Seven Ways to Make Peace With Email

Have you heard the term “email bankruptcy?” Here’s how it happens: when my email inbox reaches such a staggering load of messages that I can never hope to deal with them all and I just need a fresh start, I may choose to declare email bankruptcy. I delete everything, then send a message to my entire address book saying, in effect, I’ve declared bankruptcy. If you sent me anything that is really important, send it again because I don’t have it any more.

I have never done this myself. I do know people who do it, and some who do it annually. It’s an extreme response to a hopeless situation, much like financial bankruptcy.

I do understand the appeal of email bankruptcy. It’s the chance to wipe the slate clean and begin again, hopefully with better results.

But if we begin again with the same old habits that led to email bankruptcy, then we are bound to get the same old results. So let’s consider a few habits that may lead to a more well-managed and manageable email in-box. Here are seven ways to make peace with your email.

  1. Unsubscribe from newsletters that you rarely read. Stop the inflow of messages that are contributing to your overflowing inbox. If you’re afraid of missing something, subscribe to the RSS feed so you can read things on your own schedule without them showing up in your inbox.
  2. Teach other people how to treat you. This can be one of the most difficult skills to master mentally, but relatively easy to actually do. If there are people in your life who expect an instantaneous response to every message they toss your way, train them. In your signature line, write something like, “I check my email at 11 am and 3 pm. If you need a faster response, please phone me…” and give your preferred number. I know a mortgage broker and a priest who both use this approach. Both of them are in positions that are often thought to be always and instantly available, and they usually are. Just not by email.
  3. Don’t read email when you shouldn’t. It’s easy when we’re tired to just scan our email, looking for something amusing. But to effectively manage email, it’s best to deal with all of it – the amusing and the boring – all at once, at set times. Don’t cherry pick your email.
  4. Make a rule for yourself that once you’ve opened an email, you will deal with it completely, either by responding, archiving it, or adding it to your task list. In other words, if you open it, you own it.
  5. Give your delete key a good workout. We are often buried in email because we keep too much. It is unlikely that anything important will be deleted. Most of what we keep we never consult again. If you really can’t delete them, move those messages into an archive file and keep your inbox clear.
  6. Some email doesn’t deserve a response. Does that sound harsh? Think about it. Just because someone feels free to spam you doesn’t obligate you to answer with thoughtful paragraphs. If someone in your work life appears to earn their living by shunting all their tasks into your inbox, you can shoot back a four-word reply – “doesn’t apply to me” – or if that feels too exposed, consider “I don’t see how this applies to me” and put the burden on the sender to justify tossing questions your way.
  7. Finally, remember that with a few exceptions, email is not your job. Email is a tool for communicating. If it has taken over more than 25 percent of your day, the odds are that it has jumped its proper bounds. Close your email and get on with your real work.

Have you ever declared email bankruptcy? What have you done to make peace with your email? Leave a comment here.

If you want to make peace with your snail mail, my organizing colleague and friend Janine Adams has the help you need. Visit her here for more information on her course.

2 Responses to Seven Ways to Make Peace With Email

  1. Margaret, thanks for linking to my Make Peace with Your Mail e-course!

    I’ve never declared email bankruptcy (thank goodness), but I have become boss of my inbox by moving out (either by deleting or filing) anything that doesn’t require action (per your suggestion #5). I work hard to empty my inbox by the end of each work day. That provides a fresh start each morning. It’s so nice not to have yesterday’s emails nagging me!

    One suggestion I’d add to your excellent list is to use of rules or filters to automatically sort incoming email so that emails from listservs or groups never hit your inbox in the first place. (This, of course, after you unsubscribe to all the lists that don’t enhance your life.)

    • Great suggestion, Janine. I use rules to filter out messages from most listservs, too. I’ve found that with a little practice, I can remember to check in on them when I have a bit of time, but they don’t gum up my inbox in the meanwhile.

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