As someone who makes his living working entirely online, I get a lot of email. Kate and I used to have times where we spent nearly an entire day going through and processing email instead of researching and writing content for our fantastic readers. We hated those all-day email-fests. At the end, we’d feel a bit of relief that we had cleared our inboxes, but simultaneously feel anxiety that we didn’t get to what’s important to us and the site. Even if we had some time to actually get to writing, our willpower was so drained from having to make so many choices about how to respond that we just didn’t have the mental energy or focus to effectively shift to a different task.
We’re not alone in feeling both drained and chained to our inbox. According to the L.A. Times, recent studies have found that the average employee spends up to a third of their day answering email instead of doing productive work. The time-suck created by email has forced some companies to create draconian no-email policies to force their employees into actually being productive.
When email was created, it was meant to streamline our communication and make it more efficient. And it still can, but more often than not it morphs into a time-devouring, stress-inducing, legacy-work destroying monster. How can we vanquish the mighty beast that lurks in our inboxes and let peace once more reign throughout the land?
While I admittedly haven’t gotten a complete handle on managing my email effectively, I’ve made huge strides over the years. Answering emails now constitutes a far, far smaller percentage of my day than it used to. Below I share what I’ve learned on minimizing the amount of email I receive and how to process it quickly and effectively. I highly encourage you to implement many of these steps as soon as you read them; it’s so easy to put off taking action in this area and then never get to it. Do it now!
How to Reduce Email Coming In
The first step to take in conquering your email is reducing the number of emails arriving in your inbox. Here’s how.
Turn off notifications from social media sites. You don’t need to get emails every time someone responds to a tweet or Facebook comment or when someone connects with you on LinkedIn. You’ll see those updates when you actually visit those sites anyway, so why have them gunk up your inbox? Moreover, those notifications are just distractions waiting to happen. (“Ooo… someone posted a comment on my Facebook photo. Let me check that out….” *spends another 20 minutes surfing Facebook.*) Visit the account settings pages on all the social media sites you belong to and turn off ALL email notifications.
Mass unsubscribe from bacn. Most email providers do a decent job of preventing spam from hitting your inbox. But what can you do about those newsletters and coupon deals you yourself have signed up for over the years? Pronounced “bacon” (it’s a techie term – it’s “better than spam, but not quite as good as a personal message”), these are emails that you’ve subscribed to, but you never open them, they clutter up your inbox, and they’re annoying. Technically, it’s not spam email because you’ve given permission (even if you didn’t realize it at the time). Sometimes bacn is useful — like The Art of Manliness newsletter! — but usually it’s a nuisance.
Get a handle on your bacn by unsubscribing from lists you no longer wish to be on. The hard and long way to do this is to open each unwanted message one by one as they come in and click the “unsubscribe” option within. A more efficient way would be to use one of the many mass unsubscribe tools out there on the market.
Unroll.me is what I use. Connect your Gmail or Yahoo email to Unroll.me, and the site goes through your inbox to find subscription emails. Unroll.me will then present you a list of email addresses that look to be subscriptions and ask you if you want to unsubscribe or “add to Rollup.” Click unsubscribe and you’ll no longer get that email. If there are some subscription emails you’d still like to get, you can combine all those into a single email digest (called your Rollup).
Unroll.me does a pretty decent job of catching all those subscription emails, but a few still slip through the cracks. Another thing you can do is use your inbox’s search function and search for “unsubscribe.” That should bring up most of the subscription emails you get and then it’s just a matter of going through them and unsubscribing from the ones you no longer want to receive.
To prevent more bacn in the future, it might be a good idea to set up a “burner email” that you can give to websites or companies that require an email from you to access their service. MailDrop is an excellent service for creating email addresses for those times you don’t want to give out your real one.
Set up filters to stop annoying FWD: emails. We all probably get those annoying FWD: chain emails featuring some political rant or silly urban myth. They’re usually sent by just a select few people in your contact list — an aunt or that squirrely-looking co-worker in the next cubicle over.
Filter these emails to a special folder. Gmail makes creating this filter a breeze. (Other email programs do as well, we’re just highlighting the specific process for Gmail.)
Now whenever you get a forward from that person, it will go directly to the folder you just created. Review it once a week on the off-chance that one of their forwards might actually be important.
Write emails that don’t create more emails. One problem with email is that it often simply begets more email. On average, an outgoing email generates two responses. The Asian Efficiency Blog calls this problem the Email Boomerang Effect. For example, you send out an email with an open-ended question like:
“When do you want to get together?”
They respond with, “Monday.”
You: “Monday isn’t good for me. How does Tuesday sound?”
Them: “Sure. What time?”
Them: “2PM isn’t good. How about 5PM?”
And so on.
Most of those emails could have been avoided by simply substituting the initial open-ended question for one that elicits a yes/no response like, “Let’s get together this week. I’m available M,T,W between 12PM and 5PM. Do any of those dates/times work and if so which one?” They respond with the date and time. End email thread.
Here are some other strategies you can use to write emails that don’t initiate the Email Boomerang Effect
- Use CC with discretion. Every person you add to an email thread is just another reply waiting to happen. Avoid needless emails by only including people who absolutely need to be in the thread.
- Try to include a non-response default action. When you write up an email with a question, set up the question so that there’s a default action that requires no response from your recipient. For example, when you’re planning an event, you can phrase your email like this: “I’m going to schedule the conference room for Tuesday at 3PM. If I don’t hear back from you by tomorrow, I’ll assume that’s fine.” If the person doesn’t have a problem with it, you won’t get a response. Boom. You just reduced the amount of email you received.
- Add “FYI” at the beginning of the subject line; end with NRN. Many emails you send are just for informational purposes and don’t require a response. Let your recipient know that in the subject line by beginning with “FYI” and ending with “NRN” (no response needed). Example: “FYI: Latest company report. NRN.”
- Don’t send emails. The simplest solution to the Email Boomerang Effect is to just not send email unless it’s absolutely necessary. Use this flow chart to help you determine whether you really should send that email.
Set up barriers. One of email’s biggest advantages is also its biggest drawback: there are hardly any barriers in time/effort/embarrassment in sending an email, so people will just blast one off without much thought.