When you’re working toward Inbox 0 and it seems so elusive, or you’re feeling buried beneath heaps and mounds of the digital clutter you’ve let catch up with you, do you ever wish you could just…quit? Creating good email habits seems more difficult than just turning the noise off. Abstention versus moderation. Donald Knuth, a renowned mathematician and recipient of the Turing Award (considered the Nobel Prize of computer science), did just that.
He retired from using email in 1990. He quit!
He issued a public statement on his Stanford faculty page, including this tidbit:
“I have been a happy man ever since January 1, 1990, when I no longer had an email address. I’d used email since about 1975, and it seems to me that 15 years of email is plenty for one lifetime. Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things. What I do takes long hours of studying and uninterruptible concentration.”
I love this. He challenged the idea that he needed something just because everybody else had it and insisted that he needed it. I’m not going to quit email, but I would like to lock down a healthier relationship with it. Some good email habits that I can take forward into 2020. Here are 11 good email habits to help you be more productive and less anxious in 2020. Take the ones that work for you and leave the rest!
Locking Down Good Email Habits
- Turn off notifications on your phone. Checking work emails after hours can lead to undue stress and anxiety. People send emails with their own schedules in mind, not yours. When someone emails you, they want to get the task /obligation /anxiety off of their plate and onto yours. We all know it’s bad for you to be always connected. Some countries have even taken employee health into their own hands by introducing protection laws. A labour law introduced in France in 2017 gives employees the “right to disconnect” from email, smartphones and other electronic leashes once their working day has ended (CNN Business).
- Refrain from checking your email first thing in the morning. Don’t start your day on that tiny screen. For me, I start with a few other items — make my bed, stretch, drink water, meditate, etc. — before I grab my phone or open my computer.
- Don’t charge your phone on your bedside. It’s not difficult to make the case that many of us are addicted to our phones. There’s even a term for smartphone addiction now — nomophobia, the fear of being without a mobile phone. Because we don’t have piles of long term research, it’s hard to foresee the severity of this addiction. But we don’t need to wait for bodies of research — we know how we feel when we have too much time on phones or screens. If you knew an alcoholic who said they wanted to quit drinking but they went to bed with a 40 beside their bed every night, you’d question that choice, right? Aside from creating more wiggle room for our societal nomophobia, they also kill our intimacy. What did you used to do right before bed? Talk to your partner? Chat into the dark hours? Let’s not go to bed with our phones.
- Set intervals to check your email. This one’s hard for me. I often have many tabs open, one of them being my inbox, so I check it every time I see the number go up. When I’m feeling successful though, I set an alarm for two times in the morning and two in the afternoon. At each interval I set a timer for a certain amount of time, maybe fifteen minutes each, and get done as much as I can each time.
- Don’t keep your email open at all times. This one ties into the last one — just close that tab and open your inbox only when you’re going to put energy into responding.
- Take action immediately. Don’t open emails and mark as unread until you “have more time.” I’m the worst for this one, and need to start here to create good email habits. When you open an email, deal with it then. If you get good at this, you can stop starting emails with “Sorry for the delay…”
- Immediately add things to the calendar. If you’ve solidified a meeting, workout, get together via email, add it to your calendar right away. Include the details, like address and time, so you don’t need to go back through your email to find logistics.
- Create a to do list. Move this out of your inbox and onto a list app, task manager or piece of paper. Using your inbox as a task manager is inefficient and leads to increased anxiety and decreased productivity.
- Unsubscribe. Be ruthless. Sure, you had good intentions when you signed up for that newsletter, but if you have deleted it for a month without opening it, it’s just causing you mental clutter.
- Respond immediately and to all personal emails. Never leave your friends or clients hanging. Don’t feel the need to respond at length, but it’s easy to write a few lines.
- Close your email when you’re done. And don’t open it again until your next scheduled time!
Of course, creating good email habits is hard. Many of us feel ruled by our devices and locked to our inboxes. Take the good email habits that work for you and scaffold. You’ll feel more productive and creative, and less anxious. Don’t abandon ship if you “miss a day” or slide back into old routines. The point of this story is that we can say no to things we never dreamed of saying no to. For most of us, that won’t mean abandoning email altogether. Email can be a great tool for communication and documentation, and email can be a tool for procrastination and distraction. Create good email habits to make it work for you, not the other way around.