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Taming The Email Beast

Quick Summary

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.

Taming The Email Beast

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.

Table of Contents

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.

Further Reading on SmashingMag:

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 dog, 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.es in your signature. That website will perfectly explain the brevity of your emails.

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Linking to five.sentenc.es makes it clear to clients that you keep your emails short because you value their time. Larger view.

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.me, which makes unsubscribing even easier.

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Unroll.me makes unsubscribing to emails easier than ever. Larger view.

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 Feedly) provide this functionality.

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

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_border
Your email client is not nearly as good a task manager as applications such as OmniFocus. Always use the best tool for the job. Larger view.

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 AwayFind, 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_mini
AwayFind notifies you about only the most important emails, freeing you from the shackles of constant alerts. Larger view.

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

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 Mailbox? Or have you a completely different approach? Let us know in the comments. We’d love to hear your perspective.

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