I know – one of those kind of titles. Except it’s true… and it’s pretty great. I used to be terrified of opening my inbox. It gave me anxiety and Sunday night blues. I’d get up and delay it as long as possible and then tentatively hope there was nothing terrible in there, nothing urgent, nothing too important, nothing that required my reply… nothing to spend the day replying to tens of emails.
And here’s the part I tell you I used to receive between 100 – 150 emails per day. Depending on who you are that’s either a lot or very little. Either way it was too much for me and took up far too much time and brain space.
If you want to be a great designer, you design all day.
If you want to be known for being an academic, you go and get degrees and do research papers.
If you want to have a birds eye view of your business, develop your company, step up culture, take new directions, expand your creativity into new zones…you don’t spend your days writing emails.
You don’t do a lot of things, so you can do those things exceptionally.
So how do I get to that neat little inbox zero (that the OCD part in me feels like patting me joyously on the back for) most days?
Step 1. Archive
I was one of those people whose emails always stayed in their inbox. Between multiple work email accounts and personal. Read or unread. I always thought that was kind of normal. I tried email folder systems. Sometimes it worked. Often it didn’t because I just ended up searching my inbox for things. Until it started to drive me mental – the mental clutter of knowing I should clean it up, the unread email number always staring at me glaring in it’s red. So I switched over mail client to Airmail and promptly archived 12,000+ emails older than 3 weeks. Literally that means shift, highlight all, drag into archive folder. They’re all still searchable whenever I need to find something but I started at a clean slate. I went through the most recent emails, archived everything I’d actioned, and sorted everything else left.
Inbox Zero. Start again.
I promise you, it really is that simple and managing emails in folders is early always a waste of time with how we use technology now.
Step 2. Your Phone
Remove all email applications from your phone. You’ll stop getting distracted by them and you’ll learn to stop replying so fast and using email as your default communication method. Unless your job truly requires you as an absolute priority for you to stop what you’re doing and answer within 10 minutes.
Step 3. Project Management
This and Slack have made the biggest impact on my emails. I analyzed the emails I was receiving on a daily basis and they largely fell into these categories (in order of relevance) ::
- Client emails
- Internal / team emails
- Contractor & vendor emails
- Newsletters from products bought through the company card
- Interview & event requests, workshops, collaborations etc
A good 70% was coming from the top 3.
After researching, working with and playing around with many of the tools, I landed on Trello for clients (and we use it for a lot of things internally too). It’s visual, it’s easy and there isn’t really a learning curve so it suits the people we work with who are already overburdened.
Creating a template board we use for each project we are then able to track all project milestones and specific items in there with checklists, comments, attachments etc. At any time we know where everyone is at and we can eliminate a huge number of emails through comments on the relevant Trello cards. It’s much quicker than email (no formalities, just jump in and say your thing), you can quickly tag anybody else, somebody else on your team can comment to answer and everything is tracked in very logical sections so each card has it’s purpose unlike emails which end up a jumble of varying items. Asana and Wrike are more robust and a brilliant options for bigger teams.
Step 4. Slack
I jumped on the Slack bandwagon back when it was in Beta. I didn’t quite know what I was looking for but it turned out to be a bunch of guys with a gaming start-up that didn’t work (how many love stories start that way?). I wasn’t that into it originally. I remember trying to work out how it would benefit me or anyone else and wasn’t all that convinced. Until, probably in a moment of pure frustration, I decided to really try it just for internal communications and stick with it. And it worked. A channel for the team and amongst team members – those emails were just immediately gone.
And so I decided to use it with clients – a channel per client. Anything outside of the project specific items in Trello could then be inside our Slack channel. Quick questions, a strategy jam, clarifying what the UX flow was, setting dates and checking in. All there. Now even our partners & vendors use it – our accountants are on Slack, it’s glorious.
People often ask me if that isn’t just a replacement for email, that it’s just the same? It’s not. Slack works in real time so you can just pop in, ask or reply and leave. You don’t need the formalities. You don’t need the structuring. It’s a real conversation in one logical place with everyone who needs to be involved. Somebody can reply immediately and you can converse or somebody can jump in an hour later and then somebody again 2 hours later and the conversation just keeps going and flowing. You can drop in files, work & save files in there (such as google or Slacks native notes), integrate applications (and emails even), and intelligently search. Also, brevity is sexy (this coming from the woman who was known for long emails). It’s helped to totally curb that. By being focussed and efficient, it’s cut out a huge amount of time – and all those emails.
Slack also has an amazing phone app so if you do feel lost without your email client – here is your fix.
I use Slack for a lot more these days thanks to their bots, open community & hundreds of integrations & recipes (I’ll run through it in another post) and it’s now become an ecosystem from wherein a-lot-of-work instead becomes a-lot-easier.
Sidenote :: if you’re in a corporate, you’re in good company – teams at Samsung, Deloitte & NASA use Slack.
Step 5. Notify Me
All good things are still subject to our human tendencies. So schedule in your email checking times and set up your notifications properly. Unless you’re in a role where it is your sole focus to be answering emails all day (i.e that is what you’re competing on or the most important step to getting to where you want to go), then shut down your email inbox and open it at predetermined times (i.e block 1 hour of emailing in the morning and 30 minutes in the afternoon). It’ll help you to move communications into better areas where you can, keep your replies brief, necessary, kind and simple and not disturb your flow the rest of the day.
Same goes for notifications. You can set it up so you only get alerted when you specifically are tagged, by way of example. Or turn them off altogether and access when you purposefully make the time to.
Step 6. Unsubscribe
I have a seperate ‘junky’ email for things I’ve signed up to in the past (which gets a scan about once a quarter). My work emails are not the place for this but I often found once I’d purchased something for the business I’d land on newsletters. So hit that little unsubscribe on every email like that you receive (rather than simply deleting it like I did…because just like Aunt Mildred*, they keep coming back week after week) or use Unroll.me.
Step 7. Water your plants
These 7 thinking patterns or habits have helped me tremendously.
- Am I getting anxious because I don’t like so many emails or because I’m not happy in that project/job/client situation? How can I change that?
- If I stay on top of communications – often that’s just letting people know I’ll get to it at X date – then managing those expectations removes a lot of anxiety inducing communication.
- The faster you reply, the more people expect fast replies. Set your boundaries – if it’s not changing the world, it probably doesn’t need for you to interrupt the work that actually needs to get done, right this minute.
- In the corporate world if you leave an email for a little while you tend to get another one saying they solved the problem. Turns out it often works out the same in business.
- Is it important or is it urgent?
- There is war in Syria. And lots of other horrible things happening around the world. Is that email really that big a deal?
- Plants take you outside. Away from your computer. You breathe real, oxygen filled air. It’s peaceful. And it’s not email. It’s good to step away and shut all communications for the night (plus lovers, music, food… and probably kids, require attention).
I could write entire posts about the benefits of each of these areas. There’s improved internal communication, no more lost files, actually effective meetings, beautiful integrations (i.e every time there is a comment on a Trello card in that specific board it can update you in the Slack channel or starring an item in Slack adds it to your Todoist list), better communications with clients, longer term relationships with clients because you’re always at hand for them right there, no more email angst, better team involvement for remote teams & initiatives for the group…and little bots that do things like process expenses, get everyone up from the desks, congratulate & check in with people, give you analytics at your whim and a ridiculous amount more. For the few emails you have left, you can even have them land in Slack and reply to them.
I now receive about 7-12 emails per day.
Occasionally email still has it’s place.
It’s just not a time consuming space.
*I don’t have an Aunt Mildred and I haven’t read Harry Potter or an old English novel lately. But it felt right to say it.
Update: as many people have asked, I do receive more emails in total in the form of unsolicited sales, media outlets or newsletters – I unsubscribe where I can and delete straightaway.