Email is a fact of life. The Kool-Aid served by chat app companies doesn’t solve “the overload issue” simply by constricting you to their walled gardens. Being in the productivity game 24/7, I’ve recently come to appreciate the full potential of email. It can be much less of an attention drain as long as you’re smart about it - and I’m not talking inbox zero here.
The Broken Process
Proponents of the inbox zero method say you need to deal with everything immediately to prevent unmanageable build-up. That’s alright if you’re John Smith who gets 121 emails per day. But I run a company and get anywhere from 200-400 messages (on a good day). Inbox zero to me was akin to developing a distracting twitch to press delete or reply every few minutes.
I’d often find myself stopping in mid-sentence just to delete a notification email. Then one day, after suffering an intense pang of email burnout, I decided to do the opposite - I chose to let all my email pile up for 24 hours. Admittedly, observing without fussing about it felt satisfyingly Zen. And then came the insight.
The first thing that struck me was the amount of email I was getting. My estimate would’ve been 80 - but it turned out to be 200 messages on a slow Friday. That meant 200 things that had to be read and acted upon – replied, delegated, archived, or deleted.
I could also clearly see what kind of email I was getting. There was email by fellow humans (3%) and email by machines (97% !) - the latter consisted of ActiveCollab notifications (23%), SPAM/Russian bride offers (1%) , a ton of “urgent” matters that could wait (56%), and a few more that have been waiting for a long time (20%).
The inbox zero mindset would’ve forced me to immediately tend to each email individually, while never getting the full picture. But with everything in front of me, I could finally do some basic math.
RescueTime (an app I use to track my activity) told me I was spending 56 minutes per day in Outlook. That’s roughly 4 seconds per email + the attention and time wasted on distraction for each interaction. The latter part makes more damage than the 4 seconds, especially when it gets me out the Zone. I knew I could do better.
It turns out I was giving away too much of my human attention to email generated by machines. The unattended list of mailing rules, notification settings, and newsletter subscriptions were stuffing up my inbox. With that in mind, I developed a simple method to get only relevant email in my inbox each day and to keep it maintained with minimal effort.
Start by getting rid of any SPAM you receive. Services like Gmail are good at fighting it, but if you use your own IMAP server and SPAM gets through the cracks, definitely tighten up the filters. Services like MailRoute.net can also help – just point your MX records to their servers and they’ll filter SPAM for you (no software install required).
Next, unsubscribe from any marketing materials and newsletters that you haven’t read in a month. Avoid wishful thinking at all costs - “I might read it someday” will probably never happen + you can always re-subscribe. Also, be unforgiving when getting an unwanted newsletter for the first time. Don’t just delete it, unsubscribe immediately. (P.S. Just don’t unsubscribe from ActiveCollab newsletters as you might miss useful articles like this one).
Now, the big one: notifications sent by apps that you use to run your company. These are by far the most frequent and the most distracting. We seem to have a weak spot for opening updates, so the best principle to apply here is “out of sight, out of mind”.
One way is by aggregating all the notifications in a daily report - if your app allows it. For example, ActiveCollab sends a daily recap email at 7AM that tells you what happened the day before, and what’s on your plate today. You can then set all the other email notifications to minimal or off.
With these two simple options, you just reduced number of messages that ActiveCollab sends you by tenfold, at least.
When software doesn’t have these setting, you can redirect messages to a folder using email rules, and use the message count as a digest report. Just make sure these messages skip the inbox and don’t distract you with desktop notifications. If you still find yourself drawn towards the folder because of the message count, simply set the filter to mark the messages as read.
For example, our sales platform sends me an email every time someone purchases a license (Hooray!). I don’t need that info in real time, but I like to review it once in a while. To be able to do that, I created a folder where rules route these notifications:
By keeping distractions to a minimum, it’s up to me to choose when to review notifications, without having to grapple with the curiosity of my mind.
Finally, you can opt for another medium. For example, I used to receive MailChimp’s daily digest for months before I finally thought of adding the subscriber numbers to a BI (business intelligence) dashboard. Now I see the health of our lists when I need it and not when MailChimp schedules to email the data.
Take caution though, the last thing you want to do is switch to a more disruptive alternative. Recently, team chat apps have been the main culprit for driving people to distraction. By wanting an all-in-one app, users make the mistake of porting all notifications to chat channels, giving them little to no control over their own attention.
We at ActiveCollab value the focus and productivity of our users. That’s why we’ve designed our app to generate the least amount of visual noise and made the notifications fully configurable. We’re aware that attention is the currency of our time and the last thing you want to do is sell it to a badly thought-out user experience.
If I learned one thing, it’s that email isn’t the problem - the problem is your process of dealing with it. So how do I know this is THE way to deal with email overload? Here’s proof:
- I’ve been using this system for 60 days now, and it hasn’t failed me yet.
- On average, I spend less than 15 minutes in Outlook per day.
- I deal with most messages on time and scarcely get follow-up emails asking for a reply.
- I feel more relaxed and less pressured to hit and maintain inbox zero.
- Google Inbox works on the same principles (and albeit not being their biggest fan, Google is usually on to something).
My advice: leave your inbox unattained for one day (make it a workday, choosing a weekend is playing it safe). It takes a bit of guts not to jump in, but what you’re doing is not an exercise in self-restraint. Instead, it’s observing a process, fixing it where it’s broken, and enjoying the bliss of getting only email that’s relevant.
Email isn’t the problem - the problem is our process of dealing with it.