeping your inbox open in another tab and see new emails coming in, close it. By having your devices constantly pushing email on you, you will be constantly tempted by email and switching between tasks repeatedly, which is a disaster for productivity.
The most common pushback I get on this point is that sometimes there are legitimately urgent messages that need to be answered. In some cases this may be true, but for the vast majority of people what is the worst case scenario? We have a different method of dealing with urgent concerns, and that is called a telephone—call or text will do. If you need to respond to emails for work, go to the people who need you urgently and explain the situation. You are very busy and constant emails are distracting you from important tasks, ask them to give you a quick call when they urgently need your attention.
Unsubscribe from Everything Immediately
By this point, it has probably become habitual to scan over your inbox and either ignore (or preferably archive) specific sources of messages — maybe this is a company that keeps emailing you about its latest deals or products, for instance, or maybe this is some noisy Facebook group that a distant acquaintance thought you would enjoy. Regardless of how quick and easy you think it is to get rid of these things, you are incurring a small penalty of time and attention again and again to even glance at the email. So from now on, you have a new habit: unsubscribe from everything the first time you no longer want to read it. This takes a little bit of upfront time — usually one or two clicks, maybe typing your email or unchecking boxes—but it saves you precious seconds every time you look at your inbox. You would be shocked how quickly you recoup that particular investment.
Some lists are worth staying on—maybe you’re on the mailing list of your favorite author because you actually want to be notified when he’s in town, or maybe you’ve signed up for an email course or some daily tips that you actually read. Maybe your favorite fanfic is constantly being updated, and being notified when the new chapter is up prevents you from obsessively refreshing your browser. Pay attention to your behavior. Once your eyes start preemptively glazing over when you see an address, you know it’s time to unsubscribe.
There is an intermediate step between emails you want to know about immediately and ones that you never want to read, and for this purpose some brilliant software engineers created filters. Any emails that you receive on a regular basis are extremely good candidates for filtering.
For some personal examples, I have a filter that sends all emails originating from Meetup to their own special folder. Any time I am wondering what is going on in town, or if I have a free evening to kill, I have a host of events available to me at the click of a button. I do something similar for mailing lists, which routinely contain interesting information that I do intend to read — at my leisure, that is.
Batch Process Email
Now that you’ve greatly reduced the number of incoming emails, you are in a much better position to deal with your inbox. You have also stopped your devices from constantly distracting you, so you’re not constantly processing emails — from here on out, processing email is a deliberate choice on your part. You will pick exactly when and where you want to deal with emails, and not a moment before. When you have an unbroken block of time — and this may even be worth explicitly scheduling — you should sit down and continue processing emails until you run out of time or are finished. (What does ”finishing” email even mean? Keep reading!)
By the way, in case this is not abundantly clear, you should always do batch processing of replies from a computer with a full keyboard. Mobile keyboards are simply not designed for rapid typing in the same way. The kind of batch processing that you can do on a mobile phone is that of reading and archiving emails — which allows you to focus immediately on responding when you get to a computer. Leave anything that requires a non-urgent response for later.
The first principle I introduced was about reducing the number of incoming emails, and now it is time to look at the other side of the equation. Writing emails takes even more time than reading them, so if anything this step is even more critical! You can follow one very simple heuristic here: shorter is better, and replies that never get written are the shortest ones of all. And that’s it!
Ironically, I didn’t learn this lesson for myself until I finally caved in and got myself a smartphone. I am the king of verbose emails, I love to write paragraph after paragraph in response to just about anything. Ask me a question and I will go on at great length. Well, I very quickly gave up on the idea of composing long emails using the smartphone’s keyboard. In fact, I learned to become as parsimonious with my words as possible, because it was so aggravating. And you know what? Nothing changed. If anything, I got faster responses from shorter emails! No one was upset I didn’t provide them with reams of information. This was so striking that I changed my email signature to say: ”Sent from my smartphone, enjoy the unusual brevity.” And I never looked back.
There is one situation where I believe that a quick reply is better than no reply, and those are the emails sitting at the bottom of your inbox the longest, the ones you have been putting off indefinitely because you really want to do them right This was one of my biggest personal challenges in dealing with my own inbox, especially given my propensity towards long emails. It still hurts me that I put off the most important emails for weeks, or months, or sometimes even forever, because I wanted to write a long reply and simply never had the time or motivation. I failed to congratulate people on major life events, or catch up with old friends, or follow up important leads, because I didn’t think I could get away with a quick response. But the truth is, a quick response to an important email is better than no response at all. Please don’t leave the most important parts of your life to ferment at the bottom of your inbox.
Your colleague sees a funny video and emails it to your group, or an old friend of yours sees an article and thinks of you. While these are kind and even important gestures, there are simply only so many hours in the day. There is already more content out there than we could consume in our entire lives, so we need to prioritize where we direct our attention. One type of email that I tend to keep around is something that seems like it could be really interesting, but never quite get around to looking at. So what is my solution? I collect all of these links and I put them in a separate file or bookmark folder. When I have a spare moment and think about it, I go back and look at them. Some of them you will probably never get around to, and that’s okay. Be realistic about how you are going to spend your time, and don’t waste any of it agonizing over whether or not to consume content.
So what is the end result of all of this advice? Quite simply, to have zero emails left in your inbox at the end of processing. This should be the default resting state of your inbox: you are either ignoring email entirely, or your inbox is empty, end of story.
The archive button is your best friend. Every time you finish reading something, archive it. Every time you send a reply, archive it. (Note that Google Labs has a ”Send and Archive” button that seriously comes in handy here.) Every time you add another link to your ”eventually” list, archive it. When you get an email about coordination or scheduling, enter it into your calendar immediate and then archive it.
After your initial quick pass over the inbox to clear out most of the items, everything remaining should be something that is awaiting either immediate reply or action. After you do what is necessary, archive it. If something is sitting in your inbox that you don’t intend to do until later, then add it to your to-do list, flag the email or send it to a special folder, and then archive it.
…and there you have it: a pristine inbox. Doesn’t that feel relaxing? Your inbox induces no cognitive load whatsoever! You are never left feeling guilty, or wondering if something slipped through the cracks, or worrying about replying to important emails. Everything is exactly where you put it, and you know just where to look to find it.