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Matt Griffin on How We Work

My Life with Email

· Published in Business, Workflow & Tools · 17 Comments

I’d like to take a moment to address something decidedly unsexy. We all do it. And it’s never pretty. You guessed it: I’m talking about email.

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No, I don’t mean responsive design approaches for email newsletter templates. Nope. Not even that much fun. I’m talking about reading and responding to that everyday, humdrum, never-ending stream of communication that flows through the inscrutable ether to your very own inbox.

Staying in control of your life with email is a challenge (look no further than your friends’ triumphant cries of “inbox zero!”). When you run your own business, as I do, there is every motivation to always stay on top of these messages. It is, after all, your thing. You own it. Shouldn’t you be addressing every issue as it crops up, and responding with lightning speed?

This lifestyle really caught up with me a year or so ago. It was affecting my sleep and productivity, and saddling me with all kinds of extra cognitive overhead. It was no fun at all. Over the course of several months, I worked at establishing rules and procedures for email that helped me regain my sanity and improve the quality of my workdays (not to mention my weekends). In no particular order, here they are:

We don’t need no stinking badges

One of the first and most obvious things I did was turn off notifications and badges for email. Turning on email notifications is like asking to be interrupted by anyone at any time, no matter what you’re doing. If you must have notifications, consider adding essential people to a VIP list, and hiding all other notifications. Ask yourself, “who would I need to drop everything for, no matter how important my task is at that moment?”

Filters, filters, filters

OMG, filters, guys! Filters that route the endless stream of notifications (for instance Basecamp updates, or emails from your ticketing system) are great. They keep things organized neatly so that you can address like emails all at once. Since these sorts of emails will often be project-specific—this also makes it easier to remember to track your time while you’re doing it (hint, hint).

More apps!

On the weekend, I really don’t want to accidentally open a troublesome work email. To keep a clear distinction between my personal and work emails, I started using a separate app for personal email. Personally, I’m quite happy with Mailbox, but I also know some smart folks who like Boxer. I’m sure there are plenty of other great ones, too (reader comments, activate!).

Say when

Just like the ticket queue of tasks, you’re never really finished answering emails. To help me focus on my home life when I’m not at work, I use a timed “do not disturb” setting in iOS to make sure that I get no notifications of anything between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m.

Save your brainpower

I find that my mind is sharpest and I do my best work in the morning, and yet I used to start each work day with email—a task that arguably requires the least of my creativity and mental acuity. So now I set aside the first hour of my day for something challenging. I often write these columns during that time slot. Or tackle a particularly gnarly IA or design problem. But email? Email can wait till 10 a.m.

It’s all in the timing

And when you’ve finished that batch of email responses and are ready to return to your work? Close that email client, friend! Don’t open it back up until you’re ready to dedicate your attention to it again. Otherwise, it’s just a distraction. I find it useful to set times for checking my email throughout the day, for instance 10 a.m., 1:30 p.m., and 4 p.m.

Inaction leads to rumination

Ever check your email while you only have a few seconds or minutes to spare? You get some troublesome message, but don’t really have time to read through it carefully or respond. Then you spend the next few hours with that static buzzing around your brain, distracting from whatever it is you’re working on. I now have a simple rule: if I don’t have time to sit down and directly address whatever messages may be waiting for me, I don’t check my email. Making reading and responding to email a dedicated task keeps you out of that vague cognitive limbo, and can reduce the anxiety of opening the inbox.

Expectations for the medium

Remember: email is asynchronous communication. By its nature, it encourages a lag in response, and everyone expects that. If there’s a real emergency, someone will doubtless pick up a phone. Email can wait a few hours, even a day. The world won’t explode, and you won’t get fired. Give those messages their proper place in the hierarchy of your day.

And on and on

There are doubtless many other ways to keep the great beast email under control. These are the ones that have helped me hold on to my sanity and reduce email-induced anxiety. These little strategies make me happier and more productive every day.

How about you? What are your email troubles? What have you tried that’s worked? Get in those comments, people, and share what you’ve learned. Something tells me we could all use a little help in this department.

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