How to Beat Procrastination Starting With Your Inbox

Sarah Drasner recently posted a cry for halp on twitter:

I get too many emails. It's gotten insane. HALP! Do you all have email organization tips? Especially for gmail

…and so rather than actually address any of the half-dozen items in my inbox currently, I'll explain my strategy and why it (mostly) works for me.

The Tools

I've named this post about beating procrastination rather than taming my inbox for a specific reason. It's Maslow's hammer. Your email inbox is a tool you use for storing and organizing communication, but it's not the only tool, and it's certainly not the best tool.

Once you aknowledge that your email inbox is just a tool, it's easier to move away from trying to do everything with it. It's a difficult transition for those who have ultra-customized their Gmail with all sorts of add-ons and extras, but it's important to aknowledge that your pocket knife may not be as good as a steak knife at meal time, even if it really is sharp and clean.

With that said, my quality of life is markedly improved by having a better pocket knife. Likewise, it's great to have a good email client.

I've chosen Gmail myself, and more recently, Inbox.

It's pretty nice.

It's not a very good calendar though, nor is it very good for note taking, nor is it very good at storing documents. While this might be obvious to some, I've met plenty of people who attempt to use their inbox to manage all these things, and indeed Microsoft Outlook has trained many people to expect a single tool to handle all of these various tasks.

I recommend keeping your calendar separate from your notes sepearate from your email separate from your docs.

I've chosen to go all-in on Google products myself:

These have worked out well for me, but don't be afraid to choose differently, the actual tools you use aren't as important as your comfort in using them. If you find that your tools are uncomfortable or are getting in your way, ditch them immediately and try something else.

Step 1: Admit You Have a Problem

Sarah Drasner has obviously already done this, which is a great first step in the right direction. If you think you've got too many emails, it shouldn't be difficult to say out loud:

Repeat after me: "I have too many emails"

Once you aknowledge this you can start to take a look at your behavior and what led you to having too many emails.

Did you give your email address to anyone and everyone?

Did you sign up for some mailing lists that you don't have time to read?

Did you register for coupons online?

Do you send a lot of group messages to people via email?

There are strategies to address each of these situations. Don't let them become excuses.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle Bin

In my experience, future me always procrastinates more than present me. This is largely because future me has said "yes" to more things, and has less time to do them in. No matter how hard I try, my responsibilities have always grown.

Knowing this, I need a strategy where I can do the least amount of effort now and no effort later.

The simplest solution is to stop receiving any unwanted emails. If you don't want it, don't let it have any of your attention.

As a Gmail user, I can add extra contextual information to my email address. Instead of giving out my zzzzbov@gmail.com address, I can instead choose to give websites zzzzbov+nospam@gmail.com instead.

For public use, many people know about the + trick, so it may be worthwhile setting up a secondary email for public use and configuring your primary to access it via IMAP, or maybe even just add yourself as a delegate.

As I own a domain all to myself, I prefer to dole out unique email addresses per website, such as amazon@zzzzbov.com or nameofmarketingcampaign@zzzzbov.com, which also makes it easier to track who's selling my personal information.

If you've signed up for something you no longer read, click the unsubscribe button.

If you didn't sign up for something and you don't read that either, click the unsubscribe button.

If you're still receiving spam, flag it as spam.

To preemptively avoid spam from dubious online registrations, use a service such as MailDrop so that you never actually give out your real address.

And the number one trick to avoid receiving email:

Stop sending email in the first place.

Now, I'm not saying you should never send email, because all absolute statements are false, and that'd be silly, but in the words of Scott Hanselman:

Email is where your keystrokes go to die

A simple metric for when to use email: If you aren't willing to print it, put it in an envelope, stick postage on it, and send it via post, you probably shouldn't hit "send". It's the same old mail, it's just electronic.

If it's temporary and conversational, use chat. If it's a temporary group conversation, use group chat. If it's long-form group conversation, use a forum. Post the text of the message as publicly as possible so that you can maximize the impact of your keystrokes. If you reply to questions via email, you're only training people that it's ok for them to ask you questions via email.

Of course, I take a rational approach to this. I still want to keep my medical records private and regularly answer questions from my dentist in my email, but I would be equally comfortable printing off those answers and mailing them because it's going to be six months before I'm back and he can wait.

I guess what I'm trying to say is: use your best judgement here.

Filtration

The only email that should ever be in your inbox is email you intend to deal with now.

If you want to receive newsletters, but have no intention of reading them immediately, filter them.

If you want to receive coupons, but have no intention of using them immediately, filter them.

Filtering does not mean it's gone forever, it just means it's no longer in your inbox. You can go read your backlog of newsletters when you have some free time and feel like it, and because it's out of your inbox there's no stress of "I should really read this", no, instead it's "I have chosen to read this later".

Gmail has made filtering pretty easy but it's somewhat hidden for anyone who doesn't know that it's there.

Click the down arrow on the search bar:

Gmail search bar

It'll open a dialog where you can set advanced search features:

Gmail filter expanded showing a search for CSS Layout News

Clicking the link on the bottom-right will take you to the create filter dialog which allows you to do all sorts of fun things automatically:

Gmail create filter dialog showing various options

The ones I use the most are archiving, marking as read, and applying a label.

Be sure to check the "Also apply filter to matching conversations" checkbox when creating the label as it will bulk-update all the matched items without you having to waste more time dealing with old emails.

You can edit existing filters in Gmail settings, and there are plenty of other how-to posts about doing just that that I won't spend more time on the process now. Filters are your friend, and they will save you more time than they take to set up.

The Four D's

Once you've reduced the flow of email you receive, it's time to actually tame your inbox.

Do not attempt to tame your inbox before solving the underlying issue of why you have so much stuff in your inbox. You will grow tired and give up without having made any real progress because the problem will return the next time your inbox refreshes.

I use "The Four D's", a concept which I understand comes from David Allen's "Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity", but I've never actually read the book to find out.

In any event, "The Four D's" are:

  • Do it
  • Defer it
  • Delegate it
  • Drop it

and they should be applied to each item in your inbox.

Do It

While it might seem obvious to just reply to an email right away, I would like to reiterate how important it is to only reply to email that you deem worthy of your attention.

The ideal solution to most email in your inbox should be to read it and then immediately archive it. Inbox has a nice "Done" checkmark just for this use case.

If you find yourself needing to apply the same labels, or sending the same canned responses, or starring the same things over and over again, you probably need to set up a filter to do it for you. If that's the case, set up the filter immediately, and then mark the email done.

If you find that you want to keep something in your inbox for any reason, you've found something that should never have been in your inbox to begin with. Is it a note? Put it in Google Keep. Is it an event? Add it to Google Calendar. Does it have an important attachment? Add it to Google Drive. Once you've done that, archive the email. You can always search for it later if you need to.

Defer It

If you need to address an email later, and it must be done via email, defer it. Gmail lacks in this department, but Inbox has a nice snooze button for picking a date and a time when the email will reappear in your inbox as if it had only just been sent.

The important thing to note here is that it's easy to just keep saying "I'll do it when I get home" and then "I'll do it in the morning" and then "I'll do it over the weekend". If you're going to defer, defer to the last possible second and no sooner for maximum efficiency. You can always choose to look at your snoozed emails before they return to your inbox.

I find this especially helpful for padding the end of my work day with stuff that I can wind down on. Especially 4:30 on a Friday when I know I won't be able to focus on much else, shooting off a bunch of email replies is fast and easy.

Delegate It

Whenever possible have someone or something else do your work for you. Sometimes this means responding to questions with, "I think Janet might be better suited to answer that", sometimes this means responding with a link to a blog post. As much as we've been trained through school to be independent and do things ourselves, it's a shitty habit as most people are grateful for the opportunity to prove their own usefulness and independence.

Be a team player and let other people help you.

Use your best judgement and don't abuse people by dumping work on them.

Drop It

I have the hardest time with this one.

Sometimes you get an email that you want to reply to, but you just don't have the time to do it justice, or it's just not a priority, or [insert excuse as to why you're not doing it here].

Drop it.

Archive the email, and move on.

You won't do it now, and you know you won't have time later, so just don't do it at all.

If it's actually important, the person who sent it will follow up.

Also this is how you handle any email-that-shouldn't-have-been-email. If you receive an email that should have been a chat message, and you ignore it, the person who follows up will likely not use email to reach you. If they follow up via phone you can just mention that chat's the best way to get ahold of you for that type of communication so that it doesn't get lost in your inbox. If they follow up via chat, the problem has self-corrected.

If you find that you're snoozing the same thing over and over and over, drop it. You're not going to do it. Label it "backlog" and archive it. It'll still be there if you ever actually get around to it, but it won't be hovering over you stealing your attention from the other more important things in your life.