You already know it deep down. You are not creating value by sending and receiving emails.
The problem is that emails demand your immediate attention. And answering them straightaway provides you with a quick-win sense of satisfaction. You feel productive, diligent, workmanlike. While in truth all you’re probably doing is letting someone else rearrange your already busy schedule.
Well friend, I finally beat email. I defeated the demon that plagues us all. And it wasn't all that hard. I had to step outside of my comfort zone and take what felt like a couple of big risks. But they paid off and today I'm pleased to call myself a recovering email addict.
Here's how to do it.
Stop checking your emails all the time and close the damn client!
Command + Q on Apple Mail, Command + W on that Gmail browser tab. Close them now and keep them closed.
I really mean it: no notifications, no popups and no distractions from your inbox. When you see that notification I want to drop everything and check it. The truth is that very few things will ever hit your inbox that need your attention this very moment. We already know that multi-tasking and task-switching is absolutely terrible for our productivity, email is the ultimate example of constant task-switching.
I didn’t invent this idea (thanks likely goes to Tim Ferriss) and I don’t know if I’ve perfected it yet. Committing to this has made a huge difference to my productivity and allowed me to more usefully structure my time.
I only check my emails now twice a day. Once in the morning at 10am then again at 3:30pm. This gives me the opportunity to start on important tasks, set my own priorities and balance incoming mail against my diary. I typically spend less than 30 minutes per day in my inbox. Before I was wasting hours.
As for letting clients know how I handle my incoming mail, I include a polite note in my email signature. I also include my phone number so they can reach me urgently if and when the need arises.
Dealing with the email you receive
Anything that arrives and doesn’t need action I archive, I can find it later if I need it but its out of the inbox. As for things I know I only have a 50/50 chance of reading (such as new subscriptions) I delete them or unsubscribe. I've slimmed my list of email subscriptions substantially. There are really only two email newsletters I always read when they arrive: Conversion Rate Experts and Jakob Nielsen’s Alertbox.
If an email has an action associated with it I make a note of it somewhere else (I like Todoist for my tasks) — especially if there is something useful like a phone number that I will need. I don’t want to be forced to open my inbox just to get the info necessary to complete a task.
Though I do have a little trick for that if I forget. I use Apple Mail, but all of my email addresses (personal, work, even more work, etc.) are Gmail - so I open just the Gmail client for the address that contains the info I need if I’ve neglected to extract it earlier. No risk of getting email overloaded by managing things this way.
Does it need a reply? If so I do it there and then. And if I don’t know how to reply or need time to think I just leave it in the inbox and do it at the next email session.
I always remind myself that email is not an urgent medium. If somebody needs me to act fast they’ll pick up the phone and call me. And If they don’t have my number already there’s a good chance they don’t need me to reply at a snap of their fingers.
Every Friday at the end of my working day, I archive everything. Nothing is allowed to survive the Friday Inbox Zero. If there is an email that still needs a reply, it gets done or it gets archived. Usually if it has been waiting around all week, it's because I don't really want to reply. Sometimes you just have to be honest with yourself.
No email on the weekend
Although I often work at the weekends, I don’t check email on either Saturday or Sunday at all.
Sometimes I work on the weekends if I'm feeling productive, if some spare time comes up or if I've got lots to finish. I try not to make a habit of it, but when you work in this industry sometimes it's just inevitable. But I always avoid my email. Like Admiral Ackbar said, "it's a trap".
Although the rules of the system are the ones I live by, I’ve still occasionally had to break all of them.
For example, I’ve checked email at 11am because I didn't want to stop what I was doing an hour earlier. And sometimes I’ve checked it at 9am because I’ve had client meetings from 10am to the afternoon. Sometimes I’ve even checked my email during the weekend if somebody has told me they've sent me something and I think that I should see it right away. The important thing is, these are all on my terms. I do so knowing that the addiction is broken.
A new me
My new email routine has undoubtedly made me more productive. I feel like I receive fewer emails. I'm not sure if that can be true, but it makes me happy that it feels like less of a problem.
So while I’m not attempting “Inbox Zero” all day anymore, I no longer live at mercy of my inbox. Thankfully that connection has been broken and I’m very happy to be rid of it.