(UPDATE: Specific instructions on turning off mobile phone notifications kindly provided by Jared Goralnick of AwayFind.com)
Today, we’re beginning the month-long series on productive email habits. We’re not just going to get better at email. We’re going to be ruthless about it. Hence: the Ruthless Email Revolution.
Before we dive into the nuts and bolts, though, let’s start with some basic philosophy and background.
Email is routinely cited in studies and polls as the number-one (or close to it) productivity killer by workers and entrepreneurs. When you think about how long it takes to open an email, read it, and decide what to do with it, it’s easy to see why.
Handling one specific email on its own may not amount to much of a time suck, but the problem is that it’s never just one email. It’s fifty. Or a hundred. Or more.
Corporations and big businesses have it easy. They can simply adopt an employee Intranet system, thus saving email for the important stuff. An intranet also gives employees and line managers the tools they need for a whole range of routine HR tasks, from recording and updating personal information, to informing them of the latest company policies and procedures.
And if you’re a solo couch warrior, like me?
Well, intranets aren’t the solution for you, but fear not: there are ways to bring back sanity to your inbox. First, though, we should take a look at where we’ve been.
- 1 Past Approaches to Email Management
- 2 Out-of-control email can kill your business.
- 3 Ruthless Email Productivity Begins When You Cut the Cord
- 4 Turning Off Email Notifications
- 5 Scheduling Three Email Chunks
- 6 The Rest of Our Series on Ruthless Email
- 7 Check-In: The First Cut Is the Deepest
Past Approaches to Email Management
This is the problem that led to the now-infamous “email bankruptcy,” in which people hit the delete button on all emails in their inboxes, and sent out a group email to all contacts informing them that if their message was really crucial, they needed to send it again.
Whether this was first coined by Dr. Sherry Turkle back in 1999 or by Lawrence Lessig a few years later, the notion of tossing out every single email ever received proved tantalizing to many. (More on Lessig’s declaration of email bankruptcy can be found from Wired here.)
Even when it happened accidentally, a cleaned-out inbox was a holy grail of sorts to overworked folks desperately seeking productivity.
Next came Merlin Mann’s development of “Inbox Zero.” That phrase described not necessarily the number of emails in your inbox, but the percentage of your brain that was being kept on file in that inbox.
And ever since, controlling email has stayed at the forefront of the “killing interruptions” model of enhanced work productivity.
It’s especially important for digital entrepreneurs and creative biz owners, who don’t have the luxury of delegating email tasks to an assistant or other employee, to get a firm handle on email.
I would go so far as to put it like this:
Out-of-control email can kill your business.
So it makes sense to take some time to look objectively at the way you use email, and make a series of conscious, targeted changes to put a halt to the time suck.
Ruthless Email Productivity Begins When You Cut the Cord
When a baby is in utero, it receives essential nutrients from its mother through the umbilical cord. That cord is life itself. Yet when the baby is delivered, the first thing the doctors do is cut that cord.
And that’s exactly where we’re going to start — with two steps. They’re drastic steps, and hard ones for many to stick with, so we’re going to tackle them both today. This will allow you the entirety of the month-long process to solidify detachment as a second-nature habit.
These two steps alone will save you enough time and effort that, even if you don’t do anything else I’ll be teaching in the rest of the series, you’ll still come out on top with much more time to spend on your actual creative work.
How do we cut the cord?
(Deep breath, now.)
We’re going to turn off all notifications. And then we’re going to set no more than three blocks of time each day in which we will check email.
Turning Off Email Notifications
The notification of new email is a siren call luring you away from the true and righteous path of creative productivity. It’s almost impossible to resist.
So, sidestep it by turning off the evil notification process altogether.
Let’s take care of this one right now, this very instant. Here’s how:
- In the upper right corner of the Gmail screen, look for an icon that looks a little like a gear. Click it.
- Select “Settings.”
- Under the “Desktop Notifications” section, click the “Mail Notifications Off” option.
- Save your settings.
- In the “Tools” menu select “Options.”
- Look for the “Preferences” tab and click that.
- Select “Email Options” and then “Advanced E-mail Options.”
- De-select the “Display a New Mail Desktop Alert” under the “When new items arrive in my inbox” option.
In Mobile Apps & Smartphones
Look for the “Settings” menu; the option to turn off notifications should be there.
Additionally, Jared Goralnick of AwayFind.com has kindly provided instructions for the following devices:
- Select Profiles
- Select the active profile and click Edit
- Select Messages
- Change the volume to mute and turn off the LED repeat notification if you’d like
- Save when exiting the profile
- Click the Settings application
- Select Sounds
- Change New Email to None
WINDOWS PHONE 7
- From Settings, select ringtones+sounds.
- For New email, select none
ANDROID (GMAIL APPLICATION)
- Open the Gmail application
- Press the Menu button and select More and then Settings
- Choose an email account, if necessary
- If available, choose Select Ringtone and then Silent
- If that’s not displayed, touch Labels to notify and turn off Email notifications for any labels that you are syncing
Scheduling Three Email Chunks
For some reason, people seem to resist this change more than the notification-disabling one. But the reality is this: Precious few of us have work that requires us to respond within minutes to email.
I’m not talking about people’s expectations when I say “require.” I’m talking about actual necessity. Unless your livelihood will disappear completely if you don’t respond to email within a few minutes, it’s not required. It’s just what you and others have conditioned yourselves to expect.
And expectations can be managed and changed.
So, yes, we’re going to set three blocks of time – three chunks of email – in which we read, respond to, and manage incoming emails, and compose and manage outgoing emails.
And outside those three blocks of time?
No email. No checking email, no reviewing email, no responding to email, no writing new emails, no filing of emails, no deleting of emails … NO. EMAIL.
(If you need to go grab a paper bag to stop the hyperventilating, it’s totally cool. I’ll wait.)
Pick three times each day when you’re usually less busy than at other times. For me, my times have switched around a bit, but right now, they’re set at 6 AM (when I start work), 12:00 PM, and 4:30 PM. It might make more sense for you to pick other times – that’s totally fine. Pick three blocks of time that work for you.
How long should each block be? Thirty minutes.
You might now be thinking “Woman, there is no way I can get all my email done in thirty minute blocks.”
If this is you, let me reassure you that when you’re done with this series, you will be able to do email in 30-minute blocks. (Probably far less, actually.) A lot of the tasks we’ll be covering over the next month will result in a much more streamlined approach to email – writing it, reading it, and storing it – that might even mean you wind up with three blocks of an extra ten minutes every day.
Now, here’s the thing: during your email check-in times, you don’t do anything else.
The problem with email is the way it interrupts the flow and takes us out of what we were doing. So don’t create the same problem in reverse by allowing phone calls or web browsing or creative work to interfere with your email workflow.
Don’t simply pick three times and shrug this off. I want you to actually go into your calendar program and schedule those 3 thirty-minute blocks of time right now.
Schedule these blocks to recur throughout the workweek, with a one-minute alert or reminder. (Later, when it becomes habitual, you won’t need this reminder but until then, the reminder will help keep you on track.)
The Rest of Our Series on Ruthless Email
The good news: what we just did up there? That was probably the hardest part of the whole program.
The bad news: the rest of it isn’t necessarily easy.
The first part of this program on Ruthless Email will cover basic set-up modifications to your inbox and email in general. It’s basically “setting the stage” stuff for the second part.
And that second part is about working smarter with email. Things like streamlined workflows and writing better emails and the like.
Check-In: The First Cut Is the Deepest
Taking on the email challenge requires a serious commitment and not-insubstantial amount of courage, so kudos to you for taking the first step.
Did you do the two tasks for today? How much resistance did you experience? Share your stories in the comments!