So I’m not just here to talk about faith, belief, and ethics. I’m also here to talk about writing, working, and living the creative life. I’d started working on a blog post—mostly in my mind—about email, because I was explaining my email system to someone recently. Then, my friends Heide and Marisa had this conversation on Twitter:
Email is the source of 74% of my anxiety.— Marisa Mohi ☕️ (@theMarisaMohi) September 27, 2018
These are two amazing, accomplished women, and to see them stressing about email bummed me out. Because honestly, most of the time, email is the least of my worries. Not that I’m 100 percent all over it, but my two most fabulous mentors had some excellent email habits that I managed to pick up over the years, and they’ve helped me tame my own email monster. This solution may not be the one for you, and that’s okay. But here’s what I’ve done:
Rule the First: Folders!
Every email is about something, so let’s work on figuring out what all of our emails are about. As with all good undertakings, this one may take a little while. Spend some time looking at your emails as they come in over the course of a week or so, and slowly make a list of the general topics your emails—the few, percentage-wise, that aren’t junk, spam, or endless parade of corporate newsletters—tend to cover.
When I started at Oklahoma Today, it was helpful for me to start by breaking this down into my various job duties: Sections of the magazine I handled, major tasks in my job description, that sort of thing.
You’ll always want one sort of catch-all folder, because the majority of your email will just be random stuff that, while it requires your attention or a response, won’t fit nicely into one of your categories. I call this my “Daily” folder. But this is also why you’ll want to spend a little minute making a list of what your folders should be. As with all process creation, this doesn’t have to be final. Your failures in this area, as in all areas, will be informative and useful if you listen to them.
The main reason for all these folders is to keep your Inbox from getting all junked up without having to delete potentially sensitive or needed information. Oh, we’re going to use the shit out of these folders, folks, but let’s talk next about the beating heart of all our email stress: The Inbox.
Inbox? More like Anxiety Box, amirite?
Once you’ve got folders set up, what do you do with them? Some may be tempted to set up email filters by topic, sender, etc. so new messages go straight to the folder.
::AN IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER: I cannot stress enough that creating a system of organization must be, before anything, organic to you. It must make sense with the way your brain works, the way your days go, the specific demands of your specific job and your workplace culture. Again, what I’m suggesting here isn’t a catch-all solution, just a description of what has worked for me for a decade. DISCLAIMER OVER::
I don’t use message filtering. Every email I get comes to my swirling, chaotic mass of an Inbox. And when I get a new message, I have what I’ll call some mental categories, some ways of breaking down how I think about each message.
The Unactionable, the One-Minute, and the OH GOD
The first category—and the most common—is the Completely Unactionable Message. For me, these are most often spam or junk emails; stupid blanket PR pitches that have nothing to do with anything I’m working on; quick emails from coworkers saying things like “Thanks” or “I just got the thing you sent me”; or department-wide emails telling me things like that the Internet is down at Sequoyah State Park or that they’re planning computer updates for Saturday. I read almost all of these messages at a glance, and then—with the exception of the coworker emails—I usually delete them.
The delete button is a powerful thing, and you must know how to use it. If there’s literally zero chance you’ll ever need that info again, hit delete. If it requires no response but is a communique from someone you know and work with, file it. Bam. That’s how you deal with the Completely Unactionable Message.
The second category is the One-Minute Solution Message. For me, these are from coworkers, freelancers, bosses, people pitching stories, or readers who either have something to say or who are asking a question. For me, if an email can be answered in one minute or less, it’s usually worth stopping what I’m doing, banging out the response, filing the message away in the relevant folder, and then getting on with my life. Then, whatever the email was about is dealt with and over.
The final category—and the most daunting—is the Longer Response Required email. This breaks down into a couple things. Sometimes, these are email newsletters to which I’ve subscribed and which I’d like to actually read. My rule for these is that if I haven’t read it within a couple days, I either delete it, file it, or add a task to my To-Do List (which is a subject for another blog). Usually, though, these are messages from coworkers, freelancers, readers, etc. that need a longer and more thoughtful reply.
Now, we get into the real truth of what my Inbox is: It’s a to-do list. It’s literally a list of tasks I must undertake, though in that regard, it is by no means complete. Each email in my Inbox is the story of something I need to take care of. Either it’s someone writing with a series of questions or ideas that truly need my thoughtful consideration, or it’s someone asking me to do something. If these aren’t things I can do in one minute, I leave them sitting my Inbox until I have cleared enough space out of my day—or my life—to handle them.
This is where the Inbox can get frightening. As of today, I have a couple of these messages from July, and this is a source of stress to me. But in this case, it’s a good stress, a prodding stress, a stress that says, “Hey, you’re about to drop a ball: Don’t do that.” So when I sit down every Sunday to plan out my week, those messages are there reminding me of some of the things I need to make time for that week. See what I did there? I made my stress productive! And so can you!
One last thing: Sometimes, you get an email that requires a long and immediate response. Treat this like you’d treat someone walking into your office or calling you with the same emergency. Sometimes, you just have to drop what you’re doing and start putting out fires. So put on your rubber boots and your firefighter’s hat and go get the hose. Such is life.
These Es are warm when it’s cold outside
Inbox Zero is a real thing, friends. I don’t achieve it often—mostly only when I’m about to go on vacation—but it’s possible, I’ve seen it, I’ve been there, and I plan on visiting often.
Of course, I’ve had one email address or another since 1994, and possibly, so have you. So I get that a system like this is hard to initiate in the middle of a life that involves work, people, tasks, stress, days at work, afternoons, and coffee spoons.
So there are a few ways you can handle this. None of them are efficient, unfortunately.
You could declare email bankruptcy, deleting all messages older than a certain date or, if you really want to Press The Button, all your messages. I’ve actually done a version of this more recently than you’d think, when the glut of vox poetica submissions in my Inbox became more than one part-time poetry editor could reasonably process (sorry, poets! Nothing personal!).
Another way to handle it is to go back through your Inbox message by message and figure out into which of the three categories above each message falls, and then start working away at dealing with each of them one by one. That’s never fun, but you will get to delete a whole bunch of stuff, and that’ll feel nice. It’s like the electronic version of popping bubble wrap—or eating a bag of peanut M&Ms by the handful.
I tend to prefer the latter method, though it’s tiring and awful, because it makes sure you don’t miss anything. Treat yourself to a glass of whiskey while you’re working; it’ll help. Or, if you’re sober, see above re: M&Ms. Or if you’re a healthy eater, I dunno. Kale?
You are the boss of your email. It’s not the boss of you.
My dad told me something wonderful when I was an angry, hotheaded teenager: Anger is a great servant, but it’s a poor master.
The same is true of email. Email is a tool for us to use; it is not our boss, it is not our taskmaster, and it does not get to be in charge of any of our feelings. You’re not getting rid of your Internet connection because your idiot cousin became a 4chan acolyte, are you? No, and you’re not getting rid of email because it’s stressing you out. You still have to deal with it.
My email problem easily could take over my life, as I get dozens if not hundreds of emails every day. In my office, we have a conscious culture of proactive communication, part of which means that when one of us emails another, we reply. Always. If one of us asks a question in email, we answer it. Always. Add to that the fact that my coworkers and I are family-close, which means we also use email as a kind of instant messaging system to talk about various things throughout the day. It’s a glut, but it’s as under control as I can reasonably expect to get it. Yes, I owe some people some long-overdue messages, but none of it is anything that can’t wait.
A final note as we conclude: Apologizing gets a bad rap in our culture, but don’t hesitate to do it if you feel you’ve waited too long to reply to an email. Your recipient is probably fighting an email monster of their own and totally understands why you didn’t have time to get back with them. If you’ve got an old, old message and the sender shoots you a new one to remind you of the first, do the following: Shoot back a quick message saying yes, I have your email, I haven’t forgotten you, a response is forthcoming. That’s your one-minutes solution. Then take the original message, and file it away, allowing it to be replaced in your to-do list by this new one. That keeps your Inbox clean. Bump!
You’ll hear me say this often in this space, but most of the task of having a good life is just about maintenance. Email is no different. It’s like brushing your teeth, showering, cleaning your house, exercising: A little bit every day goes a long way toward long-term happiness.
You can do this. I did it, and I’m certainly nothing special. You can take the reins of the email monster and turn it into your plough animal. You can turn it back toward the cause of your own productivity, and when you do, who knows what else you can accomplish?