Taming The Email Beast

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In the 1950s, when consumer electronics such as vacuum cleaners and washing machines emerged, there was a belief that household chores would be done in a fraction of the time.

We know now it didn’t work out that way. Our definition of clean changed. Instead of wearing underwear for multiple days, we started using a fresh pair every day, and so the amount of washing required increased. In short, technology enabled us to do more, not less.

Our work environments have followed a similar path. Tools such as email enable us to communicate more, rather than make life easier. In fact, many people are now overwhelmed by the amount of email they receive.

The Problem Of Email

Email has changed our expectations of communication; most of us feel like we need to be constantly available. We are tied to our email-enabled devices, and, like Pavlov’s dog1, we have to check email every time the bell rings.

We are constantly available, constantly interrupted and continually overwhelmed.

Going offline isn’t the answer. As Web designers, we do not just build websites; we provide services to our clients. Therefore, we need to keep our clients happy, and that can only be done by regular communication. Clients need constant reassurance that their project is in hand, and they need continual chivying to provide the feedback and contributions we require to do our job.

Like it or not, email is a necessary evil. But that doesn’t mean it needs to rule us. We can tame the beast, and it all starts by doing less.

Like any beast, the more you feed email, the bigger it becomes. It’s time to put email on a diet. We can achieve this in a simple way: by using email less.

Send Less

Believe it or not, doing considerably less with email while still effectively communicating with our clients and colleagues is perfectly possible.

You probably don’t need to send out nearly as many emails as you do. You could almost certainly reduce the number of people you copy in your emails. Remember that the more email you send out, the more email you will get back. It’s that simple.

Email is not always the best form of communication. A face-to-face meeting or a phone call is usually much more effective. After all, what we actually say is the minority of communication. Tone of voice and body language are critically important.

Instant messaging (IM) is another option to consider. While it is intrusive at times, it can be perfect for quick questions. Email encourages long-form communication, while IM tends to be shorter.

That being said, there is no reason why emails need to be long.

Write Less

The less you write in emails, the less people will write in reply. People tend to mirror the behavior of others; so, if you want to receive more concise emails, start writing emails that are to the point yourself.

You might feel that short emails are less friendly and come across as cold, but these problems can be worked around.

Try linking to five.sentenc.es2 in your signature. That website will perfectly explain the brevity of your emails.

skitch-500_mini3
Linking to five.sentenc.es makes it clear to clients that you keep your emails short because you value their time. Larger view4.

An even easier option is to adopt the “Sent from my phone” signature that many people use these days, a good excuse for getting to the point.

Please don’t misunderstand. Being friendly and personable with clients is important. But email is not the place to do that. If you want to chat, pick up the phone.

Email should feel more like Twitter than traditional mail. In fact, many people are abandoning email entirely and turning to Twitter as their primary communication tool.

If this step feels too big, try summarizing your email at the top. This will make it easier for the reader to get the gist of your message if they are busy. Also, you will find that people start doing the same in their emails, making reading much quicker.

In addition to sending less email and shortening your messages, reducing the amount you receive is possible.

Receive Less Email

The easiest way to cut down on replies is to tell people that they do not need to reply. Putting abbreviations such as NRN (no reply necessary) or FYI (for your information) in the subject line will help with this. But that won’t stop unsolicited email.

Most of us get a lot of unsolicited email, despite the excellent spam filters that most email services provide. These emails are often newsletters that we’ve never subscribed to or announcements from companies from which we once made a purchase. Regardless of whether we ever did agree to receive these emails, they are now cluttering our inbox.

You might be tempted to just delete these and keep wading through the rest of your email. But take the time to find the “Unsubscribe” link, because these companies will not contact you just once. They will email you again and again until you stop them.

If they don’t include an “Unsubscribe” link, create an email rule that automatically deletes them. Those couple of minutes now will save you time and distraction in the long run. If you really are too busy to find those “Unsubscribe” links, then try out Unroll.me5, which makes unsubscribing even easier.

Unroll.me_5006
Unroll.me makes unsubscribing to emails easier than ever. Larger view7.

However you do it, unsubscribing from mass emails will dramatically reduce your load. But don’t stop there; consider unsubscribing from newsletters that you did sign up for.

Keep Email For Communication Only

Part of our problem is that we have turned email into something it naturally is not. For example, many people use their inbox as a place to read news. Email was never really meant for that. Ample apps (such as the wonderful Feedly8) provide this functionality.

Feedly_500_mini9
Use an app like Feedly to read news, rather than your email client. Larger view10.

Others use their email client as a repository for files that they want to keep. This makes little sense because a much more powerful filing system is built into their operating system.

And yet others use their inbox as a task manager, marking emails as starred or unread to remind themselves to take some action. However, dedicated tasks managers will help you work much more efficiently.

Omnifocus 2_mini_border11
Your email client is not nearly as good a task manager as applications such as OmniFocus12. Always use the best tool for the job. Larger view13.

Turning email into something else merely clutters our inbox, making the job of reading and writing actual email less efficient.

To tame the beast, use email as a communication tool, not as a way to manage files, read news or schedule tasks.

While the techniques above will reduce the amount of email coming in, they address only the symptoms and not the root cause of our problem — which is our addiction to email.

Breaking Our Addiction

The reference earlier to our Pavlovian response to the audio notification of incoming email was slightly tongue in cheek, but accurate nonetheless.

Upon hearing that beep, we find it hard not to look. But checking email every five minutes adds up to over 32,000 interruptions a year! That is a phenomenal number.

Do we really need to check email that much? Almost certainly not. The majority of email that comes in either is unsolicited or can wait a few hours. The number of emails that genuinely require urgent action is relatively low.

The problem is that we perceive certain emails as being urgent when they are not. It’s just a matter of training our clients not to expect an immediate response. Of course, that is not always possible.

What we need is a way to be notified of only the important emails. Fortunately, achieving this is relatively easy. Start by turning off notifications in your email client. They are just too indiscriminate, notifying you of every single message that comes in.

Instead, sign up for a service, such as AwayFind14, that will notify you by text or app notification when an email comes in that meets certain requirements. For example, you could choose to receive notifications only of emails from a particular client or about that day’s meeting.

Awayfind.com_500_mini15
AwayFind notifies you about only the most important emails, freeing you from the shackles of constant alerts. Larger view16.

If you don’t want to pay for this service, you could try IFTTT17.

The point is to free yourself from constant interruption. Knowing that important messages will reach you instantly, you can comfortably check email only a couple of times a day. I check email first thing in the morning, at lunchtime and at the end of the business day. That way, I can respond reasonably promptly without having my workflow interrupted.

And when you do check your email, be organized in the way you deal with it.

Organizing Your Email

A lot of people make email more complicated than it needs to be because they are not organized. The biggest offenders are those who never move email out of their inbox.

Having an inbox filled with hundreds or thousands of emails increases the time it takes to process new messages. With so much clutter, figuring out what needs to be dealt with and what has been read becomes confusing. No matter how in control you may feel, things are bound to fall between the cracks.

Your inbox is where email arrives, but it shouldn’t stay there. Instead, clear your inbox every time you open your email client. You don’t necessarily have to act on every email right away — just read it and decide what to do with it.

You have five options upon reading an email:

  • Act on it.
    If you have time to act on the email immediately, then do so. This could mean responding or completing a task. But don’t feel obliged to act immediately if you have higher priorities.
  • Defer it.
    Too busy to deal with the email immediately? No problem. Turn it into a task that sits in your task manager. You can then deal with it on your own time and view it alongside your other tasks.
  • File it.
    Many emails we receive require no particular action, but merely provide useful information. In such cases, archive the post for future reference. With today’s powerful search tools, there is little need to tag it or add it to a folder. But do move it out of the inbox.
  • Delete it.
    If the email is spam or has no long-term value, delete it.
  • Delegate it.
    Some emails require action, but you might not be the best person to do it. In those cases, delegate the task by forwarding the email to the relevant person.

The lesson in all of this is that your inbox is just a holding place for unprocessed email. Once you have read it and decided what to do with it, move it out of your inbox to make room for future emails.

Start Today

You might be intimidated by the prospect of having to process all of those emails staring back at you in your inbox. This might all sound like too much work. I promise you it will be worth it.

If the inbox is too overwhelming, just declare bankruptcy. Archive everything except this week’s email. If any emails from more than a week ago haven’t been addressed yet, replying to them now would probably be too late anyway.

Archiving all of that email will leave you with a manageable load. Work through each email and decide what to do with it. If you get a lot of email, this could take some time, but it will be worth it. Remember that you don’t have to act on everything immediately. Defer actions until later by bouncing them to your task list. The trick is to process everything out of your inbox. Do that and I promise you will never look at email with the same horror again.

So, those are my tips on managing email. What are yours? What do you think of email clients such as Mailbox18? Or have you a completely different approach? Let us know in the comments. We’d love to hear your perspective.

(al)

Footnotes

  1. 1 http://www.simplypsychology.org/pavlov.html
  2. 2 http://five.sentenc.es
  3. 3 http://five.sentenc.es/
  4. 4 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/skitch_mini.png
  5. 5 https://unroll.me
  6. 6 https://unroll.me
  7. 7 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/Unroll.me_mini.png
  8. 8 http://cloud.feedly.com/#welcome
  9. 9 http://cloud.feedly.com/#welcome
  10. 10 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/Feedly_mini1.png
  11. 11 http://www.omnigroup.com/products/omnifocus/
  12. 12 http://www.omnigroup.com/products/omnifocus/
  13. 13 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/Omnifocus-2_mini.png
  14. 14 http://awayfind.com/
  15. 15 http://awayfind.com/
  16. 16 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/Awayfind.com_mini.png
  17. 17 http://ifttt.com
  18. 18 http://www.mailboxapp.com

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Paul Boag has been working with the web since 1994. He is now co-founder of the web design agency Headscape, where he works closely with clients to establish their web strategy. Paul is a prolific writer having written the Website Owners Manual, Building Websites for Return on Investment, Client Centric Web Design, Digital Adaptation and numerous articles for publications such as .net magazine, Smashing Magazine and the Web Designers Depot. Paul also speaks extensively on various aspects of web design both at conferences across the world and on his award winning Web design podcast boagworld.

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  1. 1

    Perfect timing Paul. I need to tame this bad boy and pronto!

    3
  2. 2

    I wasn’t there in the glory days of water-wells and mangles, etc., so this isn’t the most objective comment.. never-the-less… the emergence of washing machines has only led me to buy more undercrackers and actually do a much less regular wash (than I imagine I would have been forced to with a mangle), since you can cram so many in at a time.

    P.S. I think emails should be as long (or short) as they need to be. Typically I use emails to communicate important information – or anything with numbers :) If I have a burning question then Skype gets fired up – or the phone gets picked up. Most of my clients simply don’t have the inclination to break too far away from the norm.

    2
  3. 3

    “we started using a fresh pair every day”, I don’t know, man, talk for yourself

    12
  4. 4

    This was packed with great tips, thank you. So well thought out. I need an app like AwayFind immediately.

    1
  5. 5

    I would add trying not to use HTML email as much as we can.

    Too many times I see internal emails with one or two sentences of text, and a huge HTML signature with images, links and policies that don’t need to be there… If we make ourselves use text only emails more often, dealing with the real information and conversations would be much easier.

    Nice post.

    8
    • 6

      That is a great point Ramon. I hate those big HTML signatures. My signature is now simply a link… http://boagworld.com/email

      6
      • 7

        I’d really love to see an article about good signature styles and when to use them. A full signature is only needed very rarely, a light signature might be the best choice for a starting conversation, but in replies (account for almost half of all emails) signatures are just disturbing.

        1
  6. 8

    Lots of great tips here, Paul. My team is trying to deal with inbox overload by making the mail client itself smarter, rather than forcing the user to do all the triage work.

    Our client, Inky (http://inky.com) helps you, to use your phrase, “process everything out of your inbox,” by automatically identifying daily deals, social emails, newsletters, and so on, and assigning them to dedicated “Smart Views'”. Inky also offers one-click unsubscribe, package tracking, and address mapping right in the mail client, and a host of other time-saving features. We hope you’ll check it out and give us feedback; it’s in beta now.

    8
  7. 10

    One of the best tips I ever got was to turn off the toolbar popup notification in Outlook. I get so much more done because I don’t get distracted with every email.

    0
  8. 11

    Norbert Haacks

    July 2, 2013 6:07 pm

    I started using Mailstrom (https://mailstrom.co/) to get a hold of the thousands of mails that started to pile up in my inbox. Although it’s not a one click solution to get everything organized it helps a lot to get rid of sometimes hundreds of spam mails that piled up over the years or Amazon/iTunes receipts or delivery status messages. I know Google Mail can do a lot of the same things Mailstrom can but Mailstrom makes it easy and gives great feedback on how many mails still need to be processed.

    0
  9. 12

    Great post, Paul. Diverting news to web apps like feedly makes a lot of sense.

    The other segment that takes up a lot of my inbox are coupons and deals. Any idea if there’s a feedly to keep track of offers and all those emails I get from signing up for shopper rewards?

    0
  10. 13

    “Others use their email client as a repository for files that they want to keep. This makes little sense because a much more powerful filing system is built into their operating system.”

    wow.

    I disagree.

    Few platforms are as useful for general file hosting than a Yahoo or Gmail account – accessible from and integrated with most devices and non-smart phones, you can receive multiple attachments (sorted by date/recipient) and easily share, download and forward those files to others.

    With an offline client, you can easily download everything locally if you wish – and mostly, this is FREE.

    2
    • 14

      You are probably speaking about storage services like Google Drive, and not your actual email in-box.

      0
  11. 15

    Very interesting. Thanks for sharing your work!!

    0
  12. 16

    Great set of tips. The one I use the most is organizing messages out of my inbox folder – tend to (at least) have one folder per project. And can even set some rules to move messages automatically depending on some key-words in the subject (or sometimes from specific senders only relating to a single project). I find that google’s method doesn’t always work for this type of organisation though – it’s more like leaving everything in one folder, but adding tags to each message, then filtering by tag. Works alright if not 1000’s of messages per week.

    As for use as a file store, I’m in 2 minds. As alfred points out, it’s a quick-fix solution to collaborative sharing of files. But there’s a limit: the more you use your email for this, the more cumbersome your client is going to become (think size of all messages cause the client to slow down or even crash – one of the major reasons I no longer use Outlook). I think this area might need some qualification. E.g. if it’s only a bunch of small doc / xls files it might be alright, but when such becomes huge PDFs / JPGs / Videos etc. you should really rather use a file-sharing site and simply link to it in the emails.

    In one sense in my industry (Construction Architecture) the drawing files we generally send to and fro between consultants can get huge. Generally it’s strange to see any file smaller than 1MB, and nothing to even lift an eyebrow for if the file is 20MB (or more). Most email servers would even just block such large messages. So for me I use stuff such as drop-box / box / google drive / etc.

    And depending on your client it can automate the upload+link, e.g. if you use Thunderbird it even asks you when you attach a file to the email if you’d rather use one of the share sites, then it’s a one click from there. I think Outlook also has something similar, but I’ve only used it 5 years ago – so can’t say too much about it.

    0
  13. 17

    Be careful about ‘Unsubscribe’. If the email originated from a company that you have purchased from or that you subscribed to, then unsubscribing is probably OK.

    But for unsolicited emails, the ‘Unsubscribe’ button can be used by the mailer as a validation that the email address has a person on the end and is an encouragement for them to send even more junk to you. Also, check the URLs – make sure that the domain matches the sender; and watch out for links to website from the ‘Unsubscribe’ button: it could be a malware or a data gatherer. As a general principle, it is safer to set up blacklists / junk filters ideally on your email server or alternatively in your email client than it is to risk using an Unsubscribe button / link from an unknown source.

    3
  14. 18

    Excellent article.

    I would point out…as I do tend to use my inbox to keep track of SOME tasks and to-do lists…but not by choice. To date, there are great task manager apps and software, but almost none that have multi-device or multi-platform synchronization (phone, tablet, laptop, pc) with the Android world (or Blackberry and Windows Phone either. Google tasks, Outlook/Hotmail tasks and Yahoo lists are overly simplistic and don’t have the feature support necessary, and almost every software and online service provider have somehow “forgotten” the task portion. They sync contacts, events, mail but not tasks.

    It’s been a frustrating four years dealing with the issue. Now with Google Reader’s demise, trying to keep multiple devices and reader apps in sync is also much more difficult and an email inbox might seem to be an easy solution. Sad but true. Not disagreeing, but reality is different and more difficult for some of us.

    Again, thanks for the information

    0
  15. 19

    I have trying to use email less and less lately. I just get in bad habits of using it for things where simpler methods will suffice, and then use that as an excuse to check more and more… a vicious cycle! I will have to try out some of the advice laid out here. Smart post!

    0
  16. 20

    It’s all very well suggesting the number of sentences to use but why take advice from someone who doesn’t know that you can’t have less than five sentences, you can only have fewer!!

    1
  17. 21

    Excellent article – Like it a lot; its more then the common marketing speech. Thank you!

    0
  18. 22

    Jason Bradberry

    July 6, 2013 9:49 am

    Great article, I’ve taken a similar approach this year and it’s paid off hugely.

    To add to the note about Unroll.me – what wasn’t mentioned was that it’s not just good for unsubscribing to unwanted emails, but also a great way of getting all those newsletters/emails that you *do* want to stay subscribed to out of your inbox.

    Unroll.me will “roll up” all these emails into a single daily email that takes 30 seconds to scan through for anything noteworthy. Absolutely great for anyone who finds value in getting news via email, but wants to keep a perfectly clean inbox and have the best of both worlds.

    0
  19. 23

    Lots of great tips here. “The less email I send, the less I’ll receive” is so simple and effective!

    I will admit that I am one of those people who uses my inbox as a to-do list with flags etc. It is just EASIER and less time-consuming than transferring all of the tasks in those emails to a *different* to-do/tracking system.

    0
  20. 24

    Valerie Thompson

    July 12, 2013 2:43 pm

    Man… i really needed to see this post. I have been a slave to my email, and it does create a distraction especially when i’m in my creative zone. I love the idea of using the “sent from my phone” signature… genius!

    0
  21. 25

    If all this advise fails you could just put your inbox on autopilot and get back to playing video games: http://rrremail.com

    Seriously though thanks, for the advise, Paul. The beast has destroyed my productivity more times than I’d like to admit.

    0

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