My Life with Email

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#section2

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#section3

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!#section4

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#section5

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#section6

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#section7

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#section8

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#section9

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#section10

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.

17 Reader Comments

  1. Thanks for the healthy perspective and good tips, Matt. I use the Pomodoro Technique (a time-block based time management system) and try to keep my email program closed when I’m in a 25-minute working time block. I plan separate time blocks for answering email.

    Your most helpful tip for me was to resist temptation to just quickly check email when you don’t actually have time or headspace to address any possible issues right then. Will try to keep that in mind!

  2. Great article Matt!

    I was JUST having this conversation with a group of people over the weekend. One thing I do, which seems to have put the group into shock, is that I DO NOT use my iPhone to respond to emails. Yes, i’ll check it occasionally on my phone, but I don’t use it to respond. This helps me keep it cordoned off to my physical work space and mentally puts me in a place where I don’t feel like I need to respond to everyone asap.

  3. Sean,

    Honesty is the best policy for me, as long as it’s delivered in a friendly way. Just let them know your schedule for checking email, and that you do that to keep yourself productive and efficient with the work you do each day (like their project!). Switching costs are expensive, after all, and you want to save their project the extra cost and time.

    Then ask them if this is a particularly urgent matter that requires you dropping what you’re working on right now. Usually the answer is no. 🙂

    If everything from this client becomes a “phone call urgent” matter, then it may be time to have a talk, and see if they can recalibrate their sense of urgency. If that doesn’t work, there are always more clients in the sea!


  4. Great column! I like how applicable everything is. One thing I’d add is how helpful it is to have a no-tolerance unsubscribe trigger. Constantly, constantly unsubscribe from things. One trap I fall into sometimes is creating a filter for certain kinds of messages but over time realizing that they get filtered and then I *never, ever read them.* Unsubscribe! In the same way I try to read *and* respond to emails as a single task, I try to immediately unsubscribe to things that aren’t of high value in the immediate term. A big part of my email strategy is around reducing overall volume where possible. Unsubscribe is one tactic, as is getting on daily-digest notifications (instead of granular emails) for services I do have to stay involved with.

  5. Wasim,

    I like the idea of sending an auto reply message as that “May” inform the sender that you do care about their message and will get to it. The problems rises if the recipient takes your auto reply message in the wrong way and determines that you don’t care for their needs.

    I attempt to tell co-workers, management, and clients that I schedule when I look at email so that I can dedicate my time to meeting their needs as quickly as possible. That if I answer email or instant messages as they come in that means that I have to stop their or another person’s work, answer their question, then attempt to get back to the place in the process where I was before answering their question. Interruptions make everything take longer, introduce bugs, and if I schedule the time I answer their questions, I can work more effectively and they’ll have a better product delivered more quickly.

    I turn off notifications and only use instant messaging like a phone (I one time worked for a startup where the employees did not have business phones) or when talking to that specific person.

    Every time management or productivity methodology that I’ve read tells you to schedule when you read email, turn off email notifications, and turn off instant messaging. So far, I like GTD best because it allows you to take things that would normally be in your mind and put them in a trusted source in an accessible way. When your mind is clear you can focus on the task at hand and be more productive.

    Unfortunately there are still managers out there who believe that you should drop everything and answer their email or instant message right away, no matter the priority or urgency of their request.

    You do have to be flexible depending on the culture of where you work. I was at one startup where strange as it seems, the CEO of the company did not want anyone talking. He believed that even if you were collaborating on a project with a co-worker, if you were talking you weren’t working. We were all in a large room so if you talked you also interrupted others. So we used instant messaging instead of talking when collaborating on a project. The CEO didn’t understand that allowing employees to collaborate together would make them more productive and create a better product.

    Schedule when you answer email, turn off email notifications and instant messaging and you will be more productive.

  6. Nice article, thanks.

    I actually have some fun dealing with the email flow, trying to make it simpler. Personally I have no mission of emptying my inbox. It would mean for me that the email had swallowed my whole life – not only my email life.

    I use from Apple. But I add to it SpamSieve and two other additions, MailTags and Mail Act-On. I use Mail Act-On only to give important mails a yellow background and a flag. Finished business is colored back to white and flag dismissed. The only reason I have MailTags is to be able to access that coloring feature inside MAO.

    I have to deal with about 2500 mails a month. Important mails are marked with that bright yellow color and are dealt with as soon as possible. There is no way I could get away with only checking mail five times a day (ad agency, you see).

    At the beginning of each month I move all last months mail to an archive folder on my desktop computer. But they are not 2500 anymore. And they don’t have any attachments either.

    To clean my mail sometimes I use the Smart Mailboxes.
    I have Smart Mailboxes like:
    @ Promo, mail lists I subscribe to about various stuff
    @ Social, information and notices about Facebook, Linkedin, Twitter etc.
    @ travel @ Food and few more and then there is
    @ trash, which is selecting the content of all the other Smart Mailboxes. I use it to trash every now, everything but the yellow ones.
    Finally I have one @ attachments which I use to strip off all heavy attachments.

    I have had the same mail address since 1994 and archived mail is only just over 5GB in whole.

  7. omg, thank you for this article! I sometimes feel like email and social media is taking over my life. Have you seen the tedtalk about leaving the internet for a year?

  8. I recently started using SaneBox. You train it to help determine what is most important and what should stay in your inbox. Everything else gets moved to a sanelater folder that you can go through later when you have time. They have tons of other features besides this but it’s the main one that I use.

    Another one I use sometimes is forwarding the email to (or any other day/time) so the email can be deleted and put out of your mind until Monday (or whenever you need to be reminded of it again).

    I hope that’s of use to someone reading this. It’s been huge for me.

  9. Regarding the clients,

    Sylpheed or Claw’s Mail, depending on which you prefer, are great for managing many and huge IMAP inboxes.

    For style I’m recently giving Geary (currently at 0.6.0) a spin, though it still needs many adjustments for the future.

  10. Great article. I use Outlook to manage all my multiple email accounts and it works great for me. Never use smartphones to check it on the go as you will undoubtedly get caught in a reactionary mode of working — and definitely schedule blocks of time to ‘process’ email. It’s no longer a huge part of my day. Often, it’s a matter of training clients, etc. how you work with email and when you respond.

  11. “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?”

    I run business with two other partners. Our clients are from different parts of the world which means we may receive email from any one at any time time in 24 hours. And it’s really a curiosity always to keep checking emails using laptop at office and smartphone at home. It’s simply crazy. But for us it’s also important to be on top and regularly check our emails as it is an important medium for our business. Any thing valuable or urgent is dropped first in email to us and our quick response helps us as Clients usually like to get acknowledgement from us that their email is attended. It may be about new business, an urgent support request or update about an ongoing project. At least keeping a constant eye on it and responding quickly definitely helps. If I am out in meetings or not in the office and I receive an important urgent message, I can at least reply back using smart phones that I will be back in about an hour or so and will respond you back. From my opinion it depends on the nature of your business also that you can avoid checking emails for certain amount of time.

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