I used to check my email within seconds of waking up every morning. My alarm would go off on my phone and then I would immediately check my email. With my eyes barely open, I would browse through my inbox in case someone had been trying to reach me about something urgent during the night. (There was almost never anything that couldn’t wait 8 hours.)
I would obsessively check email in social situations, during workdays when I should have been focusing on “real” work, and at night until within minutes of falling asleep.
I was constantly detached from whatever I was doing. And I felt incredibly guilty about it. I was hooked. And it was killing my productivity…and sanity.
I wanted my time and my focus back. I didn’t want to spend hours every day in my inbox — time that could otherwise be spent on higher leverage or more rewarding activities. So I tried everything to solve it…
I used a tool called BatchedInbox so that I would only receive emails three times per day. I used Slack so that I was only actively communicating with teammates. I used texting and phone calls so that I didn’t have to spend so much time in my inbox. But nothing worked. Because the reality is…
Email is an incredibly powerful tool if only you know how to harness it. For me, harnessing it meant taking action on the factors that are within my control and eliminating anxiety about factors that are outside of my control. Please note: I have never achieved inbox zero. Nor do I ever want to.
Instead, I created a system that enables me to consistently save time, be more productive, and less stressed. Now, over 90% of the emails I get are important, relevant, and timely — and the other 10% don’t bother me at all. Here are the five simple strategies I used to make it happen. (Hint: #5 is the most important.)
1. Use Unroll. Me to batch process non-urgent emails
Batch processing is “key.”
It means completing work when your energy levels are most appropriate for the task at hand, rather than when the tasks are received. Batched processing also enables you to achieve “economies of scale” time savings from not having to start up or wind down multiple times. For example, I wouldn’t return a phone call from a friend when I have an urgent deliverable due or when I’m completely dialed into a given project. Unroll. Me enables you to batch non-urgent, but still valuable, emails into one email per day.
Of course I don’t want to miss out on important emails. Unroll. Me enables you to decide what gets batched. Emails from people I work with or care about more significantly still go straight to my inbox.
2. Vigilantly unsubscribe from unimportant email subscriptions
This is the most obvious of the five strategies. However, it’s critically important to get right because it’s incredibly easy to do and can have an immediate and significant impact.
Whenever you receive a newsletter or marketing email from a company that you don’t care about, immediately unsubscribe. Yes, I said immediately. Pushing it back to later just ensures that you will receive more emails and that your to-do list will pile higher.
3. Don’t email people that you don’t want to get emails back from
Emails sent = emails received
There are two easy actions you can take to implement this strategy…
First, don’t send email to anyone that you don’t want to get an email back from. If you find yourself emailing someone that you don’t want to or need to talk to, think critically about how you can eliminate further correspondence.
Second, similar to unsubscribing from subscriptions, don’t reply to meaningless emails. If the person is likely to keep sending emails, such as a salesperson, simply reply with a kind “no thank you.”
4. Prioritize your work based on your energy levels
For me, mornings are the most energetic and focused times in my day. I use my mornings for my most important, challenging and high impact work. Email is almost never a part of that.
When my prime starts to fade in the late morning, it’s the perfect time to check email. And again during my afternoon lull.
Identify patterns in your energy levels. When you’re focused, work on your most important and challenging projects. When you’re not, work on less important and challenging projects (like email).
Use a to-do list. Reference your to-do list (not your inbox!) first when deciding what to work on.
I use Asana. I used to use Wunderlist. The reality is, they all suck. But the hardest part is just getting started. Once it’s a habit, maintaining it is easy.
Remember, just because you’ve read an email doesn’t necessarily mean you have to act on it immediately. “Star” or “flag it” to execute later. If I have something starred for more than one week, I usually just delete it. If I haven’t had to execute on the email within a week, it probably wasn’t that important to me.
5. Don’t let email stress you out
With the above strategies, you’ve accounted for just about everything that’s within your control. However, like many things in life, there are many aspects of inbox management that are outside of your control.
Worrying about factors outside of your control is futile. That’s because those factors are…outside of your control. Not even worrying about them will change them.
What you can control, however, is your reaction. So, instead of worrying, determine best action. Stressing is most definitely not best action.
Stress can affect your ability to focus, your happiness, even the quality of your sleep which can have all kinds of compounding effects.
The best action to take regarding factors outside of your control is to accept reality and make the best of it.
Accept that you will always be receiving email, so long as you plan to have any meaningful career or social life. Make the best of one of the most powerful, and free, tools we all have at our disposal. With email, we can communicate with anyone, anywhere in the world, at any time. We can connect with our idols, do deals with people across the world, and make plans with friends and loved ones that will create lifelong memories.
If email is the biggest stress in your life, you must have a pretty good life.
If email is not the biggest stress in your life, address whatever else is stressing you out. Focus on the things that will have the biggest impact on your success and happiness — like your clients, colleagues, and loved ones.
These five strategies helped me take back my time and sanity. Here are seven key things to keep you vigilant should you choose to accept the mission: