I’ve recently gone from receiving too many (unimportant) emails and checking email frequently, to receiving only about 5-15 emails per day and checking it just once each day at noon. All of this was due to great tips received from others, so I wanted to share what I’ve collected from various sources. I’m going to assume you already use Gmail or otherwise have a good spam filter, but if not, that’s step 0 minus! For the past year or two, I’ve also already been aggressively unsubscribing from emails I didn’t really need to receive (an information diet), and practicing a fairly literal Inbox Zero, both to great effect. Those are both great steps if these aren’t for you.
Turn off all email notifications
Turn of all email notification sounds, lights, and indicators on your phone, computer, and any other device. As obvious as this seems to me now, it took this tweet from David Siegel for me to even question their value. They are great attention and context stealers, and while addictive, are a drain on productivity and concentration. Instead, you could check your email in between periods of work, even if that has to be every 15 minutes when at work. In the “push notification” world we live in, this can sound like blasphemy to programmers taught to avoid polling; however, we aren’t computers that can store our previous context losslessly while we process something else, nor can we process that email in just a few milliseconds and move on. Be a queue, not a stack.
Don’t check email when you can’t process it
I used to check my email first thing in the morning, but then I’d get distracted and be late to shower or not have enough time to grab breakfast before work. Similarly, I’d check email before going to bed and get distracted, staying up too late. Another bad time for me personally was on subways, as I couldn’t click unsubscribe / RSVP links without internet access, and if something needed a longer reply or attachment, it would take much longer on the phone if it was even possible. Then I’d just have to go home and re-process half of the emails, while thinking the whole way that I couldn’t believe that person needs me to re-send an attachment because they don’t know how to search their email. Now I read on the subway, or just relax.
A great tip from The Four Hour Workweek, and one the author recommends to take if you only take a single tip from the entire book, is to not check email for the day until you accomplish your most important task[s] for the day. Giving it a shot, I decided not to check email until 11AM, after I’d showered, made breakfast, and meditated. I had a much easier time following these morning habits!
Aggregate non-urgent emails with Use Unroll.me
Unroll.me is a great service that provides a single digest for all your non-urgent email. Emails from mailing lists, LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, your bank, and basically all automated emails don’t need to steal your attention at random periods throughout the day, so Unroll.me takes all of these out of your Inbox and sends you one daily digest, allowing you to click through to the important ones as needed. This about halved my daily email count, and I was really surprised at how many things actually made sense to receive grouped together at one time, after I gave it a try. You can always add and remove things to the digest, based on your preferences.
Batch Email with Inbox Pause
Once you are used to receiving a set of emails at a specific time each day, enjoying less frequent distractions, give it a shot for all emails with Inbox Pause. This is a browser extension that adds a “Pause” button to your Gmail inbox, temporarily redirecting all mail to a Label until you Unpause, optionally creating an auto-responder. The benefit of this approach is that your phone and any other device will also stop receiving email, not just your current browser session.
I started using this to only check email twice a day, or to make it easy not to check email until a specific time of day. For example, this made it a lot easier for me to not check email until 11AM, or late at night, as sometimes I’d need to pop into Gmail to search for a message, send a quick email, or use Gchat or Tasks, and I didn’t get distracted by the new emails in my inbox.
After trying Inbox Pause for a bit, I made my default state “Paused”, and every day at noon I’d click “Unpause”, the emails from the last 24 hours would pop in, then I’d click “Pause” again for 24 hours.
Going Further: Automated Daily Batching
Inbox Pause is a great stepping stone to batching, but as it requires manual work for each email batch, it isn’t ideal for enforcing batched email. After realizing how simple the Inbox Pause approach was (creating a filter that sends all email to a label, and move them back when desired), I wrote a simple service using Gmail’s OAuth + IMAP that holds emails in a label, moving them to the Inbox once daily at noon. It also handles Unroll.me emails as expected.
This has made such a huge difference for me. I’m no longer wondering what’s in my Inbox or if I should check it, because I already know the answer: nothing. No more distractions throughout the day to keep me from the next task at hand. I just check it once daily at 12pm, ideally clearing it out completely in 5-15 minutes, and being done with email for the next 24 hours.