Change your email habits

Two habits have completely altered my effectiveness with email communication.

  1. Inbox zero
  2. Batch emailing

For years, the desire to respond as quickly as possible consumed me. Don’t get me wrong, responsiveness is a fine quality. Incessantly checking email every 7 minutes is not. It’s one of the reasons I committed to no email on the weekends.

Below are the 2 tactics I took to change my email habits.

Inbox Zero

No emails should be in your main inbox.

Step 1

Move all emails to archive.

Yes. All of them.

There’s no need for other folders. The sophisticated search functionality of email clients like Outlook and Gmail are robust. If you need to find an email, “google it” in your archive folder.

Step 2

Congrats, you’re at inbox zero!

Step 3

New emails come in. You’re no longer at inbox zero. Don’t fret!

Now is the time to make 1 of 3 decisions:

  1. Archive it. You’ve read it, you don’t need to respond to it, maybe you’ll need it later.
  2. Respond to it. You’ve read it, you need to respond to it. Can you do it in 90 seconds? Great. Send a response. Archive it.
  3. Flag it. You need to respond to it, but can’t do it in 90 seconds. You have 2 options: Schedule a meeting to complete the task or use the flagging function to flag it for later. Archive it.

Step 4

Make these decisions until there are zero emails in your inbox.

Batch Emailing

Now that you’re at inbox zero – it’s time to take control of when you email.

Think of it this way: You decide when your email pulls your attention. Your email doesn’t decide for you.

In order to do batch email, you must create your rules and your batch windows.

My rules:

  1. No email before 9AM
  2. No email after 6PM
  3. No email on the weekends
  4. No email on vacation

My batch windows (schedule dependent):

  • Morning (9am-10am)
  • Lunch (12pm-1pm)
  • Mid Afternoon (3pm-4pm)
  • Late Afternoon (5pm-6pm)

My batch window today was:

  • 9:41am-9:56am
  • 11:58am-12:07pm
  • 3:09pm-3:20pm
  • 5:31pm-5:38pm

Each batch takes ~10 minutes to go through the decisions above: Archive, Reply, Flag.

The 2 other things I will do during this time:

  1. Unsubscribe. Take 15 seconds and unsubscribe to emails you don’t need. Or use a tool like Unroll.me
  2. Check Flags. Filter your email by “flagged” to check on items you’re waiting on from others or things you need to attend to.

You have achieved inbox zero and created your batch windows. Now what?

Commit to it by trying it for a week. It will be hard. You’re unlearning a habit that you’ve reinforced daily for years.

Some friendly tips that helped me:

  • Don’t minimize. Exit out of the email client after your batch window.
  • On your phone: Move your email apps to your 2nd screen, ideally within a folder.
  • Tell someone you’re doing this. Have them hold you accountable.

But what if an important email comes in?

If it’s that important, they will call you.

No Weekend Email

Removing ourselves from our work is hard work. I thought I was good at it. Then one day, while playing with my 2 year old son on a Saturday morning, I looked down and habitually clicked the email app on my phone. After reading a few notes, I looked up and my son had ventured to the next room.

I didn’t blame him.

In that moment, I thought, what in the world am I doing? I have my son sitting in front of me, giving me his full attention and I’m reading emails on a Saturday. I became very self-aware that weekend and caught myself checking my email while my wife was driving us around town, while we were at a cookout with friends and while I was lying in bed. That was just Saturday.

The following weekend I tested something. I turned off my work email on my phone at 8PM on Friday and turned it back on at 8AM on Monday. Admittedly, I was a bit anxious. What if I miss something? I found myself engaging old habits and clicked the mail icon expecting to see my work email (it’s amazing how well-trained we are!). 

Two things happened when I turned my email back on Monday.

  1. I saw no emails that needed to be responded to over the weekend.
  2. I returned to work with new ideas and felt mentally rested and rejuvenated.

The revitalized energy excited me!

I had been connected to work, uninterrupted for basically 6 years. I had never fully removed myself, even for a day. 

That week, I set a call with my team and shared my findings. I told them I was going to commit to this going forward.

As remote workers, we don’t step in and out of the office. I committed to them that I would “step out” of the office at 8PM every Friday and “step back in” at 8AM every Monday. I encouraged them to do the same.

I’m two years in and will never look back. Here are some of my learnings:

  1. If someone really needs you, they will get ahold of you via text or call
  2. You will have more ideas and more energy at the beginning of each work week
  3. My only exception is quarter-end, where I will remain connected
  4. If I’m on vacation – I do the same thing. Extra benefit is you empower someone on your team to be fully responsible as your back-up.
  5. If you need to do work on a weekend, this doesn’t stop you. It only makes you take a conscious effort to do it. You either need to (1) turn on your laptop or (2) turn your email back on your phone. Those seem simple, but relative to just clicking a mail icon, they require conscious and deliberate effort.

How do you start?

Tip #1: If you’re anxious about it, try just doing it this Saturday

Tip #2: If you have 2 phones, lock your work phone away. 

Tip #3: If you have 1 phone and use Apple Mail, go into the Mail settings and “toggle” off mail from your work account.

Tip #4: If you have 1 phone and cannot “toggle” the mail off, move the app as far from the main screen as possible, ideally hidden in an app grouping. 

You will feel uncomfortable. You will feel anxious. But if the entire country of France can do it – I promise you can, too!