There’s an old adage about crap. “90% of everything is crap” declared the author Theodore Sturgeon in 1951. He was referring to his genre of science fiction, where he felt that 10% of the works deserved critical acclaim, yet were overshadowed by the 90% (of crap). It turns out that Sturgeon’s Law was ahead of its time, anticipating the digital deluge (and detritus) that comes with a the modern digital economy. And specifically a common nemesis: email.
Allow me to humblebrag here for a moment. In the words of Jay Z, “If you’re having email problems I feel bad for you son, I got 99 problems but email ain’t one.” Email doesn’t have to be the mental tax that saps us of our productivity, creativity, and focus. It can be a source of lightness and joy, a critical tool that can cut through the noise and let you double down on the “important, but not urgent” parts of your life.
Trust me, it’s possible. Despite sending and receiving hundreds of emails a day, I spend 32 minutes a day and usually run an inbox of ~10 messages. So here’s a four-step process to get you there.
1. Re-define email’s purpose
This should be obvious. Communication. But examining overwhelmed inboxes, you quickly see that email has transformed into a multi-headed monster serving a slew of different masters: reminders, reading lists, group chat and files. Let’s examine each one separately:
Email is not for Reminders
They say opposites attract and there’s no better example than my wife Lisa’s inbox. She stars her tasks and they sit on top of her Gmail inbox until completed. One of the starred messages: a gift certificate to change her last name from our wedding.
But here’s the catch: we got married EIGHT YEARS AGO! But without a dedicated task manager, this email lingers as a quiet mental tax, waiting to be executed upon
Task managers don’t have to be complicated. They can be as simple as lists in notebooks or the basic iOS reminders app. (My go-to is Omnifocus, which is based on David Allen’s GTD philosophy). But they play a critical role in distilling email back to its sole function of communication.
Email is not for reading lists (or podcasts or YouTube videos)
Your boss sends you an article to read. Your friend a podcast episode on networking. Your mom some obscure YouTube video with some 90s references that you feel guilty about deleting. All these pieces of content start to gather cobwebs in your Inbox, once again adding layers of distraction and anxiety.
The key here is to get these out of your inbox as soon as possible. One approach would be to use a Read It Later or Bookmarking app such as Pocket, Instapaper (or even sending the articles directly to your kindle). If you’re more advanced and have a dedicated Note-taking system then you can use their own web clippers (Notion, One Note and Evernote) to save the content.
You’ll now see how this integrates with your task manager. The article from your boss is also a task. The YouTube video from your mom, probably not. One has a penalty for being overlooked, the other doesn’t. Ensure that your systems treat these accordingly.
Email is not for saving things
Now I know people love their meticulously organized Outlook folders and Gmail labels. If your filing system works, then by all means, stick with it. But there’s a good chance using email as a file repository adds noise to your day and distracts you from your important communications.
In my experience people keep their files in email because they lack a system to keep them in a hierarchical framework. A very reliable (and easy to implement) system is Tiago Forte’s PARA method, which uses 4 “root” folders to organize all of your files.
2. Separate Signal from Noise
“Email is a system that lets other people add things to my to-do list,” wrote Esther Dyson an early internet pioneer. In our prior step, we got the tasks out of the inbox but we’re still left with a problem: the asymmetry of attention.
Email has no inherent prioritization method – all emails receive equal treatment. And that’s a problem, because your client and your college bros should not command the same level of attention. So how can we fix this asymmetry? How can we re-inject prioritization into our inboxes.
This the easy part. The first step is to unsubscribe from every single newsletter. (Take it a step further and search your entire inbox for the word “unsubscribe.”) In its place, create a separate email address (i.e. [email protected]) or use a service like StoopInbox that is dedicated to newsletters that you will check with a different level of frequency.
Next, there’s those pesky cc’s and FYI emails. I’m going to bet that this will be your most powerful takeaway from this post. Are you ready? Create a filter and separate folder where your name is not in the TO: field.
Here’s how to create this filter in Outlook and in Gmail. Now at first, you may need to create reminders to check this folder, but you’ll quickly realize that these FYI Emails are nothing more than noise.
Now let’s re-prioritize
Next, there are the messages that you can’t afford to miss. They could come from bosses, clients, and direct reports. Now that you’ve cleared out the clutter, how can we double-down on these VIPs so that you know to respond to them in a timely manner. This will depend on your tech stack and industry, but here are a few ideas:
- Get notified about key emails using Zapier rules
- Create VIP senders in iOS
- Automatically flag messages from specific senders in Outlook
And one last resort, if you run your own business: create a dedicated email for clients.
3. Identify your leverage
You probably find yourself re-writing the same emails often. This could include pitches to prospects, responses to mentoring requests, or asking to reschedule to a much later date. Investing a small amount of time to create a template can accrue a great deal of savings. Here are three ways to approach this:
Create templates in a Word Doc
Yes, it’s that simple. A simple Word Document with a handful of pre-typed responses that you can always copy and paste. And to avoid the dreaded “I didn’t mean to send this to you” flub up, make sure you never put ANY identifiers (i.e. proper names) into your templates.
Using text expanders or pre-canned messages
If you want to get a bit more precise, you can map these messages to different key strokes using the following approaches:
Use private blog posts to scale yourself
Writing is the ultimate vehicle to scale yourself. If you’re reading this, I know you have wisdom to share, in the form of playbooks, operating procedures, and advice.
A good rule of thumb is “If you get asked the same question 3 times, make a post out of it.” Now this doesn’t mean you need to fire up a WordPress blog and become the next Shane Parrish. Instead, just create a private file in Word/gDocs and share the link privately the next time you are asked the question.
4. Know thyself
Now this wouldn’t be a RadReads post without a healthy dose of introspection. And ultimately (and like most things) managing your email is an exercise in self-awareness, specifically regarding expectations, energy and perfectionism. Let’s evaluate each one.
When I managed a team at BlackRock, I would always say to my direct reports, “When you send me something, know that I’m grateful, but I’ll never say thank you.”
Why? Sending a thank you is just one more email for them to process. One more notification. One more throat-gulp resulting from an “Oh shit, my boss sent me an email”
Now with people you email regularly, setting expectations up front has a HUGE collective benefit for every single party. These expectations could include:
- When I log off/log on
- How quickly I expect you (or am expected) to respond
- How to reach me during an emergency
- Weird times when I send email
- How to end/sign off a conversation
A very high-leverage way to crystallize these norms is by creating a user manual with your team.
I’m a big believer in Tony Schwartz’s approach of managing Energy over Time (detailed in The Power of Full Engagement). And if you pair this idea with batching (or “time boxing”) you’ll find that your day usually offers you a lull where you can (somewhat mindlessly) rip through your inbox. So instead of grabbing that 3 pm Diet Coke, why not inject a 20 minute email burst to plow through those messages (and do the triaging listed in step 1)?
This post wouldn’t be complete without addressing the elephant in the room: Inbox Zero. If you follow the steps above, you should have a) a system in place and b) far less emails gnawing at your attention. Just like any set of behaviors, “perfect is the enemy of good.” The reality is that given the pace of receiving emails, Inbox Zero is an impossible point of equilibrium. Ultimately, you will know that you’ve got a working system and reasonable expectations once you feel the shroud of inbox anxiety melt away.
And then email can go back to being what it’s best served for. A means of communicating with the colleagues, clients, friends and family who are most important to you. The remaining 90%, after all, is just crap.
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