“It’s complicated” might be the best way to summarize our relationship with email. We acknowledge it would be difficult to manage life without it, yet we resent that compulsive need to check it—a full 74 times per day on average.
Thankfully there are tactics and tools for managing the deluge, and they don’t have to involve achieving the often-elusive (some would say ridiculous) goal of Inbox Zero. These simple approaches range from understanding email’s psychological and human attributes to apps that can prioritize and expedite without sacrificing output—or sanity. Here’s everything you need to know about managing email.
Understand the psychology behind email
Our attitudes towards email are deeply intertwined with our own psyches. Understanding this is the first step toward making email more manageable and less anxiety-producing.
First, realize that email triggers intermittent variable rewards. Our brains love pulling a lever (i.e. refreshing email) and knowing that the reward (i.e. the number of messages) will vary. It’s no coincidence that the most blatant example of the intermittent reward—the slot machine—is also the most profitable.
Next, there’s our basic human desire to return a received positive action with one of our own. While this may seem harmless enough, email’s frictionless nature means that complete strangers can guilt their way into our minds using the reciprocity principle. (Clever marketers regularly employ this tactic.)
And finally, don’t forget Newton. In her book Unsubscribe: How to kill email anxiety, avoid distractions, and get real work done, Jocelyn Glei applies Newton’s Third Law of Motion to the medium: “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Or said differently, the more you send, the more you receive.
When you do hit send, be precise
Repeat after me, “E-mail is not a substitute for conversations.” The next time you write an email, avoid asking open-ended questions and save yourself from the “boomerang effect” (that’s when you invite more email into your inbox than you intended, as a result of having sent out an email in the first place). Be concise in your message and specify the TL;DR and/or requested action upfront. Author and former finance executive Kabir Seghal recommends using a tactic from the military called the BLUF, or “Bottom Line Up Front.”
It’s also important to consider how much email gets read on mobile, not just from a length perspective, but also with respect to attachments. Venture capitalist Albert Wenger recommends substituting attachments with charts pasted into an email with a brief caption. This will limit the ensuing back and forth of “I couldn’t open the attachment, can you please resend.”
Use the right processing tools
Now that the emails are in your inbox, what are some ways to make processing them less painful? These tools fall into two categories: processing your inbox and responding more efficiently. The former consists of tools such as Mailstrom (to aggregate messages into similar categories), Sanebox (to automatically prioritize messages), and BatchedInbox (to deliver messages at preset intervals). To expedite the navigation process you can use Gmail keyboard shortcuts and Gmail Labs features (such as auto-advance) and to minimize keystrokes you can use canned responses and text expanders.
Find the right downstream systems
For many people, an email inbox evolves into a messy collection of stuff that generally falls into the categories of things to do, things to read, or things to schedule. Productivity blogger and consultant Tiago Forte argues that the blockage is not email itself, but where all these messages should ultimately go, which requires setting up the right downstream systems.
There are good tools available for organizing tasks (Things, Omnifocus), calendar events (Busycal, Fantastical), reference apps (Evernote, Quip), and material you want to read later (Instapaper, Pocket). As you process each message, give yourself five (and only five) options: responding directly or sending the item into whatever system you’re using to manage one of these four buckets.
At the end of the day, email is about human connection
It behooves us to remember that behind every email there are two human beings. We can lose sight of this by abusing recipients’ time, keeping unreasonable expectations, cutting out contentless responses (“thanks!”), giving the gift of two acronyms, NNTR and EOM (“No need to respond” and “End of message”) and remembering that if we disconnect for a bit, life will go on.
So here’s to reclaiming your time (and soul) from email hell. EOM.
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