Don’t you hate it when you can’t see the wood from the trees?
You know, the more I think I about it, the more I think that’s a great analogy. After all, the invention of the email was supposed to help us cut down on our printed matter, thus helping to save many a sapling.
Unfortunately, while it may have been environmentally friendly, there is growing evidence that email overload is a significant cause of workplace stress.
You know the scenario. You’ve just got back to work from a week on leave. You’ve soaked up the sun (most likely from your back garden if you’re reading this in 2020), you’ve given your brain a well-earned rest by feeding it nothing but trash TV, and you’re refreshed, fired up, and ready to once again get stuck in to the job you love.
You bounce into the office (or Zoom team meeting in 2020), make your hot beverage of choice, tell all your colleagues how much more energy you have and how exotic the plants at the bottom of your garden are, turn on your PC, load up your email client and-
HOW MANY EMAILS?
You sink in your chair. You stare at your screen. You curse the inventor of the CC field. You send silent daggers across the office to THAT person – you know, the one that copies you in to every email regardless of whether it’s relevant to you. “Just in case”.
You take a deep breath, and go to the kitchen to refill your drink. It’s coffee this time. You perhaps don’t even drink coffee. And if you do drink coffee, it’s a super-strength, bitter-as-hell caffeine overdose.
You sit back down and start to work your way through the backlog. You get annoyed every time you come across something you perceive as spam. “I don’t remember signing up to that mailing list”, you find yourself saying a dozen times in the next hour.
By lunchtime you’re nearly ready to start doing some actual work. And then it happens. The phone starts ringing with numerous people asking you to follow up from their request last Tuesday. Duplicate emails start arriving because everyone has figured that you’ve been back in for half a day and so you MUST be up-to-date with your emails by now, so it’s time to remind you of that urgent request they sent you on Friday, the one they’d asked your to prioritise on your arrival back in the office.
You’ve had enough. You get up from your desk and decide to go for a walk. Someone catches you just as you put your hand on the door – “Hey, I know you’re probably busy catching up, but please could you look at my email about…”
Internally, you scream.
But it doesn’t have to be like this. There are three very simple things you can do to bring back some sanity to your inbox. Even better – none of them will cost you a penny.
Let’s get started.
1. Create A New Email Address for Purchasing Goods Online
This one simple piece of advice was given to me around ten years ago and it is the single biggest reason for my email sanity.
It’s so incredibly simple that I’m shocked whenever people tell me that they don’t already do it.
Here’s what to do and how to manage it:
a) Choose your free email provider
There are dozens of free email providers out there. You probably don’t need me to name them, but here are a few: Gmail, Yahoo, GMX, Outlook, Zoho, Mail.com.
b) Create your email address
This is the fun bit. As you’ll likely never read this email address out loud, you can call it whatever you like. I like to use song lyrics from obscure bands that no one else has ever heard of. I must admit though, I did regret choosing email@example.com (now defunct) when I was asked to confirm my email address when collecting an order from Mountain Warehouse one day.
c) Whenever you buy something online, use this email address
It’s really easy. Whenever you are asked to sign up for an account when ordering something online, use your new email address. That way, if you sign up to the company’s email list (deliberately or otherwise), the emails won’t disturb your main inbox. You can also use it for other less important tasks, like signing online petitions or entering competitions.
d) Only check it when you need to
This is the great thing. It keeps your main inbox clear of spam, and you only need check it when you’re expecting a confirmation email or something similarly important. Or if you’re in the mood for some online shopping.
e) When it gets too much, change it!
If you find that you’re only receiving emails from companies you don’t ever buy from, simply stop using the account and set up a new one! I seem to change mine roughly once every five years. Although if I’m honest that’s mainly because I want to use a new song lyric.
Step 1 bonus tip 1
If you manage your own web hosting, domain and email addresses, you’ll likely have a package that includes a number of free email accounts. I get 100 with my one.com hosting.
If you want to use this technique for work purposes, you can set up a new account solely for business shopping. If you want to sound really fancy you could use the suffix “procurement@”.
Step 1 bonus tip 2
I also do this for my social media accounts. As well as turning off email notifications whenever I sign up for a new account, I use a dedicated email address to stop my main inbox getting flooded with social media notification nonsense. I do the same for emails received through the contact form on my website.
2. Set up rules
Rules are great. Not boring ones about wearing seatbelts or nonsensical ones created by health and safety execs because they don’t understand legislation, but rules that filter the unimportant emails out of your way until you’re ready to read them. (Rules are also called filters in some email applications).
Many email providers come with filters as a built-in function. For example, if you sign up for a new Gmail account today, you will automatically have three “inboxes” set up – Primary, Social, and Promotions. These will filter your emails into the appropriate inbox using pre-defined rules. For example, if Gmail identifies an email as being from Facebook, it will filter it into the Social inbox.
Most email providers will allow you to set up your own rules. To make the most of this, I recommend setting up some folders first. For example, you could name a folder “Generic Co Ltd” and set up a rule to filter all messages from people at Generic Co Ltd into this folder. You could create a folder called “Susan” and set up a rule to filter all messages from Susan into this folder.
Some email providers will allow you to set up rules based on other criteria, such as whether the sender has marked the email as important. For these emails, you may wish to filter them into a folder called “Important”.
Filter those pesky “just in case” emails
Depending on your provider, you can even set up rules to filter all messages that have been sent with your address in the “cc” field. You may wish to file this in a folder called something like “For Info”.
Here are some how-to guides for setting up filters for various email clients:
- Use this guide for setting up rules in the Outlook mail client.
- Click here for a guide for setting up rules in Outlook.com.
- Here’s a guide for setting up filters on a Gmail account.
- This one is for setting up filters on Yahoo mail.
- GMX? This guide for setting up filters on a GMX account.
- Here’s a guide for setting up filters on a Zoho account.
- Use this guide for setting up filters on a Mail.com account.
3. Use the unsubscribe option
As someone who runs a mailing list, one of the things I find most frustrating is the number of people who neither read my emails, nor unsubscribe from the list. You’ve probably figured by now that I’m a bit of a freak when it comes to organising my emails, so I never understand why others don’t do it too!
All emails sent to mailing lists should by law include an unsubscribe option. Some companies may ask you to email them with the word “unsubscribe” or similar in the subject line, but most will have a link that will automatically unsubscribe you when clicked.
I’m willing to bet that 60% of the people reading this blog have never tried it. Go on – give it a go. It’s surprisingly therapeutic, especially if you have a bit of a cleanse and do it with multiple email lists. I promise you’ll feel hugely relieved when you check your emails tomorrow!
Important note: When you click this, you’ll usually be taken to a screen that asks why you want to unsubscribe. If you’re unsubscribing because you’ve changed your mind, simply click “I no longer wish to receive these emails” or similar. Only click “I never signed up receive these emails” if you’re 100% sure that you’re being spammed. This is because the company that sent the email may be penalised by their provider if this option is used more than a handful of times. My mailing list is 100% opt-in – I have NEVER added anybody without explicit permission – and yet a number of people have clicked this option when unsubscribing. For a small one-person business, this can be devastating. For the same reason, think twice before you hit the “mark as spam” button in your inbox.
Bonus tip – close your email client when you’re working on something
This is another one that took me longer than it should have done to work out. Habitually, I’ve always left Outlook open when I’m working on other programs, mainly through FOMO. Of course, the reality is that nothing urgent comes through email. If someone needs you desperately, they will likely use the phone to get in touch. And given that phones these days contains dozens of messaging platforms as well as the phone app itself, there’s no excuse for using email if something is genuinely urgent.
Go on, close it down. It’ll give you a lot more focus and you’ll likely be much more productive.
And if you want to really treat yourself – I dare you to turn your phone off too! Too much? Too much.
What do you do to keep your inbox under control? Let me know if you’ve got any top tips that I might have missed!