“Why are we still using email?”
If that’s a question you’ve asked yourself recently, you’re in good company. Despite the slew of communication alternatives cropping up almost daily, from Slack to Viber to Snapchat to WeChat, e-mail—which even The New York Times has called out for its “terrible, horrible, no-good impact on our daily lives”—has managed to endure against all odds.
And it’s only getting worse.
Today, e-mail isn’t just a stressful repository of messages from your boss and everyone else (Mom, marketers, incarcerated Nigerian princes who really need your help), it’s also a glut of other time-sucks: to-do lists, file transfers calendars, shared word processing… The cold, hard truth is, every time your e-mail pings in your pocket and you feel that knee-jerk excitement that makes you scramble for your phone, you have no idea what it’s for.
There’s got to be a better way to live, right? Right. Of course, you don’t have to disavow e-mail entirely, like BuzzFeed’s San Francisco bureau chief, Mat Honan, did earlier this year. (“I no longer use personal e-mail,” reads his autoreply. “Please contact me via another method.”) All you really need to do is get smarter about how you use it, download the right e-mail-friendly apps, and make sure you take advantage of the great new tools that make cleaning up your in-box a breeze.
Just follow these six steps and you’ll thank me later.
Step 1: Check your personal e-mail just three times a day (well, at least try to)
Yes, this is both supremely obvious and insanely hard to do, but it bears mentioning, thanks to a new study in Computers in Human Behavior that confirmed it: It’s healthier to look at your inbox less.
Two University of British Columbia scientists split 124 subjects into two groups: One group was allowed to check e-mail as often as they wanted, while the other was told to check it just three times a day and turn off all notifications. The eye-opening result: Subjects who looked at e-mail less felt significantly less stress; they also experienced “other positive outcomes, including higher mindfulness, self-perceived productivity, and improved sleep quality.”
Now, I understand that turning off e-mail for large stretches of a workday would likely be impossible, and would definitely test your willpower. And your job, of course, wouldn’t allow you this luxury. So I tracked down the study’s author, Kostadin Kushlev, and this was his advice: If nothing else, turn off your personal e-mail for large portions of the day and definitely disable notifications. The research has spoken, he says, and anything you can do to stop the glut of communications is well worth doing.
Step 2: Junk all the junk mail automatically
Remember that time you hopped on a long airplane flight and your e-mails piled up for a full workday? When you finally opened your in-box you saw that, among 200 unopened messages, only about four or five were actually important enough to require your immediate attention. Regardless, according to a survey conducted by GFI Software, 76% of workers say they typically respond to every e-mail in an hour or less. In short, not every e-mail is created equal. So let’s talk about the least worthy of the bunch: the clutter.
Rather than going through the cat-and- mouse game of clicking “unsubscribe” on every pesky marketing e-mail, you can save a lot of time by joining SaneBox (tagline: “Enjoy a clutter-free in-box every day”) and dragging things to the “SaneBlackHole”—trust me, you’ll never hear from those senders again. If you’ve got a more serious newsletter infestation because over time you’ve signed up for way too many things, head over to unroll.me, and with one click you can simultaneously unsubscribe from the hundreds of e-mails you don’t care about and roll the ones you do care about into a single daily digest you’ll actually read.
Step 3: Keep your work and personal e-mails separate—no exceptions
When a group of hackers posted the personal information of 32 million aspiring adulterers from the Ashley Madison website a few months ago, it struck me how many people use their work e-mail addresses for essentially everything.
Simple searches by journalists through the vast trove of data turned up more than 15,000 government employees using their .gov addresses, more than 9,000 using military members’ .mil addresses, and even hundreds of employees using the addresses of huge tech companies like Microsoft, Google, and Apple.
Now, aside from keeping private indiscretions private, there are several reasons you should a) have a personal account, and b) keep it completely separate from your work account. If, for example, you have e-mails from a work account, like Outlook, mixed with your Gmail in a single phone app, you should disentangle them and herd them into separate in-boxes. That way you won’t subconsciously assume they’re all the same address and accidentally confuse the two—say, if you’re signing up to, um, “make new friends.” Plus, when you’re off the clock you can check your personal e-mail without getting distracted by work stuff you could handle much better the next day.
Step 4: Get an e-mail “personal assistant” app
Thankfully, a bunch of new apps are making it easier to manage the deluge.
One new feature of a lot of these apps, including Google’s new Inbox and Dropbox’s Mailbox, is the ability to “snooze” mail so it can pop back up later when you can actually give it some attention. Whether you’ve stumbled into your e-mail at night and don’t need to reply till the next day, or you don’t have an answer yet and can’t reply till you do, snoozing e-mail is a great way to make sure the items you really will have to tackle don’t join the 10,000 unread e-mails you’ ll probably never get to.
Step 5: Get a handle on how you handle mail
Once you’re set up with a snoozing app, you’ll need to find a system for handling e-mail that’s easy and effective.
One method, says Melinda F. Emerson, author of Become Your Own Boss in 12 Months, is to let your mail clog up over the week. When you check your account, you open only what you think will be important and leave the rest untouched.
“At the end of each week,” she says, “look at all the unread e-mails and delete or unsubscribe from anything you didn’t bother to open.”
Step 6: Adopt tomorrow’s “e-mail” today
At my company, we’ve switched to an app called Slack, which works like a smarter version of Gmail’s chat and can be used by anyone on either a desktop or smartphone. Slack reduces your e-mail load and keeps all relevant conversations in one happy place. For instance, Slack works by creating separate chat rooms for each major project you’re involved in at your job (like a quarterly report) or with your friends (like a charity fund-raiser) and includes only the relevant partners in that chat room.
Consequently, everyone stays focused on specific projects. And you never have to waste time searching through your inbox for that one e-mail you need. Slack comes with all kinds of other benefits as well, like making it easier to switch from a group chat to a direct message, or to swap files with a larger group.
But chances are you’re stuck with your company’s Outlook, at least for now. If so, there’s one thing I’ve learned from Slack: Most work messages will fit snugly into an e-mail subject line, which will save everyone time. If possible, add “NRN,” for “No Reply Needed,” at the end. Your colleagues will be grateful for the time-saver.
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