19 August 2021

    James Francis

    8 tips to clear and manage your email

    Email doesn't need to overwhelm you and drain your time and energy.

    Why do we fail at keeping our inboxes manageable? The simple answer is that none of us are paid to work with email. By that, I mean none of us put phrases like "email reader" on our CVs. It's like a commute – we know how to drive, but driving is not our job. It's just a means to an end. Email is the same, yet we are expected to stay on top of it all the time.

    Our brains conspire against us.

    Email is also a great distraction. Our brains enjoy novelty and distraction, especially when we are doing tasks we don't want to do. So it's easy for the brain to nudge us to check our emails because checking email is not a complex task and makes us feel productive.

    How often have you looked at your emails, clicked on a few, and then just left them? It's just like walking to the fridge because you feel peckish, staring at the contents, and then walking away without taking anything. When our brains are feeling stressed or bored, they want simple distractions.

    If you want to manage your emails, the first step is to realise your brain is working against you, and you consequently overvalue the activity of checking email. This point is significant because of focus.


    Email vs Focus and Willpower

    Focus, or willpower, is our ability to concentrate on something. Modern neuroscience has proven that we have a finite amount of focus each day. Every time you stare at emails, social media, or such distractions, you are using your focus for the day. Thus it is essential to stop doing those things – if you check your emails with no real structure or purpose, you are just robbing yourself of willpower and making it much harder to complete other tasks.

    So, rule number one of managing your email: Do not use email as a distraction!

    If you are willing to do that (and it won't be easy at first – your brain will fight you), you can start managing your emails with the following tips.

    Just one more point before we get to those: don't expect too much. I've been doing this for years, and there are still days when my email feels overwhelming or when I use it for a distraction. But I still manage my email a thousand times better than before, and my inbox no longer depresses or overwhelms me.

    It will get easier

    Don't get discouraged or angry if you fall back on old habits. Every journey happens in small steps. Just be mindful when you do take a wrong step and try to avoid the triggers. Maybe you use email to avoid doing boring tasks. Instead, go outside and just stare at the world for a while (a technique proven to boost your focus a little). Then go in and crush that task. Ignore the email until you have the time to give it proper focus.

    Enough lecture – here are tips to better manage your email!

    1. Create a DMZ

    Chances are, your inbox is full of emails. Get rid of those by putting them all in a folder called a DMZ (or whatever you want). Now you have a clean slate for your inbox, and you can still find important emails in that folder. Don't tell yourself you'll clean out your inbox by going through all the emails. You won't. Nobody does.

    2. Use folders

    Organise your emails into folders and get into the habit of moving them there as you process them. Ultimately, an email either goes to a folder or is deleted. Emails that languish in your inbox are like debris in a river – eventually, they will block your way to a manageable inbox.

    3. Don't use emails as a to-do list

    This is perhaps the worst bad habit of emails: we see an important email, but we can't deal with it now. So we leave it there as a reminder to do that task. Soon, you have stacks of these emails floating around. Instead, use a separate to-do list (I like an old-fashioned paper notebook). Write down the task related to the email, then send the email to a folder or delete it.

    4. Use calendar reminders

    Most email clients let you create a calendar entry directly from an email. Use this feature to create timed reminders. For example, an email could contain a deadline. Make a calendar reminder from the email for that deadline, then put the email in a folder.

    5. Unsubscribe from newsletters

    If you're like me, you constantly sign up for newsletters then promise to read them later. But that rarely happens, and all they do is gunk up your inbox. There are three strategies to deal with newsletters. You can unsubscribe from the ones you never really read. You can filter them into a folder so you can read them later. Or, the hardest choice, you can intentionally make time to read them on the day you receive them.

    6. Use pins smartly

    One trick that seems clever is to pin an important email. But I've been there: you just end up with a depressing amount of pinned messages! Only pin very important or crucial emails – stuff you absolutely need in front of you. If possible, don't use pins at all.

    7. Turn off email notifications

    Recalling my points above on focus and our lazy brains, nothing encourages that bad habit as much as email notifications. Turn those off – few items in your email are so crucial that they require immediate attention. If you are waiting for an important email, check your email with intent. But don't wait for a notification to nudge you – that will just rob you of focus.

    8. Block time to manage emails

    I admit I'm not good at this point, but I try to break the habit of periodically checking my email. Block some time in the morning and then again in the afternoon. Reply to emails and make notes on your to-do list. Delete emails or send them to folders. You won't always get this right, but it's a good habit to work on and much better than randomly checking your emails. You can always do that on your phone while standing in a supermarket line!

    The most important thing about email is not a clean inbox. It's to realise that email can be an incredible time thief, a drain on your focus, and a cheap trick for your brain to feel entertained for a few minutes. If you work to counter those problems with the above habits, you'll soon have more control over your email and more of your time back.

    Of course, our circumstances are different. You may receive thousands of emails a day or have a manager who expects replies in minutes of sending. Those are external challenges that require extra remedies. If your job is literally to check emails, such as customer service queries, you deserve company policies to help manage your workload.

    But even then, if you can follow the tips laid out here, you'll start hacking a way out of your email jungle.

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    James Francis