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How to Avoid Email Bankruptcy: 5 Rules That Work

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How to Avoid Email Bankruptcy: 5 Rules That Work
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    The Washington Post recently had an article on email bankruptcy that discussed a number of people who are giving up on email (or just deleting all their old messages) after being buried under the pile of messages. Merlin Mann responded by saying that even bankruptcy isn’t enough to save him:

    A one-time erasure of communication debt would give temporary relief, but the basic challenge remains; the net number of requests for my attention exceed my ability to provide that attention by at least an order of magnitude. And the disparity around my ability to thoughtfully respond to my pile may be ten or more times worse still. The scale is insanely out of whack.

    If you’re one of those people who is drowning in deluge of email, you have options. You don’t need to go as far as declaring email bankruptcy — and declaring yourself incompetent in dealing with the world of technology and business today.

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    We’re going to look at an approach that applies rules to your email processing to help you get out from under the pile, and to help you stay out, no matter how many messages you get a day. But first, let’s look at three principles that will guide us in this approach:


    Principle 1: You don’t need to respond to every email. If you get more than 50 a day (or even hundreds), you can’t possibly.

    Principle 2: Prioritize. If you can’t respond to every email, you must realize that you’ll have to prioritize in order to respond to the important ones. The rest will have to be prioritized too, and the lowest priority will just be given a glance.

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    Principle 3: You can’t do email all day. Admit this to yourself. You have other things to do, more important than email. So only do it at certain times of the day. One of the problems noted in the Post article is that people no longer feel like they’re done working for the day. Well, the only way to feel done for the day is to set a time limit, and when the limit is reached, you’re done. The rest you’ll have to get to tomorrow. Even in the rest of our work lives, we never finish every single task on our to-do list. We work until the 5 o’clock whistle blows, and we go home.

    Using those principles, let’s look at a system of rules to help deal with massive amounts of email:

    Rule 1: Separate the wheat from the chaff. We all know that there are certain emails that must be dealt with today, and others that can languish in a folder for a week and it wouldn’t kill us. So let’s set up some filters to deal with them (I’m using Gmail as an example, but most mail programs have similar filters or rules):

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    • Important. Create a filter with all of your important contacts (coworkers, colleagues, advertisers, business associates, mom, etc.) in the “from” field. Label these “important”. You could also have a keyword, such as “batgirl”, that you put in your filter for the “important” label. Then put that keyword in your signature, and anyone who responds to one of your emails gets labeled “important”. These will remain in your inbox, and you can check them 2-3 times a day.
    • Reports. This will vary from person to person, but I have a lot of “information” type emails that are not urgent but that I don’t want clogging up my inbox. Create a filter with the email addresses of all these types of emails (amazon.com, your blog stats services, your calendar notices, etc.) and label these “reports” and have them automatically archived. Now these won’t be in your inbox. You can check these once a day.
    • Others. This is all the rest. Create a filter with “important” and “reports” in the “doesn’t have” field, and have these emails labeled “other” and automatically archived. This will prevent your emails with the “important” or “reports” labels from being put into this “others” folder. Now your inbox should only have the “important” emails in it.

    Rule 2: All old emails go into “others“. This is the only way to get your inbox clear in the beginning — after this point, you’ll keep it clear. Even if you have emails from your important contacts, you need to get your head above water. Dump them all in the “others” folder and archive them out of your inbox. Your inbox should now be empty. Let’s keep it that way with the following rules.

    Rule 3: Set regular times to process email. You shouldn’t have your email notifier on all the time. Learn to hold yourself back from checking email 20 times a day. Do it in 2-3 sessions a day, at set times. Let’s say 10 a.m., 1 p.m. and 4 p.m., if you get a lot of email, or 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. if you don’t. Even better: only once a day. Whenever you feel the pull to check email, stop yourself. Take a deep breath. Now get back to the task at hand.

    Rule 4: Scan through “others” and prioritize. The Others emails is really what makes you feel overwhelmed. Most of us can deal with the Important emails just fine, and scan through the Reports emails. But for the Others, we feel that we should be responding to them all, or we are incompetent or that people will feel we’re arrogant. Well, we need to own up to the fact that we cannot respond to them all (Principle 1). We have to live with the fact that some people are going to think we’re arrogant. Here’s how to deal with Others:

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    • Scan. In your first email processing session of the day, quickly go through the Others emails, and decide if they should be deleted or responded to. In Gmail, I do this quickly by using the keyboard shortcuts: “#” to delete, “y” to archive, “o” to open. So I go through each email, read it, and either delete it or mark it for a response.
    • Prioritize. Which ones do your mark for a response? The ones that will have the most benefit for you. Sometimes an email could lead to a job offer, or advertising, or a collaboration that could pay off big time. Those are the ones you need to respond to. Sometimes it’s just a really interesting email that you’d like to respond to. If that’s the case, go ahead an mark it. But for many, you will simply have to read them and move on.
    • Canned response. If you feel you need to respond to most emails, you can set up a few canned responses using a text expansion program such as AutoHotKey. I would recommend you set up 5-10 different canned responses, instead of just one. One response to thank them for their positive feedback, another to turn down a request, etc. If you notice you give the same response a lot, enter it in AHK and set up a key combination. Then, by pressing just a few keys, you can have your canned responses out in a hurry, perhaps customizing them with a few personal words.
    • Mark for later. The ones that you decide are a higher priority, that need to be responded to, you should label “Respond”, and remove the “Others” label. This just takes a second. Then move on. Then in your later email processing session, go through the “Respond” folder and do a quick response.

    Rule 5: Set a timer, process quickly, and be done. You should set a timer for 15-30 minutes (depending on the volume of your email), so that you don’t end up doing it for more than an hour. Remember, when you’re done with your email session, you’re done. You can breathe easy and get to the rest tomorrow. Here’s how to process quickly and empty your inbox:

    • Process the important emails (the ones in your inbox) first, to empty. Respond quickly, or delete, or forward, or archive (for later reference), or write down any tasks that need to be done later on your to-do list. Don’t ever read an email and then leave it sitting in your inbox. If an email requires a longer response than you can do right now, mark it “Respond” and get to it later.
    • Scan through Reports and Others. Most of the Reports and Others emails don’t need a response or action. Just read them and either delete, forward or archive. Mark the ones that need a response “Respond” and get to it later.
    • Respond. Once you’ve gone through the Important emails in the Inbox, and scanned and marked the Reports and Others, all you should have left is Respond. For these, you might not get done today. That’s OK. Do as many as you can, quickly, and leave the rest for tomorrow. There’s no need to empty this folder. When the timer goes off, get out and be done.
    • Keyboard shortcuts. You really should memorize the important shortcuts. For Gmail, they are “r” for reply, “f” for forward, “#” for delete, “y” for archive, “o” for open. And really, those are the only actions you need. Once you get good with the keyboard shortcuts, processing should be a breeze.

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    Leo Babauta

    Founder of Zen Habits and expert in habits building and goals achieving.

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    Last Updated on November 18, 2021

    10 Proven Ways to Judge a Person’s Character

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    10 Proven Ways to Judge a Person’s Character

    We all fall into the trap of judging a person’s character by their appearance. How wrong we are! All too often, the real character of the person only appears when some negative event hits them or you. Then you may see a toxic person emerging from the ruins and it is often a shock.

    A truly frightening example is revealed in the book by O’Toole in Bowman called Dangerous Instincts: How Gut Instincts Betray Us. A perfectly respectable, charming, well dressed neighbor was found to have installed a torture chamber in his garage where he was systematically abusing kidnapped women. This is an extreme example, but it does show how we can be totally deceived by a person’s physical appearance, manners and behavior.

    So, what can you do? You want to be able to assess personal qualities when you come into contact with colleagues, fresh acquaintances and new friends who might even become lifelong partners. You want to know if they are:

    • honest
    • reliable
    • competent
    • kind and compassionate
    • capable of taking the blame
    • able to persevere
    • modest and humble
    • pacific and can control anger.

    The secret is to reserve judgment and take your time. Observe them in certain situations; look at how they react. Listen to them talking, joking, laughing, explaining, complaining, blaming, praising, ranting, and preaching. Only then will you be able to judge their character. This is not foolproof, but if you follow the 10 ways below, you have a pretty good chance of not ending up in an abusive relationship.

    1. Is anger a frequent occurrence?

    All too often, angry reactions which may seem to be excessive are a sign that there are underlying issues. Do not think that every person who just snaps and throws his/her weight around mentally and physically is just reacting normally. Everyone has an occasional angry outburst when driving or when things go pear-shaped.

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    But if this is almost a daily occurrence, then you need to discover why and maybe avoid that person. Too often, anger will escalate to violent and aggressive behavior. You do not want to be near someone who thinks violence can solve personal or global problems.

    2. Can you witness acts of kindness?

    How often do you see this person being kind and considerate? Do they give money to beggars, donate to charity, do voluntary work or in some simple way show that they are willing to share the planet with about 7 billion other people?

    I was shocked when a guest of mine never showed any kindness to the weak and disadvantaged people in our town. She was ostensibly a religious person, but I began to doubt the sincerity of her beliefs.

    “The best index to a person’s character is how he treats people who can’t do him any good, and how he treats people who can’t fight back.”

    Abigail Van Buren

    3. How does this person take the blame?

    Maybe you know that s/he is responsible for a screw-up in the office or even in not turning up on time for a date. Look at their reaction. If they start blaming other colleagues or the traffic, well, this is an indication that they are not willing to take responsibility for their mistakes.

    4. Don’t use Facebook as an indicator.

    You will be relieved to know that graphology (the study of that forgotten skill of handwriting) is no longer considered a reliable test of a person’s character. Neither is Facebook stalking, fortunately. A study showed that Facebook use of foul language, sexual innuendo and gossip were not reliable indicators of a candidate’s character or future performance in the workplace.

    5. Read their emails.

    Now a much better idea is to read the person’s emails. Studies show that the use of the following can indicate certain personality traits:

    • Too many exclamation points may reveal a sunny disposition
    • Frequent errors may indicate apathy
    • Use of smileys is the only way a person can smile at you
    • Use of the third person may reveal a certain formality
    • Too many question marks can show anger
    • Overuse of capital letters is regarded as shouting. They are a definite no-no in netiquette, yet a surprising number of  people still use them.

    6. Watch out for the show offs.

    Listen to people as they talk. How often do they mention their achievements, promotions, awards and successes? If this happens a lot, it is a sure indication that this person has an over-inflated view of his/her achievements. They are unlikely to be modest or show humility. What a pity!  Another person to avoid.

    7. Look for evidence of perseverance.

    A powerful indicator of grit and tenacity is when a person persists and never gives up when they really want to achieve a life goal. Look for evidence of them keeping going in spite of enormous difficulties.

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    Great achievements by scientists and inventors all bear the hallmark of perseverance. We only have to think of Einstein, Edison (who failed thousands of times) and Nelson Mandela to get inspiration. The US Department of Education is in no doubt about how grit, tenacity and perseverance will be key success factors for youth in the 21st century.

    8. Their empathy score is high.

    Listen to how they talk about the less fortunate members of our society such as the poor, immigrants and the disabled. Do you notice that they talk in a compassionate way about these people? The fact that they even mention them is a strong indicator of empathy.

    People with zero empathy will never talk about the disadvantaged. They will rarely ask you a question about a difficult time or relationship. They will usually steer the conversation back to themselves. These people have zero empathy and in extreme cases, they are psychopaths who never show any feelings towards their victims.

    9. Learn how to be socially interactive.

    We are social animals and this is what makes us so uniquely human. If a person is isolated or a loner, this may be a negative indicator of their character. You want to meet a person who knows about trust, honesty and loyalty. The only way to practice these great qualities is to actually interact socially. The great advantage is that you can share problems and celebrate success and joy together.

    “One can acquire everything in solitude, except character.”

    Stendhal

     10. Avoid toxic people.

    These people are trying to control others and often are failing to come to terms with their own failures. Typical behavior and conversations may concern:

    • Envy or jealousy
    • Criticism of partners, colleagues and friends
    • Complaining about their own lack of success
    • Blaming others for their own bad luck or failure
    • Obsession with themselves and their problems

    Listen to these people talk and you will quickly discover that you need to avoid them at all costs because their negativity will drag you down. In addition, as much as you would like to help them, you are not qualified to do so.

    Now, having looked at some of the best ways to judge a person, what about yourself? How do others see you? Why not take Dr. Phil’s quiz and find out. Can you bear it?

    Featured photo credit: Jacek Dylag via unsplash.com

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