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5 Ways to Keep Email from Ruining Your Life

·Tech Critic
Finger typing on smartphone
Finger typing on smartphone

Email is out of control. For many of us in the working world, there’s just too much of it. Email has become a source of anxiety, a measurement of our failure to keep up.

I’ve done a ton of reading on the subject, trying to peer over my virtual backyard fence to see how other people manage their email tsunamis.

Some people treat email like it’s Twitter: a living stream of communiqués that’s constantly rushing beneath our feet, to be dipped into when there’s a free moment — but otherwise, without feeling any obligation to answer every single one.

Others let their inboxes fill, fill, fill with unanswered mail — 5,000 messages, 10,000, maybe 30,000 — and finally declare “email bankruptcy.” That’s where you throw in the towel and delete all of it, starting fresh, on the assumption that if any of it is still important, the sender will email you again.

But somewhere between those radical solutions and just moving to the Amish country, there are strategies that work. There are protocols that can keep email from destroying your productivity and your self-esteem.

If you expect to hear me championing the “inbox zero” movement, though, you’ll be disappointed. That philosophy says you should end every day with nothing in your inbox. Immediately answer any message you can deal with in less than two minutes — and everything else, you’re supposed to file away into a mail folder.

To me, though, that’s pure self-delusion. Just because you’ve moved a message out of your inbox doesn’t mean you’ve dealt with it. It’s still a to-do hanging over your head even if you hide it away. It’s a self-fakeout, if you ask me.

No, here’s what I propose: Follow these five tips that actually get you through email faster and restore balance to your work life.

1. Don’t be a slave to email. Every time you hear that little chime that says a new message has come in, you lose your train of work thought. You duck out of whatever you were doing to see what little email present has just arrived under the tree. You may even open the message, find an interesting-looking link — and the next thing you know, you’ve just blown seven minutes on the Web.

So turn off the notifications for incoming mail (look for the setting in Options, Preferences, or Settings).

Mac Notifications page
Mac Notifications page

Furthermore, limit yourself to checking email only three times a day. In the morning, after lunch, and at the end of the day. No more ducking into email 35 times a day. Give yourself a fighting chance to get some creative momentum going on whatever you do in life.

(And don’t worry about missing things. If people are eager enough to reach you right this minute, they’ll text or call you.)

2. Death to perpetual email chains. One great way to stanch the flow of incoming email is to produce less outgoing mail. And one great way to do that is to end the conversation preemptively.

Idea 1: “I’ll send the proposal Friday. I’ll assume that’s fine unless I hear from you.”

You’ve given the other guy an out. Your wording allows him to stop the chain now. (As opposed to a multi-message back-and-forth: “When’s good? Can I send it Friday?” “Sure, sounds good.” “OK, Friday it is!”)

Idea 2: “I could meet Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday between 2 and 4. Let me know what works.”

See what you’ve done there? You’ve already established your free times; with only one more message, your colleague can cement the meeting time for good. You’ve saved yourself a bunch of “Sorry, I can’t do it then — how about Thursday?”-type memos.

Idea 3: Adopt email-triage shorthand. Let the other party off the hook by concluding your message with, “No reply needed” (or “NRN”).

Some people even put the entire message in the subject line, followed by EOM (“end of message”), like this:

Email screen with message in the subject line
Email screen with message in the subject line

You’ve just saved your colleague the trouble even of opening the message. He’s got your news, and he can now hit Delete.

3. Save typing. Use an auto-expander. Face it: You type the same things over and over and over again. “Thank you so much!” “Got it — will do.” “No problem!” “Hope this helps!” Your address. Your phone number. Phrases that pertain to your line of work.

Using a typing-expander program lets you store these as abbreviations; whenever you type them, they instantly expand to full length. Like these:

ty = Thank you very much!

ma = Much appreciated.

np = No problem.

Addr = My address is: 1244 North Elm Street, Chicago, IL, 60609.

You should also set up “expanders” for typos you make a lot, too: “the” for “teh,” and so on. These programs work everywhere, not just in mail.

On the Mac, this feature is built right in. Open System Preferences; click Keyboard, and then click the Text tab. Click the + button and create the abbreviation you want:

Mac screenshot of text expanders
Mac screenshot of text expanders

On Windows, a free program like PhraseExpress does the same trick. (It’s quite sophisticated; it can even propose the completion of entire sentences based on what you’ve typed before.)

No need to build a big list of abbreviations all on Day One; you’ll remember them better if you create them over time. I’ve been using these programs for 15 years, and by now, there are over 400 entries in my abbreviation list. y wdt bv how little i ac type tz days. (“You wouldn’t believe how little I actually type these days.”)

These typing expanders take a few minutes to set up. But they save time, decrease repetitive stress, and eliminate typos.

4. Use Unroll.me. This free service, available for email accounts from Gmail, Google Apps, AOL, Yahoo, Outlook.com, and Hotmail, shows you a master list of everything you’ve subscribed to — whether you think you did or not. All those newsletters, coupon deals, bank pitches … basically, anything you receive that has a tiny “unsubscribe” link at the bottom. Unroll.me frees you from all of them en masse, just by offering little Unsubscribe buttons:

Unroll.me screenshot
Unroll.me screenshot

(When you click Unsubscribe, the service begins hiding incoming email from those senders instantly, even if it takes a couple of days for the actual Unsubscribe command to register.)

I think it’s weird that, after five unsubscriptions, you can’t unsubscribe from any more without first agreeing to post something about Unroll.me to Facebook or Twitter; that’s its requested “payment.” But it’s worth doing. Unroll.me doesn’t recognize every junky mailing, but it does an amazing job.

(Whatever marketing messages you don’t unsubscribe from get rolled up into a single daily digest, which is refreshing in its own way.)

5. Learn to use message rules (filters). Almost every email program lets you create rules, or filters, that process incoming mail automatically, based on who they’re from or what they say. If there’s some relative who never sends you anything but dumb jokes or hokey inspirational tales, you can set up a rule that automatically files those messages into, say, an Aunt Enid folder.

In Yahoo Mail or Gmail, for example, these rules are called filters. To create one, from the gear menu, choose Settings:

Mac screenshot
Mac screenshot

Click Filters, then Add (or Create new filter). Now you get a dialog box where you can set up the rule. In this example, any email from irs.gov gets filed into your Guvmint folder:

Mac dialog box
Mac dialog box

(And speaking of Gmail: Also in Settings, click the Inbox tab. You can use the Inbox Type pop-up menu to try out various Google schemes that attempt to identify and prioritize the important messages — displaying them first, for example.)

There are similar commands in email programs like Outlook and Apple Mail.

There’s no magic button that can reduce your email flood to a trickle. But by eliminating the unimportant junk, minimizing the back-and-forths, and using helper software, you can go a long way toward making the deluge manageable.

You can email David Pogue here.