How to conquer your inbox and reclaim your life

Your inbox. Your life.

Shilpa (the wife): So, what did you do at work today?
Me: Quite busy today. You know, emailing.

A standard exchange for me at the end of a workday, till recently. And I’m sure it’s commonplace – the average professional today sends or receives over 120 emails a day. At even 2 minutes an email (assuming you don’t take breaks), that’s four hours of your workday! Vanished, lost, gone, hacking away at your keyboard fighting the insidious email monster, while the rest of the world moves on. Wait, scratch that. Everyone is hacking away at their keyboards, emailing each other.

Hacking away

But email is not really work, at least for most of us. And if something that isn’t work is taking up such a large part of your workday, guess what – you’ll have to work longer hours.

 

Over the last few months, I’ve made a number of changes that have helped me manage my inbox better (rather than the other way round). If you’re like I was before – where work equals emailing – here are 7 things you can do to reclaim your life.

1. Email only at specific times

Back in the days of snail mail, did you hang out near your mailbox and wait for the postman? Then why check your inbox all the time? People aren’t expecting you to respond 5 seconds after they email you.

So here’s a plan:

  1. Check your inbox first thing in the morning when you wake up (not good, but I know you’re going to do it, so why stop you). Decide which emails you’re going to respond to, when. If there’s work required to respond to any of it, fit it into your schedule.
  2. Don’t check again till about 11 am. Spend half an hour if necessary, clearing a bunch of emails.
  3. After that, check again at 2pm, and then once more at 5pm to triage any pending emails

At all other times, don’t check your inbox. And no cheating – log out and close your browser, close Outlook / Thunderbird, and turn off email notifications on your phone as well (got you! I’m nothing if not meticulous).

2. Schedule less time for email than you need

If you read my previous post on productivity and are trying some of my tips, you would see the merit in actually scheduling time for email, rather than checking it whenever you’re bored.

The other little hack is to schedule less time for email than you need. Email, like work and play, balloons to take up the time you give it. There’s nothing like some urgency to plow through your inbox – your emails can get done in less time than you think.

3. When you’re done with an email, archive it

Using the mailbox analogy again, once you’ve read a letter, do you put it back in the mailbox? Similarly, when you’re done with an email, don’t keep it in the inbox. Archive it  (or better still, delete it. If you dare).

Archiving takes emails out of your face once you’re done with them. Your inbox now includes only the emails that you have to work on – much simpler to decide what to do. Otherwise, it can become difficult to find emails that you have to act on, amidst the barrage of less-important emails, newsletters you don’t remember ever signing up for, promotions and spam. Not to mention how a full inbox tires you each time you look at it.

Sure, you can change your Inbox settings to keep unread emails on top. But those other emails that you see will continue to distract you.

Avoid all these complications – archive emails that you’re done with (if you use Gmail, it’s the first button that comes up in the header when you select an email). If an email is in your Inbox, it means you have to act on it. And you can always go back to your Archive (it’s the All Mail folder in Gmail) whenever you want to access an old email, and search works too.

 

But this is not enough. Which brings me to the 4th hack.

4. Triage your email with Google Inbox / Mailbox

The freedom that you feel when you first archive your inbox is great. But it won’t last – it still doesn’t solve the problem of your pending emails, which can quickly pile up. Let’s say there’s an email task that you need to get to two days later. It’ll sit in your inbox till then, serving as a constant reminder (and distractor), till you actually do it and archive it with a victorious flourish (before flopping down in your chair in sheer exhaustion).

People solve this problem by ‘starring’ emails they need to take care of, but can’t or don’t need to do today. If you’ve tried this, you’ll know (and if you’re going to, you’ll find out) that this can quickly get out of hand. Very soon, you’ll visibly cringe whenever you hear the word ‘star’ – a painful reminder of the toxic underbelly of your inbox that the Starred folder has become. But you’ll have to go back there soon, with full knowledge of the tsunami of to-reads that will deluge you.

Waxing poetic aside, there’s an easier way. What if emails show up in your inbox only when you need to act on them, and not a moment sooner? Don’t have time to respond to a data request today – wouldn’t it be nice if it came tomorrow after your big presentation, instead of staring at your face till then? If you use Gmail, you can do just this with Google Inbox / Mailbox. Using these, whenever you check email (hint: do this at specific time slots only), you can first triage all your new email:

  1. Respond if it will take 2 min or less. Once it’s done, click on Archive / Done.
  2. If it’ll take longer, schedule the email for whenever you’ll work on it (make sure you block time for it!). The email will disappear from your inbox, and automagically reappear when you’re ready for it.
  3. Similarly, if it needs to be done later (like an email follow-up), schedule it to reappear on the day and time when you’ll act on it.

With these tools, your inbox will be nice and sparse at all times, easy to navigate. And hey, if you’re lucky, you may even read the much-fabled Inbox Zero at end-of-day. Enjoy it while it lasts, my friend. The battle may have been won, but the war will rage again tomorrow.

Quick note – If you work out of Gmail and want to try Google Inbox, let me know in the comments / over email. I have a bunch of invites. But if you use Outlook, such plugins aren’t available yet. You can try this Getting Things Done method though.

 

5. Manage your subscriptions better with Unroll.me

You know that ‘Quirky News of the Day’ newsletter you thought was fun and subscribed to yesterday? In two months, your inbox is going to drown in unread editions of the newsletter. And this is saying nothing about the newsletter you subscribed to a year ago that you find useless today. But you won’t unsubscribe because who knows, you might need it again next year.

Unroll.me is one of those miracle services you don’t realize you need till you hear about it. When you first register, it scans your inbox and lists all the emails you’re subscribed to. You can then unsubscribe with one click. And Unroll.me retains a record of these, so you can re-subscribe anytime.

But you don’t have to unsubscribe from everything (especially my newsletter. Please?). The service removes newsletter emails from your inbox automatically, and puts them in a separate Unroll.me folder. So you can check them whenever you want to do some leisure reading.

6. Make less email

Stop Emailing

The reason you receive so much email is because someone else is writing them. So be a dear and stop contributing. No need to brightly respond, “Welcome”, whenever someone sends you a thank you email. And please, please – don’t acknowledge receipt. Reply when you have a response / answer / update ready. This is important enough to be a Golden Rule of Emailing:

7. But, be nice and manage expectations

At the same time, it is good form to reply and manage expectations. If you’re going to respond to an email today or tomorrow, it’s fine. But if you’ll need more time to get to it, dropping a short email saying when you’ll look at it is a nice touch. And people don’t mind nice guys writing in (nudge nudge).

 

That’s it! Do some or all of these, and you’ll be well on your way to email nirvana. I actually had 3 more tips, but I’ve got to run. Got some… err… emails to write.

I would love your feedback in the comments – do these work for you, are there any other ways you manage email, etc. And if I can help in any way, don’t hesitate to comment here / email me at gt.jithamithra@gmail.com / tweet at @jithamithra.

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Comments

comments

4 Responses

  1. Samudra Neelam Bhuyan March 18, 2015 / 12:50 am

    Adding Slack / Flowdock for communication within teams GREATLY reduces and improves email too.

    • jithamithra March 18, 2015 / 1:14 am

      Agree. I use Slack in one of my teams! Quite useful to keep all conversations, notes, worksheets, etc. in one place.

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