The Ruthless Email Revolution Begins Today

by Annie

in email herding

Illustration of opened letters with email symbol

(UPDATE: Specific instructions on turning off mobile phone notifications kindly provided by Jared Goralnick of

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.

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 Gmail

  1. In the upper right corner of the Gmail screen, look for an icon that looks a little like a gear. Click it.
  2. Select “Settings.”
  3. Under the “Desktop Notifications” section, click the “Mail Notifications Off” option.
  4. Save your settings.

In Outlook

  1. In the “Tools” menu select “Options.”
  2. Look for the “Preferences” tab and click that.
  3. Select “Email Options” and then “Advanced E-mail Options.”
  4. 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 has kindly provided instructions for the following devices:


  1. Select Profiles
  2. Select the active profile and click Edit
  3. Select Messages
  4. Change the volume to mute and turn off the LED repeat notification if you’d like
  5. Save when exiting the profile


  1. Click the Settings application
  2. Select Sounds
  3. Change New Email to None


  1. From Settings, select ringtones+sounds.
  2. For New email, select none


  1. Open the Gmail application
  2. Press the Menu button and select More and then Settings
  3. Choose an email account, if necessary
  4. If available, choose Select Ringtone and then Silent
  5. 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!


Photo credit: Agnes Kveselyte 

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Someone February 1, 2012 at 7:54 pm

I think the three blocks a day idea is great. Email has a habit of sneaking into my writing, so setting time aside for is going to really help. Especially with creative activities, once you get in to “the zone”, email notifications completely throw me off.

And now, like the last comment on the previous article, here is something incredibly immature.



Annie February 1, 2012 at 8:41 pm

Chunking your schedule is an AWESOME way to beef up new habits, and also a fabulous way to organize your day. It takes advantage of the fact that it takes a goodly amount of time to switch your focus from one thing to another, keeps you focused on like tasks and thus lets you get more done at a time.

And you are RULING the comments section, hot shot! Go Someone, it’s yo birfday, we gonna party like it’s yo birfday…


Jared Goralnick February 2, 2012 at 5:43 pm

Annie, this is great. I like how you summarized the ways to turn off email notifications, too. I think people should do it on their mobile phones, too. If it helps, here are the steps for BlackBerry, iPhone, and WP7. I’m realizing I need to write some for Android steps, too…

This is the first step I tell all our users at AwayFind–which sends you a text or push notification when you do receive the ONE email you’re waiting on, so that people can more comfortably chunk their schedule. Anyhow, anything we can help people to do to get away from email is a good thing!

i. Select Profiles
ii. Select the active profile and click Edit
iii. Select Messages
iv. Change the volume to mute and turn off the LED repeat notification if you’d like
v. Save when exiting the profile
i. Click the Settings application
ii. Select Sounds
iii. Change New Email to None
i. From Settings, select ringtones+sounds.
ii. For New email, select none


Annie February 2, 2012 at 6:09 pm

Jared, this is FABULOUS. Thank you so much. I’m going to update the post with this information and credit to you, of course – if that’s a problem, just let me know.


Jared Goralnick February 5, 2012 at 10:07 pm

And here are the Android settings:

i. Open the Gmail application
ii. Press the Menu button and select More and then Settings
iii. Choose an email account, if necessary
iv. If available, choose Select Ringtone and then Silent
v. If that’s not displayed, touch Labels to notify and turn off Email notifications for any labels that you are syncing


Annie February 5, 2012 at 10:29 pm

Awesome, Jared – thank you! Adding to the post. 🙂


Jared Goralnick February 2, 2012 at 6:16 pm

Happy to help, Annie! All that was taken from my Guide to NOT Checking Email, which is a 15 page ebook on this topic. It’s free for all AwayFind users. You’re more than welcome to use this or anything from the book as much as you’d like.

I hope you’ll check out our product in the process–after 8 years as a productivity trainer, I built it to fill the holes in the process. We NEED TO CLOSE OUR INBOX, and that’s what we help with.


Annie February 2, 2012 at 6:28 pm

Awesome, Jared – I will absolutely check out the ebook.

For others: Jared’s company is really interesting. The service gets urgent email alerts to you, so you don’t miss the really critical stuff when you’re away from your inbox, which is a nice way to help ease the anxiety over the whole “three blocks of time” thing. The ebook he’s talking about is available to AwayFind users only but you can sign up for the free basic plan to give it a try, and all plans offer a free 30-day trial period. Check out the plan comparison chart here:


Jared Goralnick February 2, 2012 at 11:32 pm

Thanks for the support, Annie! Let me know if I can ever help more : )


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