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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.

---

Are you an author and would like to have your book featured on Neatorama? Please email me about a possible guest blog post just like this one!


this should be called how to decrease your productivity and end up unemployed. I can see my life now if i was to follow this guide.

boss: Hey how come you didn't reply to my e-mail this morning? we haven't been able to access "insert folder here" all day.

me: i'm sorry but neatorama says that if i want to increase productivity not to spend soo much time checking my e-mail

boss: neato what?

me: oh, neatorama, its a neat blog

boss: so instead of checking my e-mail you choose to check a blog? and this is suppose to increase productivity.

me: yup!

boss: your fired.
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@ Chrome

Agreed. I get emails at work like they are instant messenges. Some of them require a glance, some require a short response, and some by necessity must be flagged and put in my tasks folder for processing. And forget archiving and deleting emails, I search it too much. The response to almost every email is hidden in my 40k previous emails. The timeline of some of my projects can be 12 months past or future, so searching emails becomes important when trying to figure out what I promised a customer and exactly when or what a vendor promised me and when. Also, having an external to-do list means more work keeping up with another list, no thanks!
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Also important, I am held liable to what I say and hold other people liable to what they say. Email is a great for making people keep their promises. It's in black and white.

Joe: I never said such and such.

Manik:

Joe: Grr
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The only irony here is this article being posted on neatorama, since I probably check neatorama for new posts even moreso than I check my inbox for new mail...
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chrome and I are in the same boat: ignoring my email will get me fired.

I HAVE to check my email first thing to see what came in while I was out.

We use email as a kind of IM at work, which means I have to get back to the sender within 1 to 5 minutes of receipt. That also means I HAVE to have email notifications.

We email each other if we are leaving the office for more than five minutes. We email if we're stuck on the phone and need something. We email because it's faster than a phone call.

Frankly, someone who writes for a living has a very different working life from most of us.
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If that is the way your company communicates, There are ways of setting up priorities with email. So you don't get fired. But I average about 50 to 60 emails a day that are nothing that important that they have to be handled right this minute. I have friends that I go camping with and if they don't have email access where we are they have withdraw symptoms. Then when they do have access they have to check their email at least every 1/2 hour. What they are trying to say is get a REAL LIFE. Don't be so attached to your computer that you forget how to interact with the real world.
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Thanks to this informative guide on increasing my productivity by avoiding e-mails that might other wise distract me with more work load, information regarding current projects or tasks that could either make my work faster or completely nullify my last 3 hours of work I had just accomplished or even give me that much needed laugh in the middle of another ho hum work day I bring you a fuller and more detailed response as way this is a stupid guide.

“• 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.”

So basically the author is recommending that we check out e-mails only as often as we need to. Well personally I don’t NEED to check my e-mails. Ever. I mean I never really feel that if I don’t check said e-mail anything bad will truly happen to me. Of course that doesn’t referrer to unemployment. I don’t NEED work, I just don’t WANT to be homeless.. you see the author isn’t very precise about their intentions here. I don’t think they intend to give you the impression you don’t need to check e-mail, but rather they want you not to check e-mails to get you fired. My guess is whom ever wrote this is gunning for you job.

“• 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.”

Yeah! Who the fuck does Mr. Manger think he is going around Dictating my daily work load to me. So screw you Mr. Manger I don’t think that stupid project that you want me to do is NOT very Important at all!! Infact I will be spending the next 3 hours surfing Neatorama drinking coffee and maybe catching up on my Sudoku. Yeah this is just plain bad advice. Really does this author have a job??

“• 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.”

*phone rings* Hello, oh hi bob. What? What meeting? No I didn’t know our project manager was holding an impromptu net meeting this morning. No I didn’t see the e-mail. Why not? Well no I don’t know if I got it or not. You see I only check my e-mails every 3 and a quarter hours. Why? Well because that’s when I schedule my self some time to check my e-mail. I don’t think its important that I check my e-mails just because it was convent time for you to send them to me. No I didn’t even see you sent it to me, I turned off my notification… yeah again you get the point. YOUR FIRED!

“• 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.”

Summary: If your unemployed is a lot easier to no be bothered by annoying e-mails. How ever in the off chance of becoming employed again, just repeat the above steps and you will then find your self not having to be bothered by e-mail again.

“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.”
Also read: How to avoid ever actually having to read e-mails.
“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.”
Its called your in box *palm meet face*

“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.”

Procrastination; Why do it now when you can make note of it and do it later!! Also will get you fired.

“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.”

Duh….

“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.”

Ok. I am truly wondering again about this authors employment status. You can not just reply to the ones you want and kill the others. Man I wish it were that easy.

Bob
Would you like to go to lunch [reply]

Bill
OMG I DELETED THE ENTIRE PROJECT FOLDER FROM THE SERVER!! [delete]

No. again unemployed!

“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.”
Wait… WTF?! Is that… *squinting and staring at the screen* yes, yes it is GOOD ADVICE!!! *balloons and confetti fall from the heavens* I just got good advice from an article I thought was trying to get me fired for the last 5 min!! thank god I didn’t just waste my time..

Ok well in closing, disregard that article you just read.. its silly and will get you fired.. ok well its been like 4 hours since I last checked my e-mails wonder if I missed anything important..
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One other thing the article completely ignores...Blackberry. I'm on the road a lot so my company gave me a Blackberry which is used for the sole purpose of taking away any excuses I have for not responding to an email in a short amount of time. It's in the company handbook "within 5 min".

BTW Scotch

I get hundreds of emails a day, 80-90% of them are important enough to make my company grind to a halt within hours if left unanswered. I prioritize on the fly. I think that falls under the real life category.
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manik: I agree you have to prioritize on the fly. if you don't you sink. also i dunno about you but the day i got my black berry was first the happiest day of my life, on account it made me feel important, and every grown up i might add.. then later came the sinking realization, it was a leash not a company bonus.. :(

scotch: how is camping even remotely related to real life? work is real life. camping is playing in the woods, not real life. you'll understand when you get a REAL job i think..
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chrome: Leash is right. I got rid of my personal phone, hey no phone bill. Yay! Now, if no one answers the phone at any of the branches I manage it gets forwarded to my sweet ass Blackberry. And if I'm on the phone for 5 min, the second I hang up there are 10 emails to reply to. Awesome.

Hey Scotch come live the dream.
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Excellent solutions to something that is usually not a problem. I manage e-mail systems for a living. The system is never fast enough nor can my clients have too much access to it. Out of the entire article, the only part that is relevant to me and my clients is the comment about filtering junk.
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For those who have a job that makes following these guidelines impossible: don't follow these guidelines!

This article is directed at those with the flexibility to set their own communication schedules (self-employed, freelancers, entrepreneurs et al).

And for those with the power inside their company to set email policy: Don't make fast email response mandatory! It's a productivity killer...give your employees uninterrupted time and they'll accomplish exponentially more.

If someone truly needs a reply in a short period of time, they should call. And if you want to send IMs, get an IM client.

Perhaps then employees would be able to get out of the inbox and get some work done.

P.S. The author of this article, Leo Babauta, is a full-time author and blogger with a top 100 blog (did you read the byline?). He's not unemployed nor is he crazy.
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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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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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