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Top 10 Email Habits that Everyone Should Have

Top 10 Email Habits that Everyone Should Have

For the full original unedited article visit Leo Babauta’s blog, Zen Habits

‘And none will hear the postman’s knock
Without a quickening of the heart.
For who can bear to feel himself forgotten?’
~W.H. Auden

Email can be a great tool, and email can be a tool for procrastination or overwhelm.

It’s not email itself that decides, it’s how you use it.

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There was a time when I declared email bankruptcy, but these days I do it 2-3 times daily and power through it quickly and minimally.

I’ve developed a set of habits that work for me, helping me to keep email minimal and productive and still be able to focus on more important work. I can honestly say that at least once a day, my inbox is empty, and that’s a nice feeling.

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I offer them here not to say that these are the email habits you should follow, but to show one person’s way of doing things.

My Essential Email Habits

The email habits that work for me:

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  1. Limited email processing times. I don’t keep email open all day, nor do I open it frequently. I have come to peace with the idea that I can let email pile up to 20-30 messages and my world won’t collapse, nor will it be difficult to process to empty. Note that I call it “email processing time”, not “email reading time” — I open my email and process to empty, instead of just reading things and leaving them in the inbox.
  2. Take action. When I open an email, I make a quick decision: delete/archive, act now (if it takes a minute or two) and then reply/archive, send a quick reply (and then archive), add to my todo list to do later (and star and then archive). In none of those cases is the email left sitting in the inbox.
  3. Immediately add things to the calendar. One of my best habits is to open up my calendar immediately whenever there’s a date from an email that I need to remember. If someone wants to meet or Skype or do a workout, it goes on the calendar. If I need to follow up on something next week, it goes on the calendar. It’s automatic now, and so I rarely ever forget anything.
  4. Keyboard shortcuts. I use Gmail, which has a great set of shortcuts for processing email. I spent a few minutes learning them, and if you consciously use them, soon they become muscle memory. The key ones for me: ‘gi’ to go back to the inbox, ‘a’ for archive, Shift-3 to delete, ‘c’ for compose, ‘r’ for reply, ‘f’ for forward, ‘a’ to reply to all, ‘gs’ to go to my starred messages, Tab Return when I’m composing a message to send and archive it. I also have it set to go to the next message in the inbox after I delete or archive a message, rather than going back to the inbox, so I quickly process from top to bottom.
  5. Keep emails short. I usually reply with 1-3 sentences. It’s rare that I will send a message longer than 5 sentences, and if I do, I have to really justify it to myself. If something needs to be written in longer form, I’d prefer to open a new Google Doc, write it up, and share it with the person (docs are better for sharing, collaborating, editing, reading). Keeping emails short means it’s quick to reply, and the other person doesn’t have to wade through an essay to get the key information.
  6. Quick todo list adding. An email inbox isn’t a great todo list, because 1) your todos are mixed in with all kinds of other things, making it hard to figure out what needs to be done; 2) the subject lines of emails don’t often contain the actual action needed, so you have to remember what needs to be done when you scan your subject lines; and most importantly, 3) as you are checking your todo list (your inbox), other messages come in to demand your attention, and so you’re always distracted. Better is to keep a simple text document. I use Launchbar to append text to my todo list, so adding a todo item is a matter of a few keystrokes. That makes it effortless, which means I can quickly form a nice list without the distractions of an inbox.
  7. Keep only unread emails in inbox. This one is for advanced users only, but I have hacked my Gmail inbox so that only unread emails are in my inbox. What this means is that if I read an email and don’t act on it, it disappears from my inbox. That forces me to act now, or I will lose the email to the ether. This is built-in motivation to actually process the email, and in practice this helps you keep your inbox empty. (hat-tip to dbuntix)
  8. Bookmark or read later. Often someone will send me something to read (something they’ve written or an article they like). I will open the link, then bookmark it to read later, or add to Instapaper to read later. That way I don’t spend a ton of time in email because I have a lot of reading to do.
  9. Filter ruthlessly. When an email appears in my inbox that I don’t need to see, and it’s likely that it will happen again, I will hit “unsubscribe”, or immediately create a filter so it won’t come into my inbox again. This drastically reduces my emails. I’m ruthless about it, and will even apply it to people who bother me.
  10. Close email when done. When I’ve processed my email as much as I can, I close it. I don’t need to open it again until hours later, if at all.

If your inbox is really full, here’s how to clear it out quickly: for to-dos that are in your inbox, star them, put them on a to-do list, and archive. Archive and delete others, make some quick replies, put everything else in a “to-read” or “to-process” folder if you need to. Now you have an empty inbox that you can keep empty with the habits in this article.

 

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Having good email habits is important simply because if you trust yourself to process email effectively, you won’t worry about it. You can let it pile up as you do more important work, with the peace of mind that comes from knowing you’ll get it to empty when you decide to get to it.

More by this author

Leo Babauta

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

The Gentle Art of Saying No How to Find Your Passion and Live a Fulfilling Life Simple Productivity: 10 Ways to Do More by Focusing on the Essentials How to Pare Your To-do List Down to the Essentials A Guide to Becoming a Better Writer: 15 Practical Tips

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Last Updated on July 17, 2019

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

What happens in our heads when we set goals?

Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

The Neurology of Ownership

Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

The Upshot for Goal-Setters

So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

Reference

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