Email is Not Life!
Hopefully, by the end of this post, you will have learned some new techniques to get your email under control and enjoyable. This Email Mastery Challenge is meant for players in the game Habitica, so you will see images here that correspond to the challenge tasks in Habitica. You can find the challenge here.
Task 1: Philosophy
Email is so useful and easy to use! Or at least, it should be!
Ideally, your email should be accessible and intuitive to you. The quicker you can process your email and empty your email inbox, the sooner your head is cleared and you can move on to bigger, more important tasks in your life.
Your time is precious, so let’s make email work for you! The challenge is to only open emails that are relevant to you, and only open them once. You might have to unsubscribe from a lot of junk email or learn to avoid checking email when you’re not able to process them. Don’t worry, I’ll cover that later.
When you open an email, get in the habit of asking yourself these questions:
- Do I need to reply or complete a task in order to be “done” with this email?
- Will I need this email later or can I delete it?
- Do I need to see more messages like this or am I better off unsubscribing?
In order to make my email accessible, I use Gmail to consolidate all my different accounts in one place. I use Gmail filters (aka rules), stars, and labels (aka tags) to organize emails, and I use a Gmail Lab feature called Multiple Inboxes to see several “folders” on one page.
Here’s what my email looks like right now…
Gmail is the best, and you can import email from other accounts like Yahoo and Outlook quite easily.
- Email should be organized in a way that feels natural to you.
- Try to process every email only once, and aim for “Inbox Zero” for peace of mind.
What about when you send an email?
Considering that everyone else is also receiving hundreds of emails a day, you can increase your chances of getting a response by making your subject line action-oriented and descriptive. Get straight to your request in 6 words or less, and be brief in the body of the email. If you have more than one question or request to put in your email, try to break them up into a bullet list or break them up into separate emails. Make sure there is enough specific information in the email as well, so it is searchable for later.
For more tips on writing effective subject lines, check out How to Write an Email Subject Line.
Task 2: Implement a Folder System
You can tell from the image above that I have 5 folders:
- Awaiting Reply
- Events and Info
- Promotions and Reminders
And the 6th folder being Archived, which is built-in to Gmail and called “All Mail”. This is the catch-all folder that can be filtered and sorted at any time using search terms.
This 5-folder layout works for me in Gmail, but maybe you prefer a simpler approach for your email client.
The Basic Three
As a bare minimum, the only folders you need are Follow-Up, Hold, and Archived.
- Follow-Up – This folder is for any email that needs to be dealt with, but cannot be completed this moment. This could be sent emails awaiting replies, forms that need to be filled out, and delegated tasks you want to check on. Be sure to process and empty this folder often as it’s basically a to-do list.
- Hold – This temporary folder is for any email you’ll need in the near future that you want to highlight but that doesn’t require an action. Keep this current as well.
- Archived – Save old emails in here that you don’t want to delete forever in the Trash.
If there is no task to be done, and the email doesn’t need to be archived, trash it. Once you’ve emptied your Inbox, be sure to periodically go through and empty your folders (with the exception of Archived).
Gmail also has several different inbox types, such as Unread First, Important First, and Priority Inbox. However, if you want my setup, you actually aren’t creating folders, but rather filters. Check out this tutorial on Medium on how to use Multiple Inboxes for Inbox Zero. This is what my Multiple Inbox settings look like:
has:yellow-bang OR has:red-bang OR has:yellow-star has:purple-question has:blue-info has:orange-guillemet has:blue-star OR has:green-star OR has:purple-star OR has:orange-star OR has:red-star OR has:green-check
When coming up with your organizational system, remember to keep it simple and easy for you to understand, so you can quickly decide how to process each email.
Task 3: Empty Your Inbox
You have your folder system in place, right? It’s time to purge!
Take heart! Nothing is going to be deleted right now unless that’s what you want!
Look at the first page of your email inbox. You’re looking for important emails that actually require your time.
Glance over the subject lines, select all the emails that are not important and archive them. You are not even going to open them. This should bring more old emails into view. For good measure, archive batches of unimportant emails a few more times.
Now, start with the most recent email, open it, and read it.
Does this email require an action or contain relevant information? File it.
Then read the next email and quickly decide where to file it.
Keep filing emails individually or in batches for a page or two.
Then, once you’re ready…
Select ALL of your emails…
ALL OF YOUR EMAILS…
Now you have a refreshing, empty inbox and some tasks to complete in your other folders.
Let’s be honest, there are no important emails further back than two weeks. If they were important, you would have opened them already. If you absolutely must retrieve an old email, they are now searchable.
Give yourself a pat on the back!
Task 4: Mass Unsubscribe
How long will that inbox stay empty though? Maintaining an empty inbox will wear you out if you are getting hundreds of emails in a day. Of all the billions of emails sent every day, about 80% of them are spam!
If the bulk of your emails are newsletter subscriptions, you can unsubscribe from each one individually as they come in, OR you can use Unroll.me and attack that spam all at once! Do you really need those Amazon book recommendations and promotions every other day? Probably not.
What if you can’t unsubscribe because it’s your church friend sending you chain letters and you already politely asked them to stop? Experiment with filters to automatically categorize and delete incoming email (in Gmail, Outlook, and Yahoo).
You’re going to totally be able to achieve Inbox Zero every day with ease if you cut out the irrelevant fluff. It took me a few weeks, in the beginning, to whittle down the incoming mail and learn to prioritize, but I’m glad I did because email is no longer an overload of text. ads, bots, and spam. Instead, it’s a high-functional tool for communication.
Task 5: Dial Down Distractions Even Further
Ding! You’ve got mail!
For the sake of your sanity and productivity, please don’t reply to emails immediately and set the expectation that you’re always connected. If someone needs you on the spot, they can call you. Schedule time to process email daily, and don’t check it outside that schedule. Try turning off all desktop and app notifications of email and then let your coworkers know that you only check your email at certain times so as not to break your concentration. While you’re in your phone settings, go ahead and block notifications of all the other unimportant apps that disrupt your day.
But you ask, “What if I’m waiting for an email from a special client I can’t afford to miss?” Use an IFTTT.com recipe to play music on your device when you get Gmail matching a specific search term, such as from a particular sender. “If This Then That” is awesome, and you can even use IFTTT to automatically save Gmail attachments to Google Drive.
Another option, if your email client lets you, is to go into the settings and change how often mail is fetched. Most email clients check once a minute or every 5 minutes, but you can change it to hourly.
If you use Gmail like me, there is no easy way to delay incoming mail, but there is a workaround that uses filters and a script. With my script, I only get email notifications 4 times a day, 5AM, 11AM, 3PM, and 6PM. I love it! Instead of getting pinged on my phone every time I get an email, now I get a batch of emails at designated times and never at night when my brain is winding down and I’m reflecting on the day.
Lastly, it may also help to utilize canned responses if you’re writing the same messages all the time.
Email is not life. Establish some digital-free time.