3 Steps to Get Control of Email WITHOUT Deleting Messages

Social Media Whack-A-Mole! Insert all your time and money.

(c) Rosemary O’Neill. Used with permission. http://www.smallshopsocial.com/blog/cartoon-focus-your-social-strategy-dont-play-carnival-games

I’m in the middle of a project and need to refer to–or respond to–an email somewhere in my inbox. So I open up email, and BOOM. 30 minutes gone. “And what was I intending to do, anyhow? Oh, yeah, I needed to find….”

I’ve tried lots of techniques to get a handle on my email.

  • I’ve failed at Inbox Zero enough times to convince me that I need a different method. That tactic did help me figure out that I needed a folder titled “Event Information” to corral all the invitations and announcements.
  • I’ve unsubscribed from lots of things (and signed up for others).
  • I’ve got filters and canned messages supporting me every step of the way.
  • I play the Email Game whenever I need the satisfaction of beating down the weeds in my inbox.
  • All incoming mail notifications and counters are disabled.

So, what was missing?

Issue #1: I need to write an email to someone, but by the time I get my email program open, I’m distracted by all the new email sitting in my inbox.

Fix #1: Separate writing messages from checking the inbox

I’ve figured out a few ways to do this. Sometimes I draft my message in a word-processing program. Sometimes I use a “mail-to” link. Sometimes I open my desktop mail program and close or minimize the inbox. I’ve got a direct bookmark to the “Compose” window in my main webmail account.

This fix works reasonably well. And still I struggled, because of

Issue #2: getting sucked into new messages when I intended to respond to an old one.

Fix #2: Separate working with old messages from checking the inbox

I’ve set my email program to open to an empty folder, not the inbox. I use a folder called !ACTION-FOCUS. (The exclamation point forces it to the top of the folder list). The name helps me remember to stay on task.

All of my folders and labels and email tools are visible, and I can usually retrieve the message(s) I want using search. When I’m done sending my response, I archive (or delete) the email, cancel the search, and return my email view to a neutral, non-distracting workspace.

Having put these structures into place, I began to notice

Issue #3: I check my inbox WAY too frequently.

Fix #3: Get my email delivered at set times

I’ve read and experienced again and again that checking email breaks concentration. While working with my inbox constantly open was useful during the end stages of editing the Oxford Handbook of Roman Sculpture, now it feels more like a bad habit.

I’ve been intrigued by the idea of batch-processing incoming mail, but ignoring the trickle (or flood) of incoming messages is tough.

Some people even suggest processing email one day at a time, maintaining a routine 24-hour lag. I first encountered this idea in Mark Forster’s book Do It Tomorrow and Other Secrets of Time Management (2006). Renamed “Yesterbox,” this idea is getting more popular. I’m not quite ready to go that far, though.

I like a balance between responsiveness and focus.

So I found Inbox Pause, which delivers my email in batches at set intervals. It’s easier to stay away from email when I know that messages won’t arrive until my next scheduled check time (and yes, I do adjust those times as my routine changes, or occasionally peek if I’m in the midst of a near-realtime exchange).

That’s it, for now.

I’ve got a 3-step program to get email back under control. Without deleting any messages.

Now I’m checking my inbox only when I choose to, not every time I need to find or send an email.

It’s nearly the same effect as inbox zero, without having to play whack-a-mole.

Update 3/8/19: At this point I’ve adopted Inbox Infinity. 

You may also be interested in this related post:

Revive your Inbox (website review)

Update 10/10/22: You may also want to read Cal Newport’s recent book, A World Without Email

A World Without Email: Reimagining Work in an Age of Communication Overload