My Nemesis The Mighty Inbox
Of all the things I have to deal with in my life, email is my arch nemesis. It’s not that I don’t like getting emails or answering them, because I do. But I have a hard time getting a handle on email and the expectations the world places on this everyday task.
I’ve struggled with questions like, how often I should empty my inbox, how much time I should spend on emails, and how important is it to send a message that is both personal and thoughtful. And while I haven’t come up with great answers for all these questions, here a few simple techniques that help me vanquish email with greater skill and joy.
How to Vanquish Email
Check Your Email Less Often
I’ve found that when I check my email less often I do better work and I write better emails. Because when I set aside time to deal with email, I’m better able to think about what the sender needs from me and respond.
Now I’ll have to admit I still struggle with this. I have email on my phone and often check it several times a day. Ideally, I would like to only check my email every other day, but I’m just not there yet.
So instead, I sort my email daily but only put time aside to respond to emails every few days.
Set Up an Auto-responder
There is nothing inherently sinful about checking your email less often, but I would be naïve if I thought people don’t expect me to live with my email. So in order to overcome this problem I set up an auto-responder letting people know what my email policy is. This way people know how I deal with email and when to expect a reply.
Writing a good auto-responder is hard but the best technique I’ve found involves a little humor and an explanation as to why I don’t respond to emails right away.
Here is how my current auto-responder message reads:
Dear, Magical Electron Sculptor
In order to maintain my sanity and honor balance in my life, I only check my email every two to three days. I realize this essentially makes me a caveman, but Paleo is so popular right now, I thought I could get away with it. If you have an emergency or urgent matter please contact me via phone or text.
If not please be patient as I clear my inbox at the end of most weeks.
I’ve found that this simple responder does two things:
- It encourages people to not email me if something is urgent, which reduces the number of urgent emails I have to deal with.
- It states my intentions clearly to others so they know what matters most to me. I feel good about this because I think it sets an example of how we can approach technology from a different perspective.
Triage Your Email
For a long time I treated every email as a priority level 10, but this didn’t work out great for the rest of my life. So now, when I check my email, I only answer emails that are truly urgent. Here is my process:
1. Check Subject Line
I check the subject line and see if it reveals enough for me to determine how urgent the email is. If it seems low key I pass over it.
2. Scan, Reply, and Remember
Next, I open any email that seems urgent and scan it quickly for content. If it demands a quick reply, I deal with it right then. I type a few lines and send it off.
If it requires a longer reply or isn’t urgent I let it go and make a note to come back to it at the end of my triage.
3. Finish or Delay
Finally, I go back and type short replies to emails that demand immediate attention. I then leave everything else for another time or until I do my weekly email clearance.
Weekly Email Clearance
At the end of every week, I set aside 1 – 3 hours for a weekly review. During this review I look over what I spent time on, how many clients I saw, and where my money went. The last thing I do is my email clearance.
Basically, I go through and answer every email that I didn’t get to earlier in the week. Sometimes I’ll leave a few emails in my inbox either because I don’t have an answer yet or because it just came in that day.
I also like to leave a few messages in my box so I don’t worry about having an empty inbox. I tried the inbox zero thing and I found it drove me to be obsessed with emails.
Bonus – How To Create an Email Policy
One of the best ways to solidify your email habits is to create an email policy. This policy can help you approach your emails with clear intentions and purpose.
Some questions this policy could answer are:
- How often do you check your email?
- How often do you clear you inbox out?
- Is there a limit to unsent messages?
- How do you deal with old email?
- How do you keep track of messages you sent and need to follow up on?
The key is to create a policy that is simple and supportive of balance. While taking into account the necessities of your work and personal life.
Here is my email policy:
- I don’t check my email everyday.
- I don’t respond to emails that aren’t urgent right away.
- I return client emails within 48 hours
- I don’t allow myself to have more than 25 un-dealt with emails in my inbox.
- If I need to remind myself of a sent email, I either send myself a nudgemail or add an item to my calendar.
- I put any appointments created in email on my calendar immediately.
- I answer all unanswered email on Friday.
- I will not check or respond to email in the middle of others tasks.
Your email policy can be more complex or simpler than mine is. The important thing is that you get clear about what your priorities and responsibilities are with email. Because without a clear policy, your policy can quickly become avoiding important emails to look at your BuzzFeed newsletter.
Why I deal With Email This Way
Your life is not about answering email. The problem with email is that it imitates urgency. It pops up on your phone. It calls out to you when you’re working. It seems really urgent. The truth is that for most of us, email is rarely urgent.
The reason I’ve come up with my email system is that while I know I can’t stop checking email entirely I also know I don’t want it to rule my life. Sure, my Auto-responder turns some people off. In fact, a few people have told me they just don’t send me email any more. But for me the sacrifice of a few bummed friends is worth it, because it means I have more time to focus on the things that truly matter to me, not just the things that demand my attention, moment by moment.