Photo by Zeus Martinez
The Text in Five Sentences Or Less
The true source of our love-hate relationship with email is that we treat it like a task when it’s actually a tool. We cede control of our workday—and our to-do lists—to the dictates of others in pursuit of a mirage called “inbox zero.”
– Jocelyn K. Glei in Unsubscribe
Photo from http://toolsandtoys.net/unsubscribe-by-jocelyn-k-glei/
In Unsubscribe, Jocelyn K. Glei will show you how to tame your inbox, reclaim your productivity, and rediscover your creativity with tips on how to:• Break free from email addiction by understanding the psychology of reciprocity, completion bias, and the asker’s advantage.• Develop daily routines and boundaries that minimize your time on email and free up your energy for more meaningful work.
The Rat Brain: Why Email Is So Addictive
Back in the 1930’s, psychologist B. F. Skinner invented a device called the “operant conditioning chamber,” now knowns as the Skinner Box, which he used to text behavioral theories on rats. Skinner wanted to see what effect different kinds of positive reinforcements like food pellets and negative reinforcements like electric shocks would have on the animals.Fixed ScheduleFirst, he experimented with putting the rats on a fixed schedule of behavior reinforcement. For instance, if the rat pressed the lever inside the box, it would receive a food pellet. It it continued pressing the lever, every hundredth time the rat would receive another pellet. Press the lever 100 times, get a reward—that was the system.Variable ScheduleIn this scenario, the rate didn’t know when the reward was coming. It might have to press the lever 20 times to get a pellet, or it might have to press the lever 200 times to get a pellet. The system was random, and the rat could never know exactly when the reward was coming.ResultsThe rats were more motivated when they were on the variable schedule. Behavioral psychologist Dan Ariely explains that email is a “near-perfect random rewards system.” Glei explained that most of the time, when we check our emails, we see “disappointing” or “bothersome” things like tasks from our bosses, complaints from our clients, et cetera. Very rarely do we get emails that bring us good news. “It’s those random rewards, mixed in with all the mind-numbing updates and irksome requests, that we find so addictive.”
The Progress Paradox: Why Inbox Zero is Irresistible
This is the progress paradox: by dint of technology, it’s easy to see our progress when we’re doing relatively short-term tasks, while it’s quite difficult to see our progress when we’re engaged in the long-term, creative projects that will ultimately have the most impact on our lives.
This was the first time I heard of the Progress Paradox. People have an innate desire to finish what they started. One of the things that constantly causes me guilt and stress is an unfinished job. That includes email.
Because of the book, I realized that the progress bar is a very visual trigger that makes me want to finish what I started, even if they are menial and inconsequential: downloads, online survey forms, LinkedIn profiles, and the bold sign in my email that tells me I have 100 unread messages. There’s a visual cue whenever I see that number slowly dwindling down,
Glei adds that ironically, when we do “meaningful work” like editing an article on MS Word or Gdocs, editing a poster on Photoshop, or editing a PowerPoint, we don’t see a progress bar that reminds us that we have progressed. The older versions just disappear.
1.Craft modified to-do lists the night before, and read the to-do list before going online.
My main problem with email is that it teaches me to be reactive. I developed a bad habit of checking my emails, Facebook notifications, and Facebook messages the moment I wake up. Immediately, my day becomes all about reacting and responding to those notifications and and emails. I am not able to prioritize the most important and meaningful work that require focus and planning.
Another problem is how my work is so tied up with Facebook. My co-workers exchange messages on Facebook. We monitor comments on Facebook. We post stories on Facebook. I manage the comments and questions of interns on Facebook. But my favorite entertainment websites and clickbaits and guilty pleasures are also on Facebook. This means that I am distracted in the morning and even as my working day progresses.
After realizing this, I told myself that I would focus on “meaningful work” before responding to emails. The problem was, I was still tempted to check emails in the morning. Instead of replying to them immediately, I did other things–and then totally forgot to reply to them. This has happened a lot of times in 2016, and it was really embarrassing.
I applied Glei’s tip, but I modified it. She suggested writing to-do lists a night before. But on top of that, I divided my to-do list into two: tasks to do before going online, and tasks that require the Internet. I also set a specific time in the day when I would allow myself to go online–usually after brunch. The tasks that fell under things to do before going online usually required strategic and creative thinking: crafting blog posts, making SWOT analysis, planning out editorial calendar, editing my thesis, writing email pitches, and more.
This system really works for me, because even the act of replying to messages and crafting posts in the Facebook groups I manage (for work and group works in class) are done offline. I have less changes of being distracted. I simply copy-paste my responses and posts from an note, and then catch up on emails, tagged comments, and personal messages afterwards.
2. Remember the two-minute rule.
The only flaw to #1 is that from time to time, I still get tempted to check emails before my scheduled time. If I don’t reply immediately after seeing the message, my tendency is to totally forget about it or magnify in my mind how big my tasks for the day are. If I take a sneak peek into my email and see that I need to reply to give people. It takes less than a minute to reply to each email, but it still feels like a daunting task the more I put it off.
James Clear explains what the two-minute rule is:
Most of the tasks that you procrastinate on aren’t actually difficult to do — you have the talent and skills to accomplish them — you just avoid starting them for one reason or another.
The 2–Minute Rule overcomes procrastination and laziness by making it so easy to start taking action that you can’t say no.
There are two parts to the 2–Minute Rule…
Part 1 — If it takes less than two minutes, then do it now.
Part I comes from David Allen’s bestselling book, Getting Things Done.
It’s surprising how many things we put off that we could get done in two minutes or less. For example, washing your dishes immediately after your meal, tossing the laundry in the washing machine, taking out the garbage, cleaning up clutter, sending that email, and so on.
If a task takes less than two minutes to complete, then follow the rule and do it right now.
Part 2 — When you start a new habit, it should take less than two minutes to do.
Can all of your goals be accomplished in less than two minutes? Obviously not.
But, every goal can be started in 2 minutes or less. And that’s the purpose behind this little rule.
It might sound like this strategy is too basic for your grand life goals, but I beg to differ. It works for any goal because of one simple reason: the physics of real life.
The Physics of Real Life
As Sir Isaac Newton taught us a long time ago, objects at rest tend to stay at rest and objects in motion tend to stay in motion. This is just as true for humans as it is for falling apples.
The 2–Minute Rule works for big goals as well as small goals because of the inertia of life. Once you start doing something, it’s easier to continue doing it. I love the 2–Minute Rule because it embraces the idea that all sorts of good things happen once you get started.
3. Archive it all!
This was the most refreshing step for me. I didn’t learn it from Glei. I learned it from Pam Llaguno, one of the bloggers I’ve been following for a while now. In her blog post, “#EmailSanity: 7 fail-proof tips to CONQUER your inbox now,” Pam wrote:
Here’s my take on it – your inbox was never meant to be a permanent home for any e-mail. It’s called inbox because it was made for “incoming” e-mails. Once you’ve seen the e-mail, then it’s no longer an “incoming” mail and thus, it doesn’t belong in your inbox.
Some people use their inbox as a place to house their actionable e-mails (a.k.a. e-mails that need attention – it has to be replied to, or you’re waiting for a reply on that e-mail, or there’s a link that you need to review, attachment that needs to be downloaded, etc.). But I find this method to be highly ineffective. Why? Everyday, your inbox receives, let’s assume, ten e-mails. This means that every day, your actionable e-mails get pushed down ten rows (since new e-mails usually occupy the top rows). Sometimes, they get pushed back to the next page. How are you supposed to remember taking action on those e-mails when they’re buried in your inbox?
DO THIS RIGHT NOW (20 minutes) ::
(These steps assume that you’re using Gmail – it’s freakin’ awesome – but I suspect that you can find similar settings for your own e-mail client.)
- Star all the actionable e-mails in your Inbox. These are the e-mails that you need to reply to or maybe you need to check out a link or download an attachment from.
- Archive your entire Inbox. Don’t worry, archived mails are NOT deleted. They’re simply filed under a label“All Mail” and is completely searchable. But the magical thing is, they’re not in your inbox.
Now, all your actionable items are Starred and easily accessible + your inbox is squeaky clean, ready for a new wave of incoming mail.
FOLLOW UP! Learn to make archiving a habit. The keyboard shortcut for Gmail is “e.” Just press the letter on an open e-mail conversation. (Please note that you have to activate this shortcut in the Settings.)
I followed her tip, and it has made the biggest difference! The task of responding to unread emails always feelings so daunting. When I look at even just one of the five email accounts I maintain (four for work, one for school) I always feel so intimidated by all those emails I have to skim through just to even find which ones I haven’t replied to yet.
For my Christmas vacation, I forced myself to go through the first page of ALL the five emails, reply to those I haven’t replied to yet, and then archive everything. In all emails.
Nothing to worry about because they’re not deleted. And they’re also not worth filing into folders, because Gmail’s search options are already very reliable in the first place.
If you want to do the same, select all of your messages and click the ARCHIVE button. Helpful tip: by default, Gmail offers to archive only the first fifty messages. Select All Mail on the right side:
This is what all my emails look like now when I access them from my laptop:
This is what all my emails look like now when I access them from my phone and iPad:
Naturally, it won’t look that way for long. You’ll still be receiving and sending emails. Here’s what you could do for a long-term solution.
Go to Settings -> General -> Send and Archive. Select the “Show “Send & Archive” button in reply” option.
Here’s what it would look like everytime you reply to someone.
That way, once you’ve already replied to an email, your inbox would look clean and clutter-free again. This has helped me so much–probably more than I could explain! I had a visual representation of all the things I had to take care of. It removed the stress of having to look for actionable emails or wonder, right before I fell asleep, if I missed any emails. It also made me procrastinate less in replying because the clean dashboard just looked so beautiful.
4. Lessen the number of emails in the first place.
This is a lesson I learned from Vince Golangco, the founder of WhenInManila.com. He always tells us, “Don’t just work hard. Work smart.” He applies the same principles with emails. (Why work hard in responding to all those emails when you can set up a more efficient system–when people no longer need to e-mail you?) He made an FAQ page on WhenInManila.com, and I’ve done the same with the internship program. If I get at least three emails from different people asking about the same thing, I edit to the FAQ section of the blog post about the internship.
Lessening the number of emails I get also includes being as specific as I can. I learned that a lot of my emails and group chats on Facebook over Christmas went like this.
Friend A: Reunion naman tayo ngayong Christmas break!
Friend B: G!
Friend C: G din! Saan tayo? At kailan?
Friend C, D, E….: Kayo bahala!
And then goes the very mind-numbing process of “kayo bahala.” And it’s amazing how this is often the cause of hangouts that don’t push through. It’s also the cause of email and PM overload. When I realized this, I started to write emails as if I were writing a lead–complete with the who, what, where, when, why, and even the how.
I try not to sound pushy about it by adding that if he/she wants something else, I’m game. (I’m actually not picky with when/where to meet. I just want to waste less time going back and forth on those details. After all, my purpose for the holiday reunion is to simply catch up with old friends. It really doesn’t matter when or where.)
Lastly, lessening the amount of emails I get also includes unsubscribing from newsletters. Years ago, I tried to do this manually. I went through my emails and unsubscribed one by one. But it took too much time, and I just gave up. And then I read Unsubscribe, which led me to discover unroll.me.
This leads me to my next takeaway: use tools.
5. Use tools.
There are two thins that Unroll.Me does:
1.Getting rid of the junk
We identify your subscription emails and neatly list them for you. We give you the option to unsubscribe from junk emails right off the bat. One click and they’re gone. Done.
2. The Rollup: Organizing the subscriptions you like
Now that your inbox is junk free, easily combine your favorite subscriptions into a beautiful daily digest email called the Rollup.
You choose what gets rolled up and when you receive your Rollup. Like to browse email with your morning coffee? You can get all your newsletters and social notifications at 7 a.m. each day. It’s up to you.
This is what Unroll.me looks like when you key in your email address.
At first, I wanted to check all 62 subscriptions. I didn’t want to unsubscribe from ALL of them. But it took too much time to check all 62 subscriptions and to make 62 decisions on whether or not I wanted to keep getting emails from them.
I later realized that if I want to visit a website, I could do that anytime. I didn’t need more email clutter and more sources of distraction whenever I logged into my emails.
6.2) Email on Deck (emailondeck.com)
After some time, as I browed through the Internet, I chanced upon new websites that offered freebies if you subscribe to their newsletter. Without realizing it, I had about ten new subscriptions in just a few days!
But the true email pro has another trick up her sleeve: Email on Deck (emailondeck.com), a service that provides free temporary email addresses that look real but are not. This is ideal for when you need to submit an email address to get access to something but you don’t actually want to subscribe to yet another email newsletter.
This is something I discovered even before reading Unsubscribe. I discovered it when I was trying to find ways in Gmail to send scheduled emails. I later found out that Boomerang does so much more than that. This video explains Boomerang very well:
My favorite feature for Boomerang is the option to send recurring messages. In the video above, the user sends a recurring monthly email to his roommates, reminding them about the rent.
This feature is incredibly helpful for me. In This year, a lot of my work would involve administrative duties. I’ll send weekly reminders of deadlines to fill up the editorial calendar, or monthly reminders to remind everyone to update their tabs with a list of articles they worked on. Boomerang is like an email personal assistant who does all that for you.
Ever since I archived everything, I didn’t get to use Sortd very much. (After all, there wasn’t anything left to sort.) But Sortd is still worth mentioning if you can’t reply to messages on one go and want a system to organize actionable emails.
You flag, star and mark messages unread to try and stay on top of things, but your email gets messy and out of control. Here’s the problem – important emails get lost below the fold and you lose track. Let’s face it, your Inbox just wasn’t meant to be a To Do list.
Sortd expands your Inbox into a flexible set of lists for important email and other stuff. Your emails, tasks and priorities now live together in one easy-to-use drag and drop workspace. Sortd is the perfect place for those emails you aren’t sure what to do with.
Sortd brings the worlds of emails and tasks together – if you can’t respond to an email right away, simply drag it to your To Do list and get to it later.
6. Identify what “meaningful work” means to you, and make your progress on that work visible.
This is my last and most important takeaway.
When I went offline and sat on my desk to do “meaningful work,” I didn’t know what to do. I realized that I didn’t even know what “meaningful work” meant to me anymore! I’ve been way too reactive for way too long–busy replying to emails and pings and text messages. And while those are important parts of my work, they’re not my main work. I don’t get to maximize my contribution to the company or to any group by simply refreshing my inbox. I have to be strategic, proactive, and creative– not simply reactive.
I decided to really think about what meaningful work means to me, and I came up with ways to make my progress in those works visible. This probably deserves a separate blog post, but here’s a general overview.
Over the holiday break, I came up with a specific list of revised deliverables and sent them to my bosses. That way, I not only have a visible checklist of revised tasks–I also have a form of accountability.
Other examples of “meaningful work” for me is this blog and commitment to becoming healthier. (More on this soon!) To make my progress visible, I printed out the free Habit Tracker from Passion Planner, and pasted it on my own planner. My weekly overview now looks something like this:
Photo from Passion Planner
Under “Habit” I have have “work on blog daily.”
Photo from Passion Planner
Passion Planner suggested having a Weight Loss Jar, but I think it could be applicable to other things related to your work as well. And because you stick the photos at the back of your journal or planner, it makes your progress chart visible and portable.
I hope this post helps you feel more creative and less guilty. The tools and tips I’ve listed here have been helpful
If you have any more tips to add, please comment them below. I’d love to hear from you.