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How to stop the suckiness and make email work for you again

Why email sucks so bad

Email gets a bad rap. It’s almost as trendy to hate on email as it is Taylor Swift. For sure, there are a lot of things that really suck about email.

  • Too many file attachments
  • People use it to communicate frikkin’ everything, when an emoji text would do just fine
  • So, so many attachments
  • More spam than a Hawaiin luau
  • Useless group email chains
  • Ok, enough with the image signature attachments already, we know who you are by now.

So yeah, there’s a lot about email to hate. It wasn’t always like this, either. I remember setting up my first Prodigy email address (Probably after watching the Friends pilot and now you know how old I am), dying for someone, anyone, to send me a message. Skip ahead to today and I’m at Greta Garbo levels of leave me alone.

Is there anything good about email?

There are some new solutions to email that threaten to banish email to black and white TV status. Basecamp comes to mind, and it’s super useful for working groups. There are still some pros to using email that I believe are going to keep it around for a while longer.

  • It’s easy to use
  • There are tons of free email clients out there
  • You can store thousands of messages and refer to them later
  • File attachments! Okay, sometimes we need them
  • Just about everyone already has an email address

Since email isn’t going anywhere soon, we all have to figure out how to deal with the things that suck. I’ve spent over 20 years trying out different clients, platforms and systems for taking control of my email. I now have a tried-and-true system that has not only made me love email again, I’ve been able to corral this runaway hoss. You can have this feeling, too, and I’m going to show you exactly how to get it.

Think Different

So much of managing email well isn’t in the platform, it’s in your head. We think of email as this modern technology that’s different than anything else we’ve dealt with before. In reality, it’s just like that analog In/Out box you might keep on your desk. Papers come in that you have to deal with. Things go out that you’ve completed or are ready for someone else to handle for you. It really is that simple and I’m going to show you the direct correlation to your email. Plus, if you’re not so hot at handling that physical inbox on your desk, this system will help you with that, too.

Stop working out of your inbox

Like, right now. Stop. It’s called an inbox, not a things-pile-up-until-I-can’t-see-the-bottom box. Most of the time you can’t complete everything that lands in your inbox as soon it arrives. However, you can deal with it faster by getting it out of your way.

Rather than dealing with things, you’re going to redistribute them. If you have emotional avoidance issues, this should feel familiar. It requires some setup, but once you do that everything will start falling into place (literally) very quickly. To use an analog example, let’s say you get the electric bill in your inbox. Rather than stop everything you’re doing, open it up, peruse it, and possibly pay it, you’re going to get it out of your way, fast. As in immediately. 

Before you do that, you need to create a (super easy) 2-step system. First, you would have a folder labeled “Bills.” Clever, I know. Then, in your calendar, you would set a reminder for a day or time when you take care of bills.

Once you have that system in place, it’s easy. The bill comes into your inbox. You see the bill, but you’re in the middle of writing a blog post about forgetfulness and you need to stay focused. You take the bill, throw it into your “Bills” folder and poof! Your inbox is empty and you’re back to writing whatever it was you were writing about. Oh, right. Forgetfulness.

Think of it as a game, a challenge to keep your inbox clear at all times. It should be totally empty 90% of the time. It sounds like a Neil Gaiman fantasy, but it really can be that way, I promise.

Let’s take this into the electronic world and deal with your email.

My super secret never-fail email sorting method

If you’ve followed along so far, you can probably guess where we’re going with this. Yup. We’re going to set up some folders. And some flags. Maybe even some labels.

First, let’s talk about email clients and platforms. You might use Gmail, Apple Mail, Outlook or even Thunderbird. The beauty of my system is that it’s totally agnostic. It doesn’t matter what you’re using for email, the system is so simple you can do it anywhere. In fact, I’ve often switched platforms and besides a few minor details and tweaks, the basic system is the same.

The first thing you want to do (besides become hypnotized by the massive amount of emails in your inbox), is create places in your email client where you will redistribute the items in your inbox. Depending on what you’re using, this could mean creating folders (Outlook), mailboxes (Apple Mail), labels (Gmail), or tags (Thunderbird). Just like in the analog world, you might create folders like “Clients,” “Bills,” “Travel,” or “Expenses.” I even have folders set up for newsletters I’ll want to read later but don’t want hanging around my inbox.

Once you have those set up, it’s easy to drag those emails into the appropriate folders, or tag them with the right labels (like in Gmail). If your inbox is already inundated, this will take some time but once you’ve got that sorted out, new emails hitting your inbox will be a dream to sort.

It’s filtered, so it’s healthier

If you’re like me and you don’t want to spend your day sorting email every time the little bell dings (or that evil red button pops up), you can set up filters to handle it for you. In my newsletters folder example, I have a filter set up for different newsletter emails that come in. They automatically skip my inbox and go right into the appropriate place, keeping my inbox clear and happy.

The mantra you need to recite as you deal with email is “Sort it or delete it.”

Working out of your email

It’s the bane of the modern working world, but sometimes when you’re working, you have to have your email open. Many times I have to refer to client emails to get details about a project I’m working on. It can be distracting to be in my email sometimes. What I like to do is have a specific folder set up for that client and only have that one selected or open while I work. It eases a little bit of the inbox distraction.

Your smartphone is really dumb

One frustration that can pop up after you’ve created this system in your desktop is that your smartphone doesn’t want to play along (jerk). Either your folders and flags aren’t syncing or your phone app doesn’t manage email the same way. It’s like the difference between driving a car and riding a bike. Both have pedals but they work totally different. Also, it’s hard to drink a latte while riding a bike.

Digressions aside, the best advice is to steer clear of managing email on your phone. Yeah, I know it’s there. I know it’s convenient. I know you’re stuck in line at the post office for the third time this week. Try to avoid it if you can.

You may have to check email or even respond to email when you’re away from your desk. It’s a beautiful thing that we have the ability to do that and you should take advantage. What I advise you to avoid is trying to manage your new inbox-clearing system from your phone. It’s likely not going to be the same and you’ll probably end up as frustrated as before. So check and respond, but do your sorting when you’re back at your laptop.

Conquer your inbox, conquer the world

I’ve been there. I’ve seen my inbox pile up on a busy day, or come back from vacation with more emails than I can scroll through without having a wrist injury. I’ve also been to the other side, where my inbox is totally clear and I find myself with nothing to do but make myself a latte, put on my helmet and go for a ride.

We all deserve more sanity when it comes to email If this has been helpful for you, don’t be stingy. Share it with a friend. Send them an email.

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