It’s been about 20 years since email became a regular feature in our work and personal lives, and if familiarity breeds contempt, the distress signals are clear: stuffed inboxes, lost and unanswered messages and stress.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. To help you rekindle your working relationship with email, we talked to productivity consultant Clare Kumar, whose dos and don’ts offer the keys to stress-free email management.
DO: LOOK TO THE FUTURE
It’s tempting to start at the beginning, but sorting through decades of old emails isn’t going to improve your present or future, so park your Delorean and concentrate on creating a streamlined email system now. Once it’s underway, by all means, get your Back to the Future on if you still feel like it.
DON’T: ANSWER EMAILS ON THE (Mc)FLY
Resist the urge to treat every email (and Facebook message, tweet and text) like a life-saving mission issued by MI6 itself. “Email on the fly is like a hot potato. You’re trying to deal with it and pass it somewhere and you might not be giving it the attention that it needs,” says Kumar. Worse yet, constantly switching your attention between messages and other work can reduce your IQ by as much as 10 points: the same hit you’d take after missing an entire night’s missed sleep, and twice as much as you’d lose after smoking marijuana.
DO: TURN NOTIFICATIONS OFF
Remember: you are not James Bond, and your messages can wait. “Because [messages] come in randomly, it’s perfect, it’s like Pavlov and his dogs,” says Kumar. “The notifications give you the cue that something’s there and you get a little excited, and it’s a dopamine hit. And because it’s infrequent, you’re always wired to be responsive to that. All of a sudden you’ve got this soundtrack running through your day, and it’s ‘Oh, there could be an email coming in, I’d better check it.’”
DON’T: BE A SLAVE TO THE CULTURE OF NOW
Control your messages, and your day, by creating dedicated time for email. If you’re worried how others will react when you don’t respond immediately, set new social expectations and ease your anxieties by adding a signature to your email. Kumar suggests something like “I check my email three times a day and typically respond within 24 hours.”
Every email presents three distinct choices: act immediately, file for later or delete. Keep these in mind during your scheduled email sessions.
DON’T: TREAT ALL MESSAGES EQUALLY
So what if you’re not a red-pill popping Neo? This isn’t The Matrix, and you know that a sushi Groupon isn’t as important as that project update from your boss, so don’t give it the same attention. Free services like unroll.me help you manage less important mails by consolidating them into one daily digest.
DO: CREATE MONTHLY FOLDERS
Create monthly folders to manage emails you only need for a short time. For example, when you’ve scheduled a date for next Wednesday, and need to keep the details until then, stash the mail in your monthly folder. Delete monthly folders once they’ve hit the two-month mark and you know the information is no longer necessary.
DON’T: FORGET SEARCH
So you’re just not a filer. That’s fine, says Kumar – whatever system you choose needs to have a solid ROI, and if filing is too arduous to be worth it for you, it’s okay to rely on search to find the emails you need. But if you’re going to go that route, always craft emails so they’re easy to find later, by including specific headings and peppering your messages with keywords.
DO: BE THE EXAMPLE
Pay careful attention to dates and times — mistakes like writing Thursday, the 15th when the 15th is actually a Friday cost valuable follow-up minutes. And don’t forget to structure emails in polite, concise and search-friendly terms, which will save time for all involved.