Once, email was a new and exciting technology, full of promise and magic chain letters and foreign pen pals named Paolo. But now, it’s a constant flood of messages and replies, spam and forwards, newsletters you forgot you’d signed up for and Gap deals you thought you’d unsubscribed from. According to tech market research firm the Radicati Group, people receive an average of 121 emails per day. It’s all become so tediously normal.
I’m not sure we’ll ever go back to that halcyon time when email was abnormal, enticing, and revolutionary, but we can take away some of the tedium. You could spend hours browsing through inbox productivity hacks on the web, but the solution is actually quite simple.
Delete. And do so without abandon.
Man, do I love deleting emails. I delete without mercy. That trash-can skeuomorph is my best friend. It’s like Marie Kondo–ing my inbox, except rather than asking whether my socks “spark joy,” I ask whether I’ll ever need to look at this message ever again. Most of the time, the answer is no. Will I really read that This Week in Cats newsletter later? No. Do I absolutely need an email from a co-worker confirming a deadline for a project? Nope. How often will I actually feel the need to reopen that e-card I got for my birthday? Approximately never. More emails than you might think are totally pointless after about five seconds.
Those first five seconds are key, though. That’s the Kondo-method moment of taking the item in your hands and letting it speak to you. Let each message speak to you and decide then and there what to do. As each email arrives, I immediately access the message and act right away. I choose on the spot whether to respond, archive it away in a folder, or hit delete—preferably the latter. If I need to reply but can’t do so at the moment, I’ll keep the message marked as unread until I can. But that’s it. Those are the only options I give myself, and I must decide at once.
Even when I’m not gleefully deleting, I’m freeing up mental space by dealing forthwith with each email. It’s the “touch-it-once principle.” When you’re moving, you don’t pack everything up in the bedroom, move it to the kitchen, and then shuffle it to the hallway before loading it into the truck. Just pick up the box and put it in the truck. It saves time. It saves effort. It’s way less confusing for the cat.
It’s the same with email: Don’t make things more complicated by returning to the same messages over and over, or ferrying them into folders to be dealt with later. If you respond or otherwise handle a message when you first open it, you’ll save yourself time and the anxiety of looming tasks. (I’m frankly not sure how the cat feels about it.)
Maybe this method speaks to me because I’m an inbox zero person. My inboxes aren’t entirely barren, but I strive to get as close to the elusive “Your primary tab is empty” as possible. And the mere sight of a triple—or quadruple!—digit number in the little red bubble over the mail icon on a friend’s phone makes my heart pound and my palms sweat. Seriously, how do you people live? That is not normal.
I realize my compulsive drive for the dopamine rush an inbox-zero addict gets each time she clears out the red unread bubble may not be, strictly speaking, normal. It’s probably not normal to color-code my closet either, OK?, but here we are. That said, I think you, too, could benefit from my inbox technique. Those with a more maximalist view on email might, instead of deleting emails with the enthusiasm of Little Bunny Foo Foo scooping up field mice and bopping them on the head, use the “mark as read” button—an acknowledgement that the message has been managed that still allows the pixels to stack up like old newspapers in a hoarder’s den. Or perhaps you’ve chosen to hack your productivity by checking your email just a few times throughout the day. If so, I doff my cap to you for your impressive restraint and self-control, and offer that there’s still value in tackling each message immediately when you do open that inbox.
Happiness and productivity expert Nataly Kogan already espouses the values of the “read each email once” strategy. Plus, she says it makes her world more “awesome.” Who doesn’t want to live in a more awesome world? And LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner seems to have a similar way of dealing with his inbox, in which he relies heavily on the “mark as unread” portion of my plan.
Kogan and Weiner are on the right track. Inbox anxiety should not be normal: Join me in this more awesome new world. Just don’t bother sending me an email to express your gratitude. I’ll delete it.
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