Almost everything that happens in my life and business begins in my inbox. Email has become such an important part of my daily life and interactions that one could easily ask, “if something happens and there wasn’t an email exchange involved, did it really happen?” This communication tool, which has really only been around for about twenty years, is now so ubiquitous it’s hard to imagine a time before email.
Communication with a client? Almost always email. Need to get a message to the kid’s teacher? Far more likely to get through by email. Question for one of my artists? Email.
Email offers so many advantages – and they’re so obvious I hardly need to enumerate them here. It’s safe to say we live in an email society. According to Mashable.com, each day there are over 144 billion email messages sent. Even when you consider that 65% of email is pure spam, that means that there are something like 46 billion real messages being sent every day. While social media are starting to eat into those numbers a little bit, email is the communications champ.
Of course, along with all the benefits of email comes a pretty hefty downside. You would think that a written medium like email would allow us to be more thoughtful in our communication and would leave less room for confusion. Often, however, our hastily-written communiques, lacking body-language or other non-language cues can be misinterpreted and misunderstood.
It’s easy to lose hours as you strive to get to the bottom of your inbox, and stress can build as you feel you’re losing the battle (and possibly your mind) because the emails just keep piling up. I suspect that a good many of us feel like slaves to our email – ever at its beck and call.
Several years ago, I found myself at the email breaking point. In addition to the constant stream of communication I have with my clients, I had just published my first book, Starving to Successful and found that I now had an audience of artists who were interested in communicating with me. Don’t get me wrong, I loved (and continue to love) the personal interaction that I have via email. It wasn’t any individual correspondence that was getting to me, it was the total volume of email that was carrying me under.
On any given day, I would expect to have 100-150 email messages pass through my inbox. Not every message was important or personal communication, but I had to deal with each one, and that took time. The situation would become extremely dire if I ever took a day or two off from email. I would return to 300-450 messages! The whole situation was debilitating. I would literally lose entire days trying to get back in control.
Your email volume may not be as intense as mine was, but I bet you can understand to some degree the stress of it all . We’ve all had our inbox get out of hand at one time or another.
I considered moving to Alaska and getting off the grid, but instead I decided to face my inbox head-on in battle and get it under control. It’s been a long and bloody battle, and the battle is never over, but I want to share with you three things I did that helped me get the upper-hand.
1. Fight Email on Your Own Terms (and Schedule)
The single most important change came from a conversation I had with a friend. I mentioned my email challenge to this friend and he said,
“Jason, I can fix this for you. I want you to wait to look at your email until 3:00 p.m. Don’t even open your email account to check on it. Completely avoid your email until then.”
I’m sure he could see the terror in my eyes at his suggestion. “I can’t do that!” I blurted out. “Everything I do is in email. I get important communications from clients and artists – it would be poor customer service to delay my response.”
“I know,” he replied, “I know exactly what your saying because I used to be like you – trapped in my email. But I’ve seen the other side now. I know what it’s like to be free, and I’ve got to tell you, it’s pretty amazing. Try it for a week, if it doesn’t work, you can go back to dealing with email all day, every day.”
With some reluctance, I agreed to give it a try. The first few days were hard, and, out of habit, there were a few times that I slipped, but the days where I was disciplined and didn’t glance at my mail until 3:00 were incredible. I suddenly was getting projects that had been languishing for months done. I would get more done before lunch than I had done in days prior to my email-after-3 plan.
The most amazing thing though, was that I was also getting through my email, and I was doing it far more efficiently. You see, before, I would fire up my computer in the morning, and I would be doing email all day long. Just as I finished one message, two more would arrive, or I would get a response to an email I had sent earlier in the day, and that would require a reply. Now, I would fire up the email at 3:00 and start plowing through it all in one concentrated effort and could usually be through the entire inbox in an hour to an hour and a half.
Which leads me to the second key to conquering the inbox:
2. Treat your Email as Correspondence, not a Conversation
This one I got from Mark McGuinness, who is a coach and mentor for artists, musicians and other creatives. About two years ago I invited Mark to give a online workshop about time management for creative people. There were many great points in this presentation, but perhaps the most salient point for me was when he encouraged us to think of email as correspondence instead of conversation. He explained that this is a fundamental difference in perception that will change the way we email.
If you think of Email as a conversation, you have to be actively engaged in that conversation, just like you would be if you were communicating by phone or in person. The instantaneous nature of electronic mail makes it very tempting to treat it as a conversation – and I’m sure you’ve had email conversations where the messages are flying back and forth almost as fast as they would in a verbal conversation.
There are, of course, times when conversation is critical in both personal and business relationships, but not every email needs to be treated that way, and, more importantly, if you are treating every message as conversation your brain is going to explode.
If you think of the way people exchanged letters prior to the 1900’s you get a good model. If I wanted to send you a message, I would sit down to pen and paper and write a letter. Because I knew that it was going to take some time to get to you, I was thoughtful about what I wrote. I would mail you the letter and I would then wait, sometimes for months (or even years!) to receive your reply.
While modern-day impatience wouldn’t allow for anything like this delay I can only imagine how much less stress there was in communication. If I received a letter from you today, I might wait a day or two to respond, because what’s a day or two when the communication may take several days or longer to arrive. I could read ad re-read your letter and let me response percolate before sitting down to write you a letter in return.
I’m not suggesting we need to go back to a letter-writing mindset – our volume of communication prevents it, but shifting your approach to email and seeing at as a correspondence is going to remove a lot of stress.
You may get emails from friends or colleagues at first saying “DID YOU GET MY EMAIL!!!!?????” because we’re all conditioned to expect instant replies. They’ll adjust quickly though when they learn that it may take you some time to reply.
My father-in-law is a very successful and sought-after attorney in Phoenix. He includes a disclaimer at the bottom of all of his emails that says something to the effect of “I don’t monitor my inbox – I only look at it once a day. I do this because I am busy working for my clients and don’t want email to interrupt the work I am doing for them. If you need to get in touch with me urgently, please call me.” Not only do his clients not mind, they appreciate the fact that when he is working on their case, all of his attention is devoted to his work.
Shouldn’t it be the same when you are in the studio or office?
Some people have an auto-responder set up in their email that automatically sends out a message acknowledging receipt of your email and letting you know it may be a day or two before they get back to you. I appreciate the idea behind this, but I have decided against using one myself. I believe that these messages are just creating more clutter in inboxes, and when you get my email 2-3 days from now, you’ll know that’s how long it took for me to get back to you.
3. Find the Best Tools and Come up With a Simple Email Organization System
Over the years, many and varied tools have been created for email users. Many of us started our email careers using an email client like Outlook Express, or, if your email came through work you might have used the full version of Outlook. Contenders to Microsoft’s offerings included scrappy start-ups like Eudora. Web-based email from Hotmail or Yahoo also came into play in the 90’s and early 2000’s.
Over the years, I tried them all. I’m a bit of a geek at heart, and I love trying new software and services. I’m always looking for a tool that’s going to make life a bit easier and more intuitive.
For a long time I settled into Microsoft’s Outlook (full version). As my email volume increased, it seemed like a good way to keep my messages organized. I set up elaborate filing systems, and I loved how I could move a message from my email to my task list. To this day there are a lot of things I like about Outlook, and I completely understand why a lot of people love it.
About two years ago, however, I finally tried Gmail.
I’m going to leave that sentence as its own paragraph, because the seismic difference that experiment made in my email deserves some emphasis. I’m not exaggerating when I say that Gmail completely revolutionized email for me.
First, Google is really good at creating simple, functional services, and Gmail is a shining example. The interfaces are not fancy – there is hardly any glitz in Gmail’s design, but it turns out that for email, this is a good thing. With Gmail I can get in and get to my messages without getting distracted.
I love that I can access my inbox from anywhere – any computer, my phone – and the experience is very consistent. I never have to wonder if I’m looking at the most recent update of my messages.
Second, Google is really good at organizing things. Google started out as a search company and developed very powerful algorithms to organize the internet and make it searchable. It turns out that skillset is very useful for email as well. Gmail does a great job of sorting your email for you and then categorizing it in useful ways so that you can systematically move through your inbox.
Gmail has an incredible spam filter. They’re filter catches about 95% of the spam that comes into my inbox (my spam filter will catch about 100-150 spam messages per day). It is rarely ever wrong, and it learns from its mistakes to become more and more accurate.
Gmail also sorts your messages by importance with its “priority inbox”. It learns who is most important to you and flags messages based on this importance so you can read them first, and then deal with the unimportant stuff all at once.
Recently Gmail introduced tabs. When you go to your inbox, you can set it up so that you have a tab for your primary inbox, a tab for social media messages, a tab for promotional messages, a tab for updates and a tab for forums (tracking information, for example).
By separating the messages by type, Gmail allows me to jump into my email and deal with all of my important messages at once, then quickly scan my other messages to see what’s important and delete the rest.
Finally, and perhaps most significantly, Gmail made it so I don’t have to file my messages any more. When I worked in Outlook, every message had to find its way into a folder in order to move out of the inbox. My file structure in Outlook included over 120 folders and sub-folders. I was very diligent about keeping the structure clean and up-to-date, but I had to have that many folders in order to keep track of everything that was going on in my business. If I needed to find something, I could usually find it in just a few seconds because I would have a good idea of where I had filed it.
Gmail completely removes the necessity of having folders. If you need to find something, you just type a quick search query and, bam, you get your message or messages. As I said, Google is very, very good at search and I’ve never had to dig very far to find a message I was seeking.
So now, instead of filing a message in a folder, I throw it into the archive, knowing with confidence, that if I ever need to find it again, it will be easily found. This means that I don’t have to spend even a millisecond thinking about how to deal with a message when I want to move it out of the inbox – I simply archive it. In Outlook it could take 5-10 seconds to decide what folder to use for a message. Not a big deal, but multiply five seconds by 100 messages and you’re starting to talk about some serious time. There were also times in Outlook where I would have a message that could be filed into 2-3 different folders based on its content. Running into those messages could be paralyzing, and Google simply eliminates this kind of drama.
Power Tips for Gmail
After using Gmail for a few years, I’ve found a few things that make it even better.
Auto-Advance. If you go into the settings you can tell Gmail to advance you to the next newest message when you finish responding to a message, instead of taking you back to the inbox. By using this, I can go to the oldest message in my inbox, respond to it, and then instantly be in the next oldest message. This allows me to plow through my inbox, one message right after the next.
Send and Archive. In the Labs section of the settings, there is a button you can add to Gmail that allows you to send your message and archive the one you were responding to in one action. Since this is the typical workflow for me (once I’m done responding to a message I want it out of the inbox) this is another real time-saver.
Keyboard Shortcuts. Again, enabled in the settings, keyboard shortcuts allow me to keep my hands off my mouse and on the keyboard the entire time I’m working through my inbox. I won’t go over all of the shortcuts here – there’s an explanation page link in the settings – but, for example, when you are in a message, you can hit “r” for reply, or “f” for forward and Gmail will throw you right into your reply or forward message. “#” will delete a message. “]” will archive the message and move you to your next message. So if I’m reading a message and decide I want to respond, I hit “r”, type my reply, hit the tab key, then enter and my message is sent and I’m right into the next message. I can burn through my inbox incredibly quickly by never having to leave my message stream or lift my fingers from the keyboard.
There are many other settings and features available, but these are my favorites.
I know this sounds like an advertisement for Gmail, but I promise they haven’t offered me a sponsorship or endorsement deal; I’m just a huge fan. I’m not exaggerating at all when I say that Gmail cut my email time by at least a third, and perhaps by half.
Additional Email Tips
Use Procrastination to your Advantage
Because I do my email at the end of the day, and have a hard time limit (my wife gets upset if I’m not home for dinner) I sometimes can’t get through some of the longest messages I’ve received. So, I skip them. By treating my email as correspondence, I hope that whoever sent me that 1000 word email will understand that it might take me a day or two to get back to them. Because I always work through my email from oldest to newest, that long message will be the first one I see tomorrow, and I should be able to give the message the time it deserves instead of rushing through it.
Turn off Notifications
My first suggestion above was for you to fight your email on your own terms. This takes discipline and can be especially difficult if you are and email addict. I suggested that you not even open your email app until 3:00, but email is insidious and will try and lure you in without your having even opened the program. Gmail offers desktop notification that pop up every time a new message rolls in, and your phone will alert you with an audible signal and vibration that something new has appeared in your inbox. These stimuli are very difficult to resist. We have an almost reflexive response – we’ll tap on the notification and open the message. Once you’ve opened one message, your day is likely to be ruined.
I’ve dealt with this by turning all of my notifications off. Nothing buzzes at me, nothing pops up, and I can go about my day and get some actual work done!
If you find email to be a problem in your life, I would encourage you to give my suggestions a try. Even if email is not a huge issue for you, having a strategy for dealing with the few messages you do get will increase your sanity.
I would also encourage you to take the same approach to your social media activities.
By being thoughtful about how you interact with these powerful, and extremely useful technologies, you can win back one of your most valuable assets – your time.
Finally, please don’t feel like because you’ve read this article or heard me speak about email, you now have to feel embarrassed or apologize for emailing me before 3:00 p.m. I understand that your schedule and strategy might be different than mine, and, truthfully, I don’t pay any attention to when you sent your message. Just don’t expect a response before 3 o’clock!
How Have you Fared in Your Battle With Email?
What have you done to combat your overwhelming inbox? Do you agree with something I’ve said here? Disagree vehemently? Let me know! Share your thoughts in the comments below.