Let me help you stop sucking at email

An artist’s rendering of email.

I’m constantly aghast at people’s email habits. Not because I think “inbox zero” (barf) is some kind of badge of honor or because I think the key to success is responding to every email within mere seconds of it hitting your inbox. I’m aghast at people’s email habits because apparently they are making people miserable. It’s one of the most common things I hear from clients and while I can’t necessarily help you solve your organization’s toxic communication problem with this hot take I think I might be able to help you get your head on a little straighter when it comes to what you do control — your habits.

So, in true “lifehack” form, here is a prime numbered list of things you can do to TAKE BACK CONTROL OF YOUR INBOX or BECOME AN EMAIL NINJA or maybe, more modestly, stop dreading your email so much:

I love checking my email because the first thing I do every time I open my inbox is look for an email to murder. I guess the technical term is “unsubscribe from” — but I prefer committing email murder. It’s really simple. Every time you open your email your number one job is to find every email that can be unsubscribed from. Likely culprits include super shitty marketing emails for companies you don’t care about, updates from social networks (let’s be honest, you’re going to go check Facebook in a second anyway… you don’t need that notification in your email), newsletters that used to be good but aren’t anymore… you catch my drift. Become a serial email murderer and you will thank me in a couple weeks when those shitty emails stop showing their faces so often.

For the love of God your email inbox is not your task list. You realize that basically anybody can email you, right? Anybody in THE ENTIRE WORLD can tap together a barely coherent string of sentences, send it to you, and then you treat the place where that thing lands as the list that tells you what you need to do? Like, for work? No! No! Your email is a place where potential things to do land and you being the smart and industrious professional you are will evaluate them in due time and decide whether they should be graced with your careful attention. But to do that you need to pull stuff out of your inbox and put it somewhere else. Like, almost literally anywhere else. In a pinch I guess you can use a separate folder in your email program to hold the emails you need to do something with but real next level shit is when you can pull out the actual tasks, in your own words, and put them on a list somewhere. I like Things because I started using it 10 years ago and I fear change. Use whatever you want. Just not your inbox.

When I was a small child one of my favorite things to do was organize my hockey cards. I had thousands of them and I wouldn’t blink twice at spending a weekend organizing them alphabetically, or by set number, or even sometimes by an obscure stat (who wouldn’t want their cards organized by penalty minutes?). It was tedious and pointless — much like filing emails into folders. Seriously, when is the last time you actually needed to find an email in a folder? What? Never? Maybe spending an extra couple seconds filing every email you receive into its respective folder for YEARS isn’t the best use of your time? (And if you answered that question by saying, “Earlier today,” well — good for you. You get to ignore this piece of advice). Search in email is pretty amazing now. All you need to do is remember at most two pieces of information and you can find any email ever sent you. It’s the best. And the best part is that you don’t need to spend your afternoon organizing your hockey cards… I mean filing your email.

Remember how I said that anyone in the world can write you an email? It’s bad enough that shit has to show up in your inbox. It’s 100 times worse if that piece of digital drivel triggers a notification that distracts you from something you were doing. No more notifications. For real. Turn them off. Even if you work somewhere where you’re basically expected to live in your inbox. Try checking your email every 15 minutes in those cases. Set an alarm if you want to, I don’t care! Just don’t let random ass notifications drive where you put your attention. You realize that email notifications are basically a perfect random reward schedule, right? This is what casinos use to get you to keep pumping your money into slots or what scientists use to get pigeons to keep pecking at a button until they are so obsessed its all they do. You are not a pigeon (I hope).

I guess I lied earlier when I said I had a prime number of hot tips for you. That’s just how I like to roll. Maybe use the time I just saved you by not giving you a 5th tip by not going to check your email.

Every day I write something. Sometimes I swear in those things. Sorry. You can yell at me on Twitter if you want.



Organization design guy at The Ready.

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