Your email is one of your biggest sources of digital clutter.
Almost every time you check your inbox, there’s more email to deal with than you have time for. Often times the emails aren’t particularly important and don’t demand your immediate attention. But somehow, a part of you always wonders; What if it’s something important?
As you take the time to manage your email, another part of you may be thinking; What’s the point? They’re all gonna come back by this time tomorrow anyway.
Sometimes, the struggle isn’t dealing with new emails, but retrieving old ones that are important but buried among dozens if not hundreds of others.
The entire time, you wish there was a simpler way to manage your email so that it’s less distracting, less time consuming and less stressful.
Email is not a new technology. It’s been with us since the early 1970’s (although originally for military use) and is one the first technologies that we ever called “The Internet.”
Social media may come and go, but the chances that email will remain with us over the long term are more than likely. And since many useful online tools require an email address in order to create an account and use them, I wouldn’t recommend a life without email.
This leaves you with one option; to simplify your email until it does nothing but bring value to your life.
Let’s talk about how you can do that.
Step 1. Define the function of email
There are many things that email can be used for. However, this can sometimes make managing it more complex than it needs to be. Being specific about how you use email can help you be more intentional when using it.
Despite the many possibilities, I recommend you limit your use to just three activities;
1. Personal and professional communication
2. Keeping up to date with blogs and events that you’re interested in
3. Managing bills and online accounts
While exceptions can be made, I’d recommend caution when using email for anything that doesn’t fit into any of the descriptions above.
Step 2. Unsubscribe from promotional newsletters
Promotional emails (that have no purpose other than to sell you things) not only contribute to digital clutter, but they can also be a drain on your time and attention if they persuade you to clickthrough.
If you currently receive large amounts promotional email that distracts you from the more important things in your life, it’s time to put that to put an end to it. The next time you receive a promotional email, click unsubscribe (usually at the bottom of the email) and repeat the process with others until you no longer receive them.
You decide when you want and need to buy things, not Amazon’s newsletter.
Step 3. Use your spam filter
For the sake of clarity, spam is any email you receive that is unsolicited and irrelevant to you.
This includes emails that try to sell you products that you’ve never had an interest in and emails that try to trick you into clicking on links that are harmful to your computer. And almost always, they’ll be from senders who you do not recognise.
If you receive a ton of junk mail everyday, your first instinct may be to quickly delete them. But, a more effective thing you can do is to ‘mark’ the email as spam (or junk mail depending on which email service you use). Almost all email service providers have this feature and they’ve gotten very good at recognising what junk mail looks like and filtering it out before it has a chance to reach you.
Step 4. Disable social media email notifications
Social media is distracting enough as it is. The last thing you need is to have your inbox invaded with notifications just because somebody has commented on your profile picture.
If you currently receive emails from social media platforms informing you of the least important things, log in to your account and deactivate ALL email notifications. You’ll no doubt see them anyway the next check your status and your inbox will be much easier to deal with.
Step 5. Unsubscribe from blogs you no longer read
If you’re like me, your inbox is constantly flooded with interesting articles to read. And while this is great, there comes a point of diminishing returns. Like it or not, there’s only so much you can read in the time you currently have.
As difficult as this can be, if you’re currently being overwhelmed by interesting content, you’d likely benefit from unfollowing some sources. Give more attention to the blogs that you get the most value from while letting go of the ones which you don’t.
Step 6. Create a reading list
This may sound a little off topic, but in my experience it’s important if you want to keep your inbox as simple as possible and if you want to spend the minimum amount of time dealing with it.
I used to do most of my online reading during the time when I checked my email. I’d open the message, click the link(s) then once I was finished, move onto the next email.
However, I soon found this approach to be very unfocused as I was constantly bouncing back and forth between dealing with unread emails and reading interesting articles.
Instead of reading content while you check your email, create a reading list system and save articles to read later at a time when you’re more focused and in the right mindset.
You’ll spend less time managing your email and you’ll likely have better reading experience too.
Step 7. Create an archive
Sometimes having to hold onto important emails is unavoidable.
Important emails can include receipts for online purchases, hotel reservations, legal documentation or anything that has justifiable use over the long term. For these occasions, it’s useful to have a system that allows you to not only store emails (in a place other than your inbox) but also find them quickly if and when you need them.
I used to use a folder titled ARCHIVE in Mac Mail to store important emails but found it wasn’t always the best option when I needed to find things quickly.
Now, my preference is to forward important emails into Evernote (can you tell I’m a fan?) where they can be tagged, searched, organised and out of sight when they’re not needed.
Note: As I write this, the ability to email directly into Evernote requires that you upgrade your account to Evernote Plus .
Whatever system you choose matters little. What’s more important is that you have one so that you can keep your inbox clear while still having a place to keep important emails when necessary.
Step 8. Disable email notifications
With the ability to access email from many devices and the convenience of being notified of new messages, has come a misconception that email is urgent and should be dealt with the moment you receive it (almost the same way as you would deal with a text message).
And even if you disagree with this idea intellectually (as I do), it can still be tempting to open your inbox every time you’re notified that a new email has arrived.
A more productive and less distracting approach is to turn off notifications for your email apps and develop a daily routine of checking it.
If your smartphone or tablet notifies you when you receive new email, turn it off. If you have an email app on your computer that notifies you that you’ve received a new email (even when the app is closed), turn that off too.
Set things up so that the only way to know that you’ve received a new email is to see it with your own eyes.
Once all notifications are turned off, schedule time every day to check and deal with new email.
With this approach, you’ll be more focused than you would be if you check your email as and when you’re notified and you’ll almost certainly save time when you get the job done much quicker.
Step 9. Be done!
After you’ve finished checking your email, let that be the end of it. Don’t check your emails again until your next scheduled time.
Your inbox is dealt with, now it’s time focus on the more important things in your life (whatever they may be).
Dealing with email doesn’t have to be overwhelming or time consuming. But if it currently is, decide now that you’re going to change that.
When your inbox is simplified, you’ll have made a small but significant improvement to your life.
And remember, even if the time and attention that you claim back is relatively small, it won’t just be for one day, it’ll be for everyday.
Craig Link is a minimalist and technology enthusiast with a passion for finding and sharing practical ways to live a simpler life with more time, money and energy for what’s most important to you.