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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.

How to Find Your Passion and Live a More Fulfilling Life The Gentle Art of Saying No for a Less Stressful Life 67 Ideas to Simplify Your Life and Feel Better Today What to Do in Free Time? 20 Productive Ways to Use the Time Simple Productivity: 10 Ways to Do More by Focusing on the Essentials

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Last Updated on April 22, 2021

How to Work Hard the Smart Way: 4 Daily Rituals to Follow

How to Work Hard the Smart Way: 4 Daily Rituals to Follow

Habits are what sets an average leader apart from a great leader. We can argue that talent is the biggest factor; we may debate how the amount of charisma sets the two apart. Yet, if you were to show me what you believed to be a great leader, I can show you the habits that made her/him great. Great leaders have great habits and know how to work hard the smart way.

Developing Great Habits Is Hard Work

In my early college days, I had spent a lot of time learning how to play the trumpet. Playing the trumpet took time and discipline. I had some natural talent, but not enough to hide my lack of ability. My trumpet teacher was a man of discipline, and there was no doubt he had talent. What stood to me was his work ethic. He had to be one of the hardest working mentors that I had the privilege of working with.

One afternoon, I was in his office getting ready for my weekly trumpet lesson. As I was preparing, my eyes scanned the room and saw that there were quotes all over his office. My eyes rested on one quote that forever changed my thinking about my playing. It was a quote from my high school basketball coach Tim Notke that would become popular through professional athletes Kevin Durant and Tim Tebow:

“Hard work beats talent when talent fails to work hard.”

Hard work trumps talent. The key to success is not found in your talent or ability. Talent and ability are necessary, but they are not the primary factors. They are supporting roles in the story you are writing.

Ultimately, hard work is the key to your success. A good work ethic creates the momentum that propels you forward towards your goals.

Motivation Is Not the Answer

How many times have you seen someone go to a conference, get inspired, and then come home and do nothing?

If motivation were the answer, the world would have transformed hundreds of times over. Yet, when we look out our doors or turn on the news, we do not see a utopian society.

We have thousands of people who become inspired but lack the work ethic to apply anything they have learned. Time and time again frustration creeps in. We are so motivated and inspired by what we see but fail to put in place the things that would change our lives.

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Frustration happens when the gap between what you expect to be true and what is true gets bigger. Motivation tends to create an expectation that is not rooted in reality. We want to take on the world but cannot get off Netflix long enough to do so.

Motivation is not the answer, but working hard is. Good habits and routines that produce success are the byproducts of a strong work ethic. The habits and routines we create and follow are the foundation on which we build a winning life.

How to Work Hard by Working Smarter

Here are 4 routines that will help you learn how to work hard and achieve your short term and long term goals.

1. Define What a Win Looks Like

In football, a player that crosses into the end zone gain points. In soccer, a player kicks the ball into the net to score. Hockey, lacrosse, and basketball are all the same. The player takes the object and moves it into the designated area to gain points. The team with the most points wins the game.

Why is it that we can define what a win looks like in sports, but we fail to do so in our leadership, our businesses, or our homes?

Learning how to work hard without setting a target is futile. It is insanity to work hard without having a clear direction to place your energy. I would argue that defining a win is one of the most important routines that a leader can have. Defining a win separates superficial activity from meaningful activity.

When I define a win, I know the goal line I have to cross[1]. Knowing where the goal line is informs me of the activity I have to engage in to cross it. Without a clear direction, I am spinning my wheels hoping that I will get to a destination I haven’t defined. It is like asking a GPS for directions but failing to input the destination.

4 Steps to Define a Win
  • Know the outcome you desire.
  • Declare the outcome in specific, meaningful terms.
  • Write the outcome down.
  • Set your activity list to only do that which will complete your goals.

Let me give you an example. 15 years ago, I started speaking professionally. As a young and naïve speaker, I thought winning meant that I had to get a reaction from the audience. If they cheered, smiled, or cried, I considered myself a winner. The problem was my lack of understanding of what a win looked like. As a seasoned speaker, my wins look different.

As of today, when I speak, I am not looking for any emotional reactions from the audience. I win if, and only if, I clearly communicated my point so that anyone hearing the talk can take it and apply it to their lives that day. That is how I define a win when I speak now.

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Create a habit of declaring a win. When you do, you will see your productivity soar and your encouragement increase. Pairing a hard work ethic with wise decisions creates victory. Stop being a mouse on a wheel that goes nowhere, and start being the captain of your fleet.

2. Evaluate Your Activity

Not all activity is equal. There are things you must do, things you need to do, and things we can either give away or delete. The greatest challenge of a leader is understanding the difference. Understanding what activity is busywork and what activity is mission work is pivotal.

Not only do we need to learn how to evaluate our activity, but we must make this a core routine in our arsenal of success. Stop working so hard on everything and start learning how to work hard on the right things.

Not every activity will move the needle forward for you. In fact, you were never meant to do everything yourself! Once we stop trying to be a martyr in our leadership, we can start looking at how to take things off our plates through delegation.

Based on the Eisenhower box, there are 4 things that we look at when deciding on which activities are important:

  • Do now
  • Plan to do it later
  • Delegate to someone else
  • Delete it

Powerful questions are the way you discover if the activity is right or not:

  • Does this activity move me towards or away from my goals?
  • Do I have to do this activity or can I give this activity away to someone else?
  • Does this activity have to be now right now or can it be scheduled for later dates?
  • Does this activity have to be done at all?

Evaluating the type of activity you engage in should be a routine that you do daily. Learning how to work hard should create progress. Having a system of evaluation and a routine to do it will help.

3. Prioritize Your Calendar

If you were to show me your calendar, I could show you why you are not further along. When you lack the routine of placing things on your calendar, two things happen.

First, what does not make it on your calendar does not get done.

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It is a simple truth that is often overlooked. Your calendar contains the power to change your life. Yet, we don’t use our calendars to their fullest potential.

“You will never change your life until you change something you do daily. The secret of your success is found in your daily routine.” -John C. Maxwell

Also, if you don’t mark you activities on your calendar, you are leaving it open to other’s priorities.

“The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.” -Stephen Covey

Having a routine in your life where you place things on your calendar is pivotal to your success. This is not a routine one should overlook.

It’s time to take your leadership and business to the next level. It’s time to start putting your daily routines on your calendar, along with your priorities.

4. Reflect on Your Day and Plan the Next

We are all about the morning routine. Whatever that looks like for you, there should be a routine in the morning that sets you up for success.

Hard work starts when your feet hit the ground in the morning. Creating the habit of winning starts with the first thing you accomplish that morning. If you win your morning, you will win your day.

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Best Morning Routine to Prepare to Work Hard

    But how often have you heard people talk about an evening routine? Tomorrow is won the day before it happens. When you fail to plan your day, you may put your effort toward in the wrong things. Route replaces routine. Indecision replaces decisiveness. Losses replace wins. The discouragement will deflate your momentum and increases the chances of procrastination. That is why we set our schedule the night before.

    “Every battle is won or lost before it is ever fought.” -Sun Tzu

    Working hard doesn’t have to be hard work. It shouldn’t take much out of you learn how to work hard as long as you work smart. Having a time where you reflect on the day and set your priorities is the difference-maker.

    Use these questions to reflect on your day:

    • What went well?
    • What didn’t go well?
    • What can I change?
    • What do I need to start doing?
    • What do I need to stop doing?

    The Bottom Line

    Navigating through life is hard work. Yet, the work doesn’t have to be hard when you work smarter. When you create routines that support your mission, you create wins. Working hard, the smart way will tip the balance in our favor.

    Boxing legend Joe Frazier said:

    “Champions aren’t made in the ring; they are merely recognized there.”

    Champions put in the hard work behind the scenes. The world recognized them as a champion when they saw the results of the hard work. Right now, you are doing the work of creating a champion in yourself.

    That work is setting your routines in order because you now know that success flows from your daily routines. If you are not experiencing the success you desire, then it is time to change things up.

    More on Creating Healthy Routines

    Featured photo credit: Zan via unsplash.com

    Reference

    [1] The Balance Careers: Interview Question: “How Do You Define Success?”

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