“Timmy, take your medicine”, a concerned mother pleads with her son. There Timmy is, hand trembling holding a spoon of red sludge, which smells reprehensible. Mouth clenched shut, his eyes letting in only enough light to see the vague shadow of a spoon. Timmy brings the spoon to his mouth, hesitantly opens it, and down the hatch the medicine goes. And its over, all of Timmy’s muscles relax, the after taste of the red syrup trickles down his throat. It wasn’t pleasant but it is finished.
Welcome back to our conversation about the atrocities of email. If this is your first article you’ve read, feel free to move around the blog, there isn’t any necessary sequential order to the posts. You may be asking yourself what a dramatic opening like that has anything to do with email. I have seen more than a few people wince at their email account as if they are about to consume something wretched. Imagine coming back from vacation opening up your email with your laptop or mobile device, and you simple shake your head as the email comes pouring in. The problem is unlike Timmy our muscles don’t get a chance to relax.
Take a look at your inbox right now. What does it look like? Like most people, your inbox is full, whether or not you have emails to respond to or read. If you scrolled down far enough, you might just find the beginning of the Internet.
We never give ourselves the satisfaction of relief, the sweet satisfaction of being done. That relief is an actual chemical in your brain. You get a little boost of dopamine, when you feel enjoyment or complete a task. Imagine if Timmy just had to keep taking medicine. His body forever tense and the enjoyment he had in life would quickly slip away, the poor kid, all he wanted to do was play outside that day.
How can we give ourselves that sense of accomplishment? There are many strategies and multiple productivity systems that talk about how to manage email. Email is a very ineffective form of communication, as I have said before, but we use it all the time. There are many websites dedicated to setting up productivity systems. Due to the complexity and uniqueness of each person’s situation I am not going to discuss any of those productivity systems today. They definitely take time, and Tech Effect can help you set up those systems, but today I want to focus on one crystal clear topic.
“How do you know when you’re done?"
So let’s start with your email. A new email comes in, or a group of emails, if you haven’t checked it recently. They sit in your inbox staring at you in bold font that they haven’t been read yet. You read them, and then what do you do?
Most people do nothing. If they respond to the email, they will reply, but then the email that they replied to just sits there, like a rotting sandwich. A week goes by, and the email compost pile continues to grow. If you have to search for an email you have to wade through tons of rotting sandwiches to find the one valuable email you need. It wastes time, wastes space, and it also wastes space in your mind. Your brain is trying to tell you that email is finished, but how can email possibly be finished when there are 100s emails in your inbox. There is definitely a conflict going on.
It would be very similar to walking into a teenager’s bedroom. The teenager announces to you “My Room is clean”, but you see all the laundry and food wrappers on the floor. "Dad don’t worry, it is clean under all this stuff”. So we are going to fix this conflict, and make the teenager actually clean his room.
We are going to create a folder in your email account, simply called “Archive”. You can find a cleverer name like, “Emails I’m too scared to throw away just yet”, but Archive will do just fine. I want you to create only ONE folder, because there are 2 things to keep in mind, we need to make this easy and quick. If you start creating lots of sub folders for Larry, John, or House Stuff… you will never put anything in them, and your inbox will stay full. So we want to create a simple way to clean out our inbox. Also the beauty of email is that it is searchable. Yes, you might have to go back and forth between archive and your inbox a few times early on, but that relatively small action grants you a satisfaction with your email, you possibly have never had.
You can do this in any email account. The idea behind this is any email that isn’t actionable or that you have already responded to goes into the archive for later or you simply delete it. The whole concept is that you want email to leave your inbox as quickly as possible.
This approach to email isn’t novel, and as I mentioned before this is a piece of a much larger productivity strategy. This is an important step, but not the whole journey.
Let’s now start with your email again. To begin with you have a clean inbox and a new email comes in. It is from your friend sharing the latest in cat video hilarity. You read it, and watch the video, you laugh for days at the absurdity of cats in a box. After you have watched the video, you throw that email into the archive. Your inbox is now pristine, and you know you are finished; you get a small natural dose of dopamine, close your email application, and do something else.
What if you aren’t starting with a clean inbox? As we mentioned many of you quite possibly have thousands of emails in your inbox. Let’s pretend you have 1,700 emails in your inbox and all of them are sacred. The solution is quite simple. In your inbox press Control+A (for Windows) or Command+A (for Mac) and move them over to your newly created Archive folder. You have now started with a clean slate, and you are ready for new email.
Let me pause here, and rationalize with some of you that are having a mild anxiety attack right now. We haven’t deleted a single thing. You’ve simply moved it from its current location to a new one. I want you to just sit with this experience for a moment. I want you to stare at your inbox, and meditate. It is empty. You’re done; you’ve taken a very important step.
We will now take a breath and look inside our archive. Let’s see if there are any emails that do have items we need to work on, and move them back individually to our inbox. We will respond to them, and then send them right back to the Archive.
I have witnessed many people manage their email accounts. This one strategy can have a huge impact on the clarity of information that is available to you.
In the example before if your email is filled with promotions and unimportant conversations they will quickly mask the important emails. The important emails get buried in the mess, so when you need to search, you get a lot of erroneous emails matching your search. On the contrary using this archive method; when you get 4 emails that come into your pristine environment. You can quickly delete 2 that are promotions that you have no desire to use, respond to one and send it to archive, and leave the last email which requires research or additional thought in your inbox until you are finished with it.
Adopting this method is very low risk and easy to implement. Give it a try; I would love to hear your feedback after you adopt this little change in how you deal with email and how it impacts you.