How to Simplify Your Email in 4 Steps

The following is a guest post of Leo Babauta of Zen Habits and author of The Power of Less: The Fine Art of Limiting Yourself to the Essential ... in Business and in Life. The following is an excerpt from the book.

For many of us, email has become one of our standard modes of working. We live in our email inbox, doing everything from personal communication with family and friends to carrying out complete projects through email.

Unfortunately, email has also come to overwhelm us, taking us away from more important tasks, threatening to take over our lives.

There's a better way than living in your email inbox. Minimize your time spent doing email, transform your email effectiveness by setting limitations, and become an email master by getting your inbox to empty.

Limit Your Time in Email

If you spend all of your day in email, or going back to email and checking for new messages, you'll never get much else done. Instead, make the decision to only check email at predetermined times, and leave it alone for the rest of the day -- that will allow you to work on more important stuff.

I recommend that you decide, in advance, how many times you'll check email, and what times. Here are some tips:

Number of times per day. How many times you check email per day is a function of the kind of work you do. If you can get away with checking email just once per day, that would be ideal -- you'd have very few email interruptions and your email habits would be most efficient. However, for many people, twice a day is probably more realistic. Others, who need to be able to get email more often because their job orders are sent through email (customer service, for example), might want to limit their email checking to once per hour (perhaps 10 minutes at the top of the hour). Still others might be able to get away with checking email less than once a day -- every other day, twice a week, or even once a week. If you can count yourself among these people, take advantage of this and limit yourself to the bare minimum.

Not first thing in the morning. A common productivity tip is not to check email first thing in the morning, and it's good advice. By checking email in the morning, you're allowing email to dictate the rest of your day, instead of deciding for yourself what your Most Important Tasks will be for today. You're putting yourself in danger of getting stuck in your email and not getting out of it. Focus instead on getting your important projects done first thing in the morning instead of checking email.

Turn off email notifications. Most email programs have a way to give you an alert (through a sound or a pop-up message or a blinking icon) that lets you know you've received a new email. If you use such an alert, I highly recommend that you turn it off. It interrupts whatever you're working on, and draws you back to email based on the schedule of anyone who chooses to email you, not at a time you determine. Instead, turn off alerts and only check email at predetermined times. You'll get a lot more done this way.

How to stick to this habit. It's easy to say that you should only check email twice a day, but much harder to stick with it when constantly checking email is an ingrained habit. How do you stick to the habit of checking email less? You make it a priority for a week or two. Put up a sign with the rule: "No email except for 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.!" (or whatever schedule you choose). Every time you find yourself habitually switching to email, stop yourself. Breathe. And focus on your work instead. Your reward: you'll get a lot more done.

Reduce Your Incoming Stream

One of the most important parts of any email strategy is to stop any unnecessary email from getting into your inbox in the first place. Although I get hundreds of emails a day, most of those emails never make it to the inbox. They go straight to the spam folder or the trash. You only want the essential emails in your inbox, or you’ll be overwhelmed.

Here are some essential ways to reduce your incoming stream of emails:

1. Junk. I recommend using Gmail, as it has the best spam filter possible. I get zero spam in my inbox. That’s a huge improvement over my previous accounts at Yahoo, Outlook and Hotmail, where I’d have to tediously mark dozens of emails as spam.

2. Notifications. I often get notifications from the many online services I use, from Amazon to WordPress to PayPal and many more. As soon as I notice those types of notifications filling up my inbox, I create a filter (or “rule” if you use Mail.app or Outlook) that will automatically put these into a folder and mark them as read, or trash them, as appropriate. So for my PayPal notifications, I can always go and check on them in my “payments” folder if I like, but they never clutter my inbox.

3. Batch work. I get certain emails throughout the day that require quick action (like 10-15 seconds each). As I know these emails pretty well, I created filters that send them into a “batch” folder to be processed once a day. Takes a couple minutes to process the whole folder, and I don’t have to see them in my inbox.

4. Joke emails. If you have friends and family who send you chain emails and joke emails and the like, email them and let them know that you are trying to lessen the huge amount of email you have to deal with, and while you appreciate them thinking of you, you’d rather not receive those kinds of messages. Some people will be hurt. They’ll get over it. Others will continue to send the emails. Create a filter for them that sends them straight in the trash.

5. Set expectations and publish policies. A great strategy for reducing emails is to pre-empt them by letting people know not to send you certain types of emails, and tell them where to go for commonly requested information. You can post policies and Frequently Asked Questions on your blog or website, email them to other people, publish them on the web, or send out a memo to co-workers.

Process to Empty

So now that only the essential emails come into your inbox, the question is how to get it empty in the least amount of time necessary? I'm usually able to empty my inbox in about 20 minutes, although your processing time may differ, depending on how practiced you are at the following methods, and how much email you get, and how focused you keep yourself. However, in any case, you should be able to get your inbox empty in a minimal amount of time using these methods.

1. Temporary folder. If you have a very full inbox (hundreds or thousands of messages), you should create a temporary folder (“to be filed”) and get to them later, processing them perhaps 30 minutes at a time until they've all been taken care of. Start with an empty inbox, and use the following techniques to keep it empty, in as little time as possible.

2. Have an external to-do system. Many times the reason an email is lingering in our inbox is because there is an action required in order to process it. Instead of leaving it in your inbox, and using the inbox as a de facto to-do list, make a note of the task required by the email in your to-do system … a notebook, an online to-do program, a planner, whatever. Get the task out of your inbox. Then archive the email and be done with it.

3. Process quickly. Work your way from top to bottom, one email at a time. Open each email and dispose of it immediately. Your choices: delete, archive (for later reference), reply quickly (and archive or delete the message), put on your to-do list (and archive or delete), do the task immediately (if it requires 2 minutes or less — then archive or delete), forward (and archive or delete). Notice that for each option, the email is ultimately archived or deleted. Get them out of the inbox. If you practice this enough, you can plow through a couple dozen messages very quickly.

4. Be liberal with the delete key. Too often we feel like we need to reply to every email. But we don’t. Ask yourself, “What’s the worst that will happen if I delete this?” If the answer isn’t too bad, just delete it and move on. You can’t reply to everything. Just choose the most important ones, and reply to them. If you limit the emails you actually reply to or take action on, you get the most important stuff done in the least amount of time. The 80-20 rule at work.

5. Process to done. When you open your inbox, process it until you're done. Don’t just look at an email and leave it sitting in your inbox. Get it out of there, and empty that inbox. Make it a rule: don’t leave the inbox with emails hanging around. Now your inbox should be empty and clean. Ahhh!

Write Less

Another key to spending less time in email but to make the most of every email you send is to write short but powerful emails. So after all the screening and spam filters, you’ve chosen the few emails you’re actually going to respond to … now don’t blow it by writing a novel-length response to each one. I limit myself to five sentences for each reply (at the maximum — many replies are even shorter). That forces me to be concise, to choose only the essentials of what I want to say, and limits the time I spend replying to email. Keep them short, but powerful.

Your limit might be different -- perhaps a seven-sentence limit works better for you. Experiment with your limit for a few days to find your ideal length, and then do your best to stick to the limit. The key is in limitations: it forces you to only convey the key concepts while limiting the amount of time you spend writing emails.


Leo Babauta is one of the world's leading productivity expert and the founder of Zen Habits, one of the Top 100 blogs on the Internet. Zen Habits covers topics of productivity, simplicity, health and fitness, family and finances, goals ... and that elusive happiness ;)

Leo's new book, Power of Less, The: The Fine Art of Limiting Yourself to the Essential...in Business and in Life It is a guide that will show you how to streamline your life and free yourself from everyday clutter so you can focus on accomplishing your goals.

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Another advantage of checking e-mail fewer times a day is that you can often answer 2-3 e-mails from the same person in a single response.

And if you need to respond to a long, multi-part e-mail, Write at the top "See answers below" and then make your short comments under each part.
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Actually I have been able to simplify things by having 3 different addresses, one that I use strictly for business, one for close friends and family and one that I give out when I need to register software or any service(amazon, Paypal etc), or to people I do not know very well, that way I can take care of the urgent business related email more frequently with out being distracted by notifications and useless or low priority mails.
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