I love email. It is a great way to communicate and it gives me a way to organise mails in a way that is far better than paper mail ever was. Paper mail used to hang around the door at home, work mail used to be dropped in to a never ending pile in my physical inbox. It was horrible. And then, if you lost that important letter, it was so much hassle trying to get a copy of the original letter.
With email I can control what I receive. I can block spam, newsletters and other digital debris that periodically enter my inbox, and unless I foolishly delete an important email, I am unlikely to lose those vital mails as the search functions in my email client is excellent. And since the introduction of smartphones I can reply to emails quicker than ever. Before email, Tuesdays used to be horrible. That was the day when I received the most mail and it was just a huge pile of important mixed in with a lot of crap, but to get to the important, you had to physically open the crap to see what it was before confirming it was crap. With email, you can see immediately, without opening the mail, whether it is important or not and a quick swipe on the screen permanently removes it if it is not important.
This is why I can’t understand why so many people give email a bad wrap. It is not as if we did not receive hundreds of physical letters every day before email went mainstream. We did, and it was a much bigger hassle to deal with it all. Okay, there was less time pressure. And we did of course have the excuse that the letter was “lost in the post”, but we can always claim an email was never received just as easily. And, if you are on top of your email, the time pressure should never really be a problem.
I think the reason why email gets such negative press these days is because someone somewhere back in the early 2000s once complained they got too much email. And that single person was a very disorganised, unproductive person. Their comments about email caught on and now it seems to be a cool thing to say that they get too much email. A kind of badge of honour if you like. It’s the “hey look at me! Aren’t I important. I get so many emails!” type of person.
The truth is, email is easy to maintain. If you treat your inbox as just that, an inbox, and whenever you get new mail, you decide immediately what it is and what you have to do with it (and of course, do it) email should never ever be a problem. If you are strict about what you receive, treat your email address as your home address, i.e. Not giving it out to just anyone who asks for it, and not subscribe to anything and everything that asks you to subscribe, you will find you don’t really get all that many emails. However, if you treat your inbox as a storage centre, give your email address to any person or website that asks for it, and you never make a decision about an email — what it is and what you have to do with it — of course your inbox will grow into a pit of despair. But that is not the fault of email. That is your fault.
If you want to love email again, here are some simple rules you can follow:
- Whenever you get an email, immediately decide what it is and what you need to do with it, and do it. Do not leave it in your inbox.
- Unsubscribe from all those newsletters you do not read. Only keep the ones you do read.
- Create 3 folders. 1 — Action today (all emails that need a reply today) 2 — Waiting for (all emails you are waiting for a reply) 3 — Archive (for all emails you need not do anything with)
- If an email does not fit in to any of the above folders, delete it.
- Treat your email address as you would you home address. You wouldn’t give your home address to any stranger you just met. Do the same with your email address.
- Create a dummy web-based email address you can use for home shopping accounts and other places where an email address is needed to join. Do not add this email address into your email client. Keep it as a web-based email account. This way the crap these companies send won’t clutter up your real inbox.
And that is all it takes to love email again. There should be no reason at all for having a long list of read emails in your inbox. If an email is opened, you need to do something with it. Reply, archive or delete. Simple. The real reason email is a problem today? People overcomplicate it. It really is simple. So, keep it simple.
Take some time this week to empty your inbox, a good tip is to select all the emails in there, save for the the most recent ten emails, and hit the delete key. Don’t worry, if you delete an important email the sender will soon send you a reminder. Alternatively, you could do a “soft email bankruptcy” and just move these emails into a temporary folder called “old inbox” and process that when you have time. Then follow the six rules above. You will soon find yourself falling in love with email. And that means one less thing to get stressed about.
Carl Pullein is a personal productivity specialist, presenter and author of Working With Todoist: The Book as well as Your Digital Life, a book about using your technology to achieve greater productivity. Carl works with clients all over the world to help them focus on the things that are important to them and to become more productive and creative.