When email first became available, it changed everything.
At first, it was pretty cool, especially for the geeks in the crowd. A fellow soldier and I jumped on email the day after Star Trek—The Next Generation aired so we could discuss if we liked the episode or not.
It’s hard to believe we’ve now had email that long.
And we started woefully unprepared. We evolved into the mess it is today, and no one still knows how to handle it. Everyone tries to tip and trick it to death, and the same problems remain.
What we know:
The email companies made it addictive.
They make their money by pulling you back in, again and again. My notifications have been turned off for double-digit years. But it’s such a powerful pull that when a fellow employee logged into the computer for a meeting and his notification popped up, my first reaction was to click on it!
Email is easy. You can communicate with someone else in seconds. But it also makes it easy for someone to dash off an email to ask you a question instead of looking it up. They can also delegate a task to you without ever seeing your face or your workload. And, on the writing side, they can send you a very nasty email if they don’t agree with some random writing advice.
Email can chip away at your energy management. Everything about it screams, “Urgent! Emergency!” and “I must be done now.”
Email was so painful and overwhelming for me that I had to overcome a bias it created. When I went to the BookBaby Conference in 2018 (they’ve discontinued the conferences), I attended a workshop on email newsletters.
Email newsletters are recommended marketing your books because it’s the one place we have control over our environment. We go to various bookseller sites to sell our books. Suddenly one of them changes its algorithms and sales take a nosedive. A newsletter brings fans directly to you and makes you less of a victim to the whims of the bookseller.
But I was very reluctant to get a newsletter because of my experience with email at work. I was so overloaded with email that I believed that everyone else felt the same.
The instructor told us we couldn’t let our personal biases influence how we felt about email. If someone signs up for your newsletter, they want to receive it.
But what I thought was such a pervasive belief that when I mentioned to a popular blogger-writer that I send weekly emails for my newsletter, she was horrified. I was sending too many. Another writer whose newsletters I signed up for so I could get release notification apologizes every time she sends an email and barely sends out any.
And everyone treats day job and side hustle like they don’t influence each other.
How do you even deal with email then? It seems like you clear the box and more fall in to fill the vacuum. It’s never-ending!
Most of the tips I found were not useful. One time management guru says not to answer email in the morning. Others say to create folders and dump everything into them. Or assign categories.
Some weren’t realistic, though. Recommendations to only check your email once a day works well for an entrepreneur. An employee? I use email as part of my job.
So let’s start with a basic energy suck. If you open your email box and see five hundred emails, they immediately chip at your energy management. Every one of them screams, “Take care of me!” This is how the programs are designed.
The first rule is to keep your inbox as empty as possible.
Not inbox zero, which is an unattainable standard. It’s perfection, which, as fiction writers, we know is impossible. It also encourages you to never get out of the inbox.
Each email left in the box waves at you and says, “Do me!” even when it’s already completed. Those all tax your cognitive abilities. And it makes it easy to get overwhelmed and confused. It brings chaos.
To clear out the box, make it a game to get through as quickly as possible. But you won’t be trying to answer everything like a speed demon. Nor is it about jamming in as much as possible in a limited amount of time.
This method of plowing through the email fast comes from a combination of all the various books I read on email and Work Clean: The Life-Changing Power of Mise-En-Place to Organize Your Life, Work and Mind.
The process (using Microsoft Outlook):
- If your box is full of emails, start by going to the Home tab. Select Clean Up, then Clean Up Folder. Every time someone replies to a thread, Outlook sends a new email, rather than updating the thread. This just tidies all that up.
- Sort by the sender’s name and look for those general distribution emails companies love to send.
- Do a fast scan. Any you don’t need, hit the Archive button (or backspace).
- If you find some that you want to read or need action, select the email and click the Follow up button. Select This Week. That’ll put it on your schedule for Thursday.
- Now look for any notification emails that can be deleted. Like if a report was run and the system sent you a notification.
The inbox will already look more manageable. Just these three things can make a huge difference in how you feel.
- Hit any emails from your supervisor. You might need to open these to see if you need to respond right away. If it’s something you have to spend time on, apply a flag, and archive.
- For the rest, scan through them—very fast.
- If you can answer some quickly, get them off your plate. Archive the email so it gets out of the inbox.
- Everything else, flag and archive. Do this even if you aren’t sure what’s in the email because the subject line is vague. You can set the flag date to today, then adjust when you circle back around.
Now click on Tasks. Everything you flagged will be there. This different view of your emails will change the feeling of urgency.
For me, it looks more like clutter that needs to be tidied up! I look particularly for “process tasks,” as described in Work Clean. These are emails where someone is waiting for something from me. If I don’t answer those, one email may turn into several others if they have to ask me again. So answer those and get them out the door. Remove the flag so they disappear off the list. They’re still in the archive, so you can refer to them as you need.
Anything from your boss you dropped here, get to that, too. When done, remove the flag.
If I have files I need to download and do something else with them (i.e., a report that you need to read), I follow the intermediate packet principle. I save the report in my Downloads folder (that gets tidied later), then remove the flag.
Do I answer all of them? No. There’s a point where my energy level tells me I need to stop. I stop between 30-60 minutes of this. Usually, it’s on the 30-minute end.
Then I’ll circle back and do more later on. Some I move to another day, like an action where I have to review my profile in a software tool. Those need to be done but can wait a few days.
Near the end of the day—an hour or so before—I’ll wander into the inbox for a last pass. You don’t want to it to be the last thing before you walk out the door. If anything is annoying, you’ll bring it home to the writing. Critical voice does not need any help!
Every few days or so, move all your sent items into the archives. Then run the cleanup folders again.
Finally, empty your email trash. I do this every day.
With the inbox cleaned out, when new emails come in, it makes it much easier to process those. I can hit email on and off all day this way and not have email turn into a rabbit hole. I also try to clean up everything on the week’s tasks by Friday, so I’m not greeted with work on Monday.
What about going on a week’s vacation?
That used to be scary for me. I dreaded what I was going to find in my box. I fully expected to take all day just answering email and getting nothing else done. But I follow the process I mentioned earlier. The only thing I do differently is focus on the emails coming on the first day I’m back, since those are likely to be more current. Then I circle back around and whittle away.
Do I answer all the emails from when I was on vacation in one day? No. It usually spreads out across three days.
I also plan for the first few days after vacation to be stressful because of email. So I might shift a writing admin day to Monday instead of battling the stress to write.
For home email, it’s a lot simpler. I use Sanebox to move the emails into various boxes (mostly because it is unavoidable to not get multiple emails from department stores. Those send out way too much!). Then I hit that once each day, more or less.
All if it is very much of a work in progress. I continue to learn new things.
Email is one of the worst things to chip at the barriers against critical voice. You have to be ever vigilant to protect your turf.