Three Tips to Email Simplicity and Sanity

In the last six months or so, I’ve been on a rampage to cut out material and immaterial clutter from my life. It has come to my attention that email has taken entirely too much of my life with very little return on that investment. In my last post titled “Two Quick Tips to Regain Time and Productivity in Your Day” I explained how I started unsubscribing from almost every serial email that I received. That wasn’t enough though. I pared down my email habits a little bit more.

What I’m about to write about isn’t ground breaking and many other people before me have said the same things. However, perhaps my own style and anecdotes can add a slight difference and connect better with different people. Here are my three of my tips concerning email simplicity.

First, Consolidate Email Accounts

I don’t know about you, but I had too many email accounts. There was a time when I had about two dozen email accounts on my iPhone. I would create an email account for use on websites that pertained to chess. An email account for FaceBook. An email account for family, one for friends, one for business, one for YouTube videos of computer stuff, one for YouTube videos for family, one for Flickr, one for… you get the idea.

I looked at all the email accounts I had and either closed them or I made a permanent forwarder to one main account. I’m down to (don’t laugh) six email accounts on my iPhone. One of them I kept around just to make sure that I don’t need it, so I’ll make a permanent forwarding rule and then not check that mailbox anymore. Maybe I can get down to three, which I believe is the bare minimum at this stage in my life.

If you have multiple email addresses (and perhaps there are only a few of you), consolidate them. Ask what separate domains of influence and information you were creating those addresses for in the first place, and then seek to consolidate them all into as few as possible.

Second, Consolidate Email Ingress Points

Yes, I’ve been working around firewalls lately. The title simply means: make fewer ways that email can get to you.

At one point I had email accounts (remember, I had two dozen accounts!) spread over a laptop, desktop, Kindle Fire, ASUS Transformer, and my phone. Sending me an email pretty well guaranteed that my house would suddenly sound like a Chinese New Year celebration.

Not only did I remove the email accounts from all devices but my laptop and phone, but I also got rid of the two tablets, which is a consolidation story all to itself. I need email on my phone for clients and family to get in touch with me. That’s pretty much set in stone. I also need it on my laptop (my main working computer). Or do I?

I’m now considering a further consolidation by doing all of my email from my phone! I use Rackspace hosted Exchange and Gmail for my two most important accounts (work and personal, respectively). Both work great on the phone and both have interfaces to the broader set of calendars and contacts that each system provides.

Now I’m not suggesting that I need to thumb-type every email message out (although the three sentences people would be okay with that). I would use my bluetooth keyboard for typing on the phone. However I am suggesting that having only one device that email can come to me on is probably an improvement in simplicity that I would benefit from.

Third, Limit Email Notifications

There was a time when my accounts were tied into my IM program and each email would pop up an IM alert, as well as jingle my phone and tweak any full email client that checked the account. The email client would pop up a windowed notification for not only new email but calendar appointments, contact birthdays and some other minutia.

Enough! Email now only gives me an audible alert when new messages come in and scheduled appointments are due. I think that can even be pared down to only audibly warning me when appointments are due and only check mail at predetermined times during the day, however I’m not in a place to do that yet.

I won’t harp on the evils of multitasking and how constant interruptions to our concentration are making us dumber. I think we are aware of that. Simply take a few distractions out of your day and remove visual cues that will certainly pull your mind elsewhere. Limit what devices can alert you, why they alert you and if possible when they alert you. If you can have an email client only check for email every 30 minutes, do so. Push email is great, but it can be a pain if you have a segment of time wherein you’re getting an alert every 60 seconds.

Bonus Point! Track Your Email Usage

If possible, every time you have to manage email, track how much time you spend on it. Since I’m an independent contractor / consultant, I use time tracking tools to invoice with, as well as track my own time that I use internally to develop my systems and services. I have combined time tracking with my pervasive use of kanban and have several “15 minute correspond” tickets on my “done” side of the kanban board each day. Once I start getting a few “30 minute correspond” as well as a batch of 15 minute tickets, then I know something is up and I need to figure out why email is eating my life away.

Guard Your Time

Your time is finite and precious. It’s the only thing you can spend but never earn back. Don’t let something as potentially useful as email become a tool that breaks the hourglass.

Got any other tips along this vein? Let me know!

6 Comments

  1. James McKey

    January 31, 2013 at 8:53 am

    This fits well into the GTD (Getting Things Done) line of thought. Have you watched the “Inbox Zero” video from the presentation Merlin Mann did at Google’s headquarters?

    Good stuff: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z9UjeTMb3Yk&noredirect=1

    Reply

    • Wesley David

      January 31, 2013 at 8:59 am

      I was really into GTD about 5 or 6 years ago. Eventually I found it slightly too complex for an increasing obsession with simplification and now simple kanban task flows are my new thing. However, yes, as you can see I’m heavily influenced by David Allen and Merlin Man (43 folders was cool) among others.

      Reply

      • James McKey

        January 31, 2013 at 11:38 am

        What do you recommend for learning more about kanban task flows?

        Reply

        • Wesley David

          January 31, 2013 at 11:46 am

          Kanban by nature is made to be dead simple, so there are only two rules:

          1. Visualize your work.
          2. Limit your work currently in progress.

          Then you figure out how to do that in a way that you like.

          But for a deeper discussion I’ve read this book: http://www.personalkanban.com/pk/

          It’s okay, I found it a bit too conceptual, but it got me started. I need to read a few more books on it and think deeper as a whole about the topic. Then I’d like to write a blog series on it.

          Reply

  2. Brian

    February 2, 2013 at 8:41 am

    A separate email *account* for every web site?! That’s really insane. If you want to be able to keep track of where an email cam from, look into “plus addressing”. Gmail supports it directly, as does postfix.

    Reply

    • Wesley David

      February 2, 2013 at 11:30 am

      Or close to it. I didn’t want any cross-over between interaction on different places. So my chess sites would use one account, and all my chess buddies knew that account / username. Steam used another. Computer forums another. Gardening forums, bicycling communities, etc. etc.

      Plus addressing is awesome, but not what I wanted. I wanted hard walls between each sphere of influence.

      Reply

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