How I Stopped Letting Email Ruin My Life

Email is probably the single biggest thing that keeps me from achieving my long-term goals.

Responding to email is like some kind of warped video game. I often feel that if I can get my inbox down to zero I will somehow unlock the next level in the game of email.

The problem is that the dopamine rush and sense of accomplishment that comes when I do manage to get my inbox to zero is sometimes less than 30 seconds before a new email flows in.

An empty inbox is a lofty goal, but an impractical one.

Treating email that way means I’m spending important time on short-term wins that are often not nearly as important as tackling my big, life-changing goals.

With all of that said, email is a necessary and important part of the work day and it is important to have a strategy in place to stay on top of what comes in each day.

Strategies you can use that helped me stop letting email ruin my life.
  1. Tackle email after you get your big thing out of the way. Practicing, having time to think, or planning a new project are WAY more important and energizing. If you start your day with the black hole of email, chances are, you could spend your entire allotted time for big picture things responding to email.

    Action: Look at your calendar and block off a two-hour block each day before you open your email in order to tackle big things you’d like to accomplish.

  2. Schedule a time to check email. Check your email only AFTER you tackle your big thing for the day and keep yourself to a tight schedule for reading and responding. Generally, I check my email in late morning and mid-afternoon. Otherwise, I try to stay away.

    Action: Block in two separate hours a day to check email and do not go beyond that time. Ideally, you’re only responding to email for one hour a day.

  3. Don’t focus on getting your inbox to zero. One of the challenges we all face in limiting ourselves to a set amount of time for checking email is that we strive to see an inbox sitting at zero.

    Action: Instead of working to get your inbox to zero, which is short-lived, tackle the most important emails with the amount of time you have. Your priority should be in responding to the notes that have an immediate, direct impact on your work.

  4. Stop with the formalities. I tend to be a perfectionist with my emails, often taking time to write a nice opening sentence and wishing others well at the end. Important, but not necessary if you’re on the fly.

    Action: Use the 80–20 rule to create more efficiency in your email process. Can you compose an email in 20% of the time and get 80% functionality? The best way I’ve figured out to do this is to get rid of the formalities and just get down to business with every note.

  5. Turn off push notifications–Getting pinged when you receive an email is the worst. It takes you away from your train of thought and is a constant reminder that you are a slave to your email.

    Action: Turn off your email notifications on your phone right now and don’t look back.

  6. Don’t check email before bed–Want to ruin a good night of sleep? Check your email before bed. I remember I once had a co-worker who was a night owl that loved to drop prickly emails right as I was about to go to sleep, effectively shooting adrenaline through my veins and keeping me up for several more hours. Nothing good can come from checking your email at night.

    Action: Charge your phone in the kitchen and stop looking at your screen before you go to bed.

How I tackle my email with a one-hour block of time.
  1. Set a timer. If I don’t set a timer, three hours will go by and I’ll still be responding to email. Set a timer for one hour and see how far you get. I think you’ll be surprised by how efficient you can be with your time when your work is time-bound.
  2. Eliminate junk. The very first thing I do is quickly eliminate any junk emails that do not pertain to my work. Do not get sucked into reading these emails. This should not take longer than 2–3 minutes.
  3. Read informational emails. With the junk out of the way, I then scan for informational emails that are sent as an FYI. If I am not asked to act on something specific in the email, I simply read the note and file it away. Avoid the temptation to step in and respond to these emails as they will only take up your time and clutter other people’s inboxes.
  4. Prioritize “urgent” emails. To be clear, I don’t believe in urgent emails, but there are times when I get notes that require my timely response in order for the sender to be able to do their job. I try to prioritize these notes early in my hour-long block so they can get to their work as quickly as possible.
  5. Respond to any email that takes you less than a minute. These are the quick, “yes” or “no” type emails that require an answer from you in order for someone else to do their work. Make the quick decision and get the request off your plate.
  6. Respond to emails that take a bit longer from the bottom of your inbox first. I start at the bottom of my inbox with email that may take a bit more time so I can “try” to be semi-timely with big asks.
  7. Assign time for emails that require a block of time. If an email will take longer than ten minutes for me to craft a response, I block off a different time on my schedule to respond. These are generally big-picture strategy emails requesting things like my annual budget or crafting a response to a grant proposal.
  8. When the timer goes off, STOP! This is the most important part. Limit yourself to an hour of time and then move on to other things. It will take time to adjust how you respond when you prioritize efficiency and speed, however, when you do, I think you’ll find that you can get through massive amounts of email quickly in 60 minutes.

Developing strategies for email to find balance can be difficult. Be persistent and treat this as something that needs to be worked on every day.

Photo Credit: Justin Morgan

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Nate Zeisler is the Dean for Community Initiatives at the Colburn School in Los Angeles. He envisions a world where students majoring in the arts have a clear path to a sustainable career, where creative minds are empowered and inspired to rule the workforce, and where access to the arts is not just for the privileged few, but for all.

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