After recognizing why I was having so much trouble with email in my previous article, I decided to operationalize and experiment with what I just learned.
1. Craft modified to-do lists the night before, and read the to-do lists before going online.
I developed a bad habit of checking my emails and Facebook right after waking up. My day becomes all about reacting and responding to those notifications and emails. I am not able to prioritize my most important and meaningful work. Another problem is how my work is so tied up with Facebook. My co-workers exchange messages on Facebook. We monitor comments on Facebook. We post stories on Facebook. I manage the comments and questions of interns in our Facebook group. But my favorite entertainment websites, clickbaits, and guilty pleasures are also on Facebook, too.
After realizing these, I told myself that I would focus on “meaningful work” before responding to emails. The problem was, I was still tempted to check emails in the morning. Instead of replying to them immediately, I did other “meaningful” things—and then totally forgot to reply to them.
I applied Glei’s tip, but I modified it. She suggested writing to-do lists a night before. But on top of that, I divided my to-do list into two categories: tasks to do before going online, and tasks that require the Internet. I also set a specific time in the day when I would allow myself to go online—usually after brunch. The tasks that fell under things to do before going online usually required strategic and creative thinking: crafting blog posts, planning out an editorial calendar, editing my thesis, writing email pitches, writing email newsletters, and more.
This system really works for me, because even the act of replying to messages and crafting posts in the Facebook groups I manage (for work and group works in class) are done offline. I have fewer chances of being distracted. I simply copy-paste my responses and posts from my Evernote, and then catch up on emails, tagged comments, and personal messages afterward.
2. Remember the two-minute rule.
The only flaw to #1 is that from time to time, I still get tempted to check emails before my scheduled time. If I don’t reply immediately after seeing the message, my tendency is to totally forget about it. And the more I put something off, the more it feels like it’s a daunting task—even when replying to it takes less than a minute. James Clear, quoting David Allen, wrote about this.
It’s surprising how many things we put off that we could get done in two minutes or less. For example, washing your dishes immediately after your meal, tossing the laundry in the washing machine, taking out the garbage, cleaning up clutter, sending that email, and so on. If a task takes less than two minutes to complete, then follow the rule and do it right now.
3. Archive it all!
This was the most refreshing step for me. I didn’t learn it from Glei. I learned it from Pam Llaguno, one of the bloggers I’ve been following for a while now. In her blog post, “#EmailSanity: 7 fail-proof tips to CONQUER your inbox now,” Pam wrote:
Here’s my take on it—your inbox was never meant to be a permanent home for any e-mail. It’s called inbox because it was made for “incoming” e-mails. Once you’ve seen the e-mail, then it’s no longer an “incoming” mail and thus, it doesn’t belong in your inbox. Some people use their inbox as a place to house their actionable e-mails (a.k.a. e-mails that need attention—it has to be replied to, or you’re waiting for a reply on that e-mail, or there’s a link that you need to review, attachment that needs to be downloaded, etc.). But I find this method to be highly ineffective. Why? Everyday, your inbox receives, let’s assume, ten e-mails. This means that every day, your actionable e-mails get pushed down ten rows (since new e-mails usually occupy the top rows). Sometimes, they get pushed back to the next page. How are you supposed to remember taking action on those e-mails when they’re buried in your inbox? Archive your entire Inbox. Don’t worry, archived mails are NOT deleted. They’re simply filed under a label “All Mail” and is completely searchable. But the magical thing is, they’re not in your inbox. Learn to make archiving a habit. The keyboard shortcut for Gmail is “e.” Just press the letter on an open e-mail conversation. (Please note that you have to activate this shortcut in the Settings.)
I followed her tip, and it has made the biggest difference! The task of responding to unread emails always feels so daunting. When I look at even just one of the five email accounts I maintain (four for my different kinds of work, one for school) I always feel so intimidated by all those emails I have to skim through just to even identify which ones I haven’t replied to yet. I’m also slightly terrified that I would lose or forget one actionable email amidst all the other emails.
For my Christmas vacation, I forced myself to go through the first page of ALL the five emails, reply to those I haven’t replied to yet, and then archive everything. In five email accounts. I had nothing to worry about because they’re not deleted. And they’re also not worth filing into folders, because Gmail’s search options are already very reliable.
If you want to do the same, select all of your messages and click the ARCHIVE button. Helpful tip: By default, Gmail offers to archive only the first fifty messages. Select All Mail on the right side:
This is what all my emails look like now when I access them from my laptop:
This is what all my emails look like now when I access them from my phone and iPad:
Naturally, it won’t look that way for long. You’ll still be receiving and sending emails. Here’s what you could do for a long-term solution.
Go to Settings -> General -> Send and Archive. Select the “Show ‘Send & Archive’ button in reply” option.
Here’s what it would look like everytime you reply to someone.
That way, once you’ve already replied to an email, your inbox would look clean and clutter-free again. The only emails that are visible in your inbox are the unread and actionable emails.
This has helped me so much–probably more than I could explain! I had a visual representation of all the things I had to take care of. It removed the stress of having to search for actionable emails or wonder, right before I fell asleep, if I missed any emails. It also made me procrastinate less in replying because the clean dashboard just looked so beautiful.
4. Lessen the number of emails in the first place.
This is a lesson I learned from Vince Golangco, the founder of WhenInManila.com. He always tells us, “Don’t just work hard. Work smart.” He applies the same principles to emails. (Why work hard in responding to all those emails when you can set up a more efficient system—when people no longer need to e-mail you?) He made an FAQ page on WhenInManila.com, and I’ve done the same with the internship program. If I get at least three emails from different people asking about the same thing, I edit to the FAQ section of the blog post about the internship.
Lessening the number of emails I get also includes being as specific as I can. I learned that a lot of my emails and group chats on Facebook over Christmas went like this:
Friend A: Let’s have a reunion during Christmas break!
Friend B: Game!
Friend C: I’m also game! When and where?
Friend C, D, E….: Up to you!
And then goes the very mind-numbing process of “up to you” over and over again. For days. And it’s amazing how this is often the cause of hangouts that don’t push through. It’s also the cause of email and group chat overload. When I realized this, I started to write emails and group chats as if I were writing a lead for a news article—complete with the who, what, where, when, why, and even the how. I try not to sound pushy about it by adding that if he/she wants something else, I’m up for it.
Lastly, lessening the number of emails I get also includes unsubscribing from newsletters. Years ago, I tried to do this manually. I went through my emails and unsubscribed one by one. But it took too much time, and I just gave up. And then I read Unsubscribe, which led me to discover unroll.me.
This leads me to my next takeaway: use tools.
5. Use tools.
There are two things that Unroll.Me does:
- Getting rid of the junk
We identify your subscription emails and neatly list them for you. We give you the option to unsubscribe from junk emails right off the bat. One click and they’re gone. Done.
- The Rollup: Organizing the subscriptions you like
Now that your inbox is junk free, easily combine your favorite subscriptions into a beautiful daily digest email called the Rollup. You choose what gets rolled up and when you receive your Rollup. Like to browse email with your morning coffee? You can get all your newsletters and social notifications at 7 a.m. each day. It’s up to you.
This is what Unroll.me looks like when you key in your email address.
At first, I wanted to check all 62 subscriptions. I didn’t want to unsubscribe from ALL of them. But it took too much time to check all 62 subscriptions and to make 62 decisions on whether or not I wanted to keep getting emails from them. (And I had five email addresses!) I later realized that if I want to visit a website, I could do that anytime. I didn’t need more email clutter and more sources of distraction whenever I logged into my emails.
5.2) Email on Deck (emailondeck.com)
After some time, as I browsed through the Internet, I chanced upon new websites that offered freebies if you subscribe to their newsletter. Without realizing it, I had about ten new subscriptions in just a few days!
But the true email pro has another trick up her sleeve: Email on Deck (emailondeck.com), a service that provides free temporary email addresses that look real but are not. This is ideal for when you need to submit an email address to get access to something but you don’t actually want to subscribe to yet another email newsletter.
This is something I discovered even before reading Unsubscribe. I discovered it when I was trying to find ways in Gmail to send scheduled emails. I later found out that Boomerang does so much more than that. This video explains Boomerang very well:
My favorite feature for Boomerang is the option to send recurring messages. In the video above, the user sends a recurring monthly email to his roommates, reminding them about the rent. This feature is incredibly helpful to me. A lot of my work would involve repetitive administrative duties. I’ll send weekly reminders of deadlines to fill up the editorial calendar, or monthly reminders to remind everyone to update their Spreadsheet tabs with a list of articles they worked on. Boomerang is like an email personal assistant who does all that for you.
Ever since I archived everything, I didn’t get to use Sortd very much. (After all, there wasn’t anything left to sort!) But Sortd is still worth mentioning if you can’t reply to messages on one go and want a system to organize actionable emails.
You flag, star and mark messages unread to try and stay on top of things, but your email gets messy and out of control. Here’s the problem –important emails get lost below the fold and you lose track. Let’s face it, your Inbox just wasn’t meant to be a To Do list. Sortd expands your Inbox into a flexible set of lists for important email and other stuff. Your emails, tasks and priorities now live together in one easy-to-use drag and drop workspace. Sortd is the perfect place for those emails you aren’t sure what to do with. Sortd brings the worlds of emails and tasks together – if you can’t respond to an email right away, simply drag it to your To Do list and get to it later.
6. Identify what “meaningful work” means to you, and make your progress on that work visible.
This is my last and most important takeaway.
When I went offline and sat on my desk to do “meaningful work,” I didn’t know what to do. I realized that I didn’t even know what “meaningful work” meant to me anymore! I don’t get to maximize my contribution to the company or to any group by simply clearing my inbox. I have to be strategic, proactive, and creative—not simply reactive. I decided to really think about what meaningful work means to me, and I came up with ways to make my progress in those works visible. This probably deserves a separate blog post, but here’s a general overview.
Over the holiday break, I came up with a specific list of revised deliverables (and how they contribute to the company) and sent them to my bosses. That way, I not only have a visible checklist of revised tasks—I also have a form of accountability.
Other examples of “meaningful work” for me is this blog and commitment to becoming healthier. To make my progress visible, I printed out the free Habit Tracker from Passion Planner, and pasted it on my own planner.
Here’s a photo of what it looks like. (Photo from Passion Planner)
Passion Planner suggested having a Weight Loss Jar, but I think it could be applicable to other things related to your work as well. For example, the jar on the left can be the number of blog posts you have to write before you launch your blog post. Or the number of chapters you have to write before you finish the first draft of your thesis. And because you stick the photos at the back of your journal or planner, it makes your progress chart visible and portable.
Photo from Passion Planner
After following these tips and tricks, I never went on an email relapse again. I felt like my inbox (and consequently, my work) became more manageable. I used to put myself through so much stress and self-loathing because of email—and I’m so relieved that I’m already past that. While I hope you found this post helpful, I know that you will most likely have to experiment with the tips and tools I mentioned. I know it seems counterproductive to read about email and experiment with your email habits instead of simply clearing your inbox. But setting up a system that works for you is a time asset, while blindly rushing through the day is a time debt. (More on time assets and time debts here.) It might take a while, but I hope you don’t give up on figuring out a system that works best for you. It is so worth it!