How I deal with email as a digital minimalist

Achieving email zen took time and practice

Photo by Solen Feyissa on Unsplash

I have a healthy relationship with email. I hit ‘Inbox Zero’ each day and I feel in control. It hasn’t always been like this, though.

Years ago, I would hate the persistent notifications pinging away on my phone. There was always the high level of overwhelm initiated by the sheer number of emails I was receiving every day. My gut reaction was to not open my email client — the classic out of sight, out of mind solution. Unfortunately, this approach does not fix anything. I was not taking agency for an area of my life that needed attention. Looking back at the situation, I felt like I dealt with emails immaturely. No way did I want to take responsibility for the situation I had got myself into. I say I got ‘myself’ into the situation because failing to act on a responsibility is a choice. My immature choice.

The impact of inaction on something so small as managing email was not as subtle as I originally imagined. Email is part of our lives, even if it is not our primary form of communication. The process of deciding what to do with each email caused me a lot of decision fatigue. I remember how I would stress about the tiny details of each email. The emails I had neglected would play on my mind, even when I had ‘actively’ chosen to ignore them. I guess you could say I had many open loops without the intention of closing them.

The whole situation with email was not due to laziness. Although, I had moments of “I can’t be bothered”. The problem I found was a lack of education dealing with, and managing, emails. I treated my inbox as I would with text messages. At least my messages app grouped my messages by person. I briefly skimmed the emails with limited interest.

“Action is the foundational key to all success” — Pablo Picasso

So, I needed to take action. What did I do? Simple — I decided to ignore them. No. Seriously. I actually did. However, this time, I got myself educated on using my email client, researched different strategies/approaches, and monitored when I had the most energy to deal with them.

I choose when and how I access my email, for me to process them with the respect and attention they deserved. If they are actionable, I will decide the best method to process the email or delegate it to someone else. Everything else goes to the archive vault. Again, out of sight, out of mind, but with intention and a system!

Fixing the toxic relationship

In 2019, I went through all of my emails from school (I’m an educator) and home. I spent hours, and I mean hours, sorting through my emails to decide what I needed to do with each one. Looking back, I should have archived everything and referred back to what I needed. Maybe I could have set times in the week to spend 15 minutes maximum on sorting a chunk of them each week? A gradual reduction is better than no reduction at all.

Either way, I ended up with an empty inbox for personal use. My inbox for work had a dozen emails by the end of my purge. I knew the inbox would quickly pile up with my emails and further distraction from what I intended to do with my time. I chose to learn about the Inbox Zero approach from Merlin Mann. The site is down now, but it can be found on Wayback Machine. I won’t bore you with the approach, so please visit the site to read up on it.

I came up with six ideas to organise my email chaos. They were a set of rules to focus on that were simple enough to follow without overcomplicating the process. The plan is to get on top of the email situation, not hide from it. Here is a set of rules I follow to keep my sanity in check, focus on what is important at any given time, and respond to emails with the attention they deserve.

No client on phone

I don’t have an email client on my iPhone or iPad. There are two places where I read and respond to emails — my work laptop and my personal MacBook Air. Applying this approach at first felt strange, but now it is the norm. If I need to later reference to anything in an email, it will either end up on my calendar, shared in Apple Notes, set as a task in Apple Reminders, or copied into a folder on the relevant cloud storage solution. As a general rule, I only have notifications from voice mail, iMessage and Signal messenger. Everything else on my phone has notifications disabled.

Set times to process email

I have three set times in the day to check my email. During the working week, I will start an initial scan of my emails at 08:20. Anything important usually appears first thing in the morning before the students arrive. I record what I need and sign off. The allocated slot is 15:10 when the students have left is often the heaviest time of day for emails. They accumulate throughout the day when I busy doing the core area of work. I respond to colleagues and set up an action plan for the following day, or take action if the email requires immediate resolution. Finally, I check my personal email at home around 19:00. To be honest, I don’t receive many personal emails, so the process is short and precise.

My colleagues and close ones know I have set times in place and respond when I can. I used to be anxious about my process because I always wanted to be available. However, I found people respect you for having a steady routine. You don’t have to be available 24/7. It is healthier and maintainable eventually.

Time limit of 10 minutes

I set a timer on my Apple Watch for ten minutes for each of the three times in the day. It is rare for me to go over the ten minutes because I am efficient with the habit I have built around emails. If anything, I have to stop the timer before it goes off, as I frequently process everything within five minutes. Anything that needs extended time to respond will end up as a task.

Reduce the subscriptions

One of the best things I chose to do was unsubscribe to newsletters. I now have three newsletters I receive, usually on a Sunday, and I am able to scan through them during my weekly review on a Sunday evening. Another action I took was to remove all social media notifications. I will look at my notifications within the platform when I access them during my scheduled time for social media.

I also recommend unsubscribing to any marketing or promotions you may find from any of the services you have signed up to. Yes, you might miss out on a super cool offer. However, I have found most of the offers are of no interest to me. If your email client or service allows it, have your email go directly into topic folders for you to focus on specific areas when needed.

Sticking with the native client

I find that I have to justify everything I spend my money on, and I use that service more than I would normally with a free service. I guess I had the idea of wanting to get my money’s worth. Switching from Spark Mail to Apple Mail was a great choice. I wasn’t using the AI or third-party app integrations anyway. There is less incentive to use the native email app because I don’t feel I have to warrant my subscription. Apple Mail does everything I want to achieve. At work, I use Microsoft Outlook, which is part of the company’s subscription plan. Reducing the amount of applications makes it easier to learn all the keyboard shortcuts, too.

Develop a system

I use Carl Pullein’s approach to email. All actionable emails go into an inbox folder called Actions Today. Under no circumstances will the folder have any emails in it by the end of the day. Everything has a place outside this folder. As mentioned before, I have four locations where the content can live. The remaining emails from the day will be archived or deleted. I keep my email as Inbox Zero as possible.

Final thoughts

The habits I have developed have allowed me to write well-thought-out emails with greater clarity and consideration. I am no longer rushing to get through my email or getting distracted by the influx of content entering my email client. I would suggest you try at least one of the approaches I have mentioned above.

If you want me to write about any of the areas above in greater detail, please let me know. I am more than willing to help you with your email approach. Emails are not evil. We just need to be educated on how to manage our inboxes.

Thank you for taking the time to read my post.

Mark @ CodeMacLife

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