#96: Improve Productivity: Stop Letting Email Rule Your Day

On today’s show, I introduce you to Cal Newport’s new book, “A World Without Email: Reimagining Work in an Age of Communication Overload.”

First, I talk about his concept of the “hyperactive hive mind” and the problem with email and instant messaging tools like Slack. Then, I talk about his solution briefly. And then I share my own thoughts and tips for getting your email under control, as well as how to reduce the amount of email you get.

Newport points out that our current office environment was not planned so much as it just happened to all of us when email became commonplace. He calls the current workflow of many corporate offices the “hyperactive hive mind.” Freelancers can often push back at this, but we are a part of it because our clients are a part of it.

The constant need to respond to email prevents many of us from doing our actual work—cognitive work, which Newport calls “deep work.” Instead, many of us are constantly task-switching throughout the day. But our brains are not meant to task-switch. Try it—can you think of two separate things at exactly the same time? Nope.

First, I recommend you consider how you can set tougher “I’m checking email now” rules for yourself. How can you stop checking it so often?

Newport argues that tricks to help manage our email systems and clean up our email boxes are all just Band-aids on the problem of the hyperactive hive mind that our workforce lives in. I understand, but currently we are in that hive too, so we should figure out a better email solution.

Newport’s solution to this hive mind is to set up processes and project management systems instead, such as Microsoft Teams, Sharepoint, Asana, Basecamp, Trello and more. I love processes and project management tools and use them for several projects. But, these aren’t perfect. Email may simply be replaced by the chat function in Microsoft Teams, for example.

Newport talks about examining all your emails in one day. Take a look at all those emails going out and coming in and ask yourself what systems you could put in place to eliminate some of those emails. Are there processes that you could establish that would decrease or eliminate the need for some of those emails? I think this is a good practice and good place to start.

By creating checklists, forms, processes and systems, you can decrease your work time, improve your file keeping and reduce the risk of errors.

In addition, despite what Newport says, let’s figure out ways to better manage our email.  First, analyze your email inbox. Does it stress you out? What don’t you like about it? What do you want to fix? Make a list of what you wish your email work life looked like.

Here are some potential solutions:

Stop aiming for inbox zero. Instead, pick a realistic number. Then, use folders to sort your emails. I have a folder for each client and then subfolders for each project. When I’ve dealt with the email in my inbox I immediately move it to the correct folder, primarily as an archive.

Delete hundreds or thousands of emails, even the old unopened ones. Are you really going to get to those? In Gmail, it is possible to do batch deletions, including by entire years.

Next, take the time to actually unsubscribe from newsletters. Don’t just delete them. If you don’t have time right now to unsubscribe, create an unsubscribe folder and move those email newsletters into that folder. Then, when you get some admin time, go through and unsubscribe one by one. Or, let your virtual assistant into your email system and have them do it for you.

You may want to create new folders that allow you to prioritize tasks, such as: Action needed today, Action needed this week, Action needed before the end of the month. The key, of course, is that you will go through those folders and reply. But, this makes it more manageable.

Gmail also now has a Snooze feature. If you see an email and know you have to deal with it that day or that week, but you don’t have the time right at that second, you can hit the Snooze feature. That way, it’ll pop up as a new email at the time of your choosing so that it won’t get lost in your inbox.

Use the Boomerang tool to schedule email replies during work hours.  

Biz Bite: Move the beans over

The Bookshelf: Sea Wife” by Amity Gaige


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Please record a voice memo on your phone about your time tracking lessons and experiences. Email it to melanie@meledits.com for a future podcast episode.

Episode #94 of Deliberate Freelancer: My Time Tracking Audit for Q1—I Need a Better Schedule

Cal Newport’s new book, “A World Without Email: Reimagining Work in an Age of Communication Overload.”

Boomerang to schedule emails

Clear Your Gmail Inbox

Easy Ways to Delete Multiple Messages in Gmail

Snooze Gmail emails until later

Create rules to filter your emails

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