Checking email is one of people’s least favorite tasks. Although it can hold important information, there is too much noise, clutter, and distraction in most people’s inbox to do anything effectively.
Think about the last tool you remember using. Got it?
For me, it’s a screwdriver. As the name explains, a screwdriver is for driving screws into the wall. Its design and functionality help achieve that end goal. It’s small, you can hold it with one hand, and the tip ensures perfect friction between you and the screw.
Now imagine using that same screwdriver to drive nails into the wall. By flipping the screwdriver around, you can use the opposite end to hit repeatedly on nails until they go into the wall.
Although that might work and get the job done, a screwdriver is most effective when using it to drive screws – the original intent of the tool.
It’s the same thing with email. You can use email as a task manager, a calendar, a filing cabinet, and a read later app. But when you do that, you’re drastically decreasing the effectiveness of the tool. You’re using a screwdriver as a hammer.
So how is email supposed to be used?
Before we get into how email should be used, let’s start with where you’re at.
If you haven’t already, unsubscribe from any newsletter, mailing list, or subscriptions that aren’t absolutely essential. If there are some you still want to read every now and then, check out this article on creating a special newsletter email address.
You can mass unsubscribe by using services like Unroll.me, or you can do it manually. If you have hundreds of subscriptions, try batching your time into 30-minute or hour-long chunks. Unsubscribing is not a cognitively high function, so it can be done while you’re watching tv, or when you’re just bored in a meeting.
Now that we’ve cleaned up your incoming mail, let’s get to Inbox 0.
Most people have thousands of unread emails. Not only is this annoying, but it’s also decreasing the effectiveness of how email is supposed to be used. Let’s fix it.
You can use services like Clean Fox to save time and mass delete emails from the same sender. When I first did this, I had about 2,000 unread emails. I set up Clean Fox and was Inbox 0 in an hour and half and haven’t looked back since.
Finally, if you have multiple email addresses, set-up forwarding on all accounts to the one you use most often. If email is used to capture new inputs, we don’t want those coming from 5 different places. Using one email address as the “main hub” will make sure you don’t forget to check certain inboxes.
The core function of email is to capture new inputs.
Too many people use email to schedule their day, determine their priorities, and store documents like some sort of virtual filing cabinet. That’s not what it’s supposed to be used for.
Email should be used to capture new inputs.
Email should be used to capture new inputs. Say it with me now.
Email should be used to capture new inputs.
If that’s the case, then learning what to do with those new inputs is the key to mastering email and using it effectively.
The ideal amount of times to check email is once or twice a week, but often people who work in corporate have to check it more. Use your discretion. The less, the better.
The best time to process email is at the beginning of your week either during your weekly review, or when you’re scheduling out your week. The reason I say process is because you shouldn’t be “working” on email, you should only be processing it.
During the processing time, it’s important to not ever work on email. If you get into the habit of working on emails when you’re processing them, you’ll get distracted and won’t make it through your inbox. This time is to process email, get a glimpse of what you need to be focusing on this week, or paying attention to. Use your email inbox to guide your week, but don’t use it to plan it.
When processing your email, there are only four actions you should take. Either archive the email, create a new to-do for the week, reply (Only if it takes two minutes or less.), or forward it.
Every email is asking for your attention. So when a new one comes in looking sexy as ever saying, “Hey look at me. Stop what you’re doing and pay attention.” You have to be prepared with what to do.
Most emails don’t need a response. So, we want to archive those immediately. Whether it’s a payment notification from Netflix, an update from The Morning Brew, or a receipt from the local coffee shop, archive it.
Some people think because it isn’t an important email, they just won’t open it. The problem with doing that leaves it at the forefront of your mind every time you go to check email. This steals a couple seconds away from other cognitive tasks, even though you’ve already determined it isn’t important.
Archive it. If you need to reference it later, it’ll always be waiting for you.
The second action you can do with an email is create a to-do.
Where most people go wrong in regards to email using it as a task manager. Their day is spent checking their inbox, seeing what emails are asking of them, and doing the same thing the next day. Although this feels productive, it kills creative energy and doesn’t allow people to work on things that matter. People that use email like this will forever be maintaining, not innovating.
If an email requires you to review a document, create a proposal, or anything else that takes longer than two minutes to do, create a task for it.
For example, if you get an email that has a word document containing copy for a slide deck you need to make, create a new task in your task manager saying, “Create slide deck for Tony.”
If you’re using a digital task manager, copy the link to that specific email and paste it in the notes section of the task. (I use Things 3 as my task manager.) This ensures quick access if you need more direction or need to ask a question when you’re ready to get started on the task.
The third action you could take is replying right away. The only caveat with this action is that you should only reply if it will take less than two minutes.
If you have to navigate to another window, check your phone for some reference, or ask someone else before you can reply, then don’t do it. Add it to your task manager.
If an email comes in that you know isn’t something you need to work on, then forward it to someone who can.
Honestly, this one’s pretty simple. Trust your judgment.
Now that you're back at inbox 0 and have an idea of what you need to work on in the following week, have a productive week.
If you can, don’t check your inbox for another 3-4 days. Continue working with no distractions on what you already have planned. The emails aren’t going anywhere.