Email is a technological abomination foist upon us by corporate overlords. It's a todo list created for you by other people. It's how you allow strangers to organise your time, disrupt your flow and invade your space. I wish I could tell you that I've eliminated it completely, but that's not true. I do feel like I've killed it, however, by reducing it to a tiny blip in my day. Here's how.
Batch and commit
I have a finite set of hours in this lush paradise we call reality, and I'll be damned if I'm going to spend it answering emails from people who want me to do stuff. So I don't. I look at my email once every day - usually after my most productive hours in the morning - and I don't spend more than fifteen minutes on it unless there is something that needs serious attention, which there seldom ever is. Email is asynchronous and anyone expecting an immediate response from it is doing it wrong. Need an answer urgently? Text me, or call. Otherwise expect to wait at least a day, probably longer. That said, I do commit to hitting Inbox Zero after every 15 minute session. Details lower down.
I have eleven - yes, I just counted - email addresses that are used for different things, from promoting some of the talks I do to having a special address for the ton of PR-related email I receive every day. No matter which of my addresses receive, all messages go to the same place. One, single inbox with automated labels. More about that later.
I use the magic of Gmail to send and receive all my email with one account, and you can do the same using Gmail's 'Send mail as' setting.
Fight fire with fire
The best thing I've ever done with my email is ignore it, for the most part. The second best thing was moving to Inbox by Gmail for all my email. This is awesome for a few reasons I'll go into in more depth below. In a nutshell: Inbox uses some machine learning and great UX design to be the precision blade with which to efficiently shred your email demon. You can swipe email away and mark it as done, or swipe the other way to make a message come back later, like at a particular date when it may be relevant. While I prefer to deal with things immediately if I can, deferring can be useful for stuff like utility bills that I don't need to pay yet. One swipe and I can make them go away until the due date.
Inbox by Gmail also lives in my browser or as an app on my phone. This is important, because it means I can shut it down and make it go away when I'm done with it. No notifications, beeps, bleeps and other distractions every time someone wants to sell me something. If you can't or won't use Inbox, I can highly recommend at very least disabling notifications for your email.
Let artifical intelligence do the work
Part of why I love Inbox is the smart machine learning Google has developed for automatically organising email. All my flight receipts, hotel bookings and other travel-related messages are elegantly tucked away under 'Trips' and sorted together by the trip they refer to. Genius. There are other default labels for things like 'Purchases' where all my online orders, invoices and related messages go. You can also create your own labels as I have for the pointless forums I belong to and never engage with, but don't unjoin lest I upset someone.
My favourite of these is the 'Low Priority' folder which, with a bit of training, has become a nice catchment area for all the email I can safely ignore and only go through if I really have nothing better to do. Another hack is to create a rule that puts all email containing the word 'Subscribe' in one label, to safely catch all the newsletters and product spam, and keep them out the way. I haven't found this necessary with Inbox. It's so smart.
When you're not in your email, you don't want to be thinking about it. I make sure that my inbox is empty before moving on. This doesn't mean I've deleted messages - in fact I keep every bit of my email which is indexed and searchable - but it does mean that messages are either marked as 'done' or set to come back later, and are visually out of the way. Again, Inbox by Gmail is a powerful tool for doing this, and once you've cleared out all your mail it presents the single most awesome screen that exists in my world:
Yup, that's what my inbox looks like a lot of the time. Gorgeous.
We have reduced the amount of email sent and received by the teams I work with up to 95% after switching to dedicated chat services instead. The poster child in this department is Slack, but I have also used Telegram, Hipchat, and even Whatsapp before we consolidated on Slack. The important thing isn't what platform you use, but rather the commitment of the team to stop deferring, start communicating, and to do so in a more effective manner. Need to know something from a colleague? Don't send a freakin email or, worse, schedule a meeting - just go over to them and ask. If they're busy, message them on Slack.
Most frustrations with technology are symptomatic, not ultimate causes. Being overwhelmed with email is a problem in the way we work. Becoming more productive means thinking about people and processes. How I operate can always be improved and the tools are secondary to the attitude.
Preemptively, here are answers to questions that might be raised after reading this:
But I work in sales / business dev / etcetera! I can't afford to ignore my email!
Yes you can. Using time to proactively engage in growing your business will always produce better results than passively prioritising email. It doesn't matter what your job is, except maybe firefighters 🤔, it would be better served by you controlling your time and output instead of allowing others to. By all means use email to converse with clients, send invoices, or whatever, but always ask yourself how much time is being spent being reactive versus getting on the front foot.
You're crazy to trust Google with all your email!
We can't be friends.
My email is safer with Google than it would be with my ISP, or on an internal server at my company. That isn't an opinion. Firstly: encryption. Secondly: Google. Thirdly: I'll take Google's staff over your IT people any day of the week.
My business won't let me use cool email tools :(
Ah, that sucks. But even if your business insists on you using Outlook, the same methodologies can be applied. Use rules to get unimportant email out of sight. Commit to spending a set amount of time in your email. Almost everything I've suggested above can be reproduced using other apps and services. Even Microsoft does this stuff well now - in fact Outlook for Android and iOS is one of the best email apps ever devised and shares some functionality with Inbox.
More questions or thoughts? Hit up the comments, yo 👇