One of the downsides to technology is the hold it has on us at times. You see people walking down the street checking their phones oblivious to the world around them. Or how about those people sitting across from each other at a restaurant on their phone, completely absent from their potentially beneficial physical experience? The phenomenon has actually made driving less safe, in fact the CDC reports that 9 people are killed and 1,000 injured each day in the US involving a distracted driver, a growing number of which involve cell phone use. There is a very strong neurological case for why we feel so inclined to review and respond to each of these inbox/social media stimuli – a hit of dopamine. So that’s why our inbox is sacred ground, and we need to re-claim it. We can no longer blame OCD or some work obligation. We need to become present, and claiming your inbox is one way to get there.
Outlook and Android Here
Context is important, to clarify this is written by a Microsoft Outlook and Google Android guy. Many of our peers are using the latest iDevice and Google Apps. So your solution may need to be different from mine but philosophically and scientifically it could be the same.
The first step
When I read The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload (with a shout out to the best local book store ever), I learned how wrong I was about a lot of things. Such as being great at multi-tasking. Or that an indicator of effective mental capacity was how much one could keep track of in their head. Or that being great at serving customers was about checking any new email frequently and responding quickly (still somewhat true, more on that later). This book forces you to own up to your shortcomings in the area of neuroscience, and to start to make changes to terrible habits that you had little understanding of the consequences of. Admitting that was the first step, some of the immediate goals after reading where to:
- Focus on single related tasks, humans are terrible at multi-tasking and changing from one activity to another frequently.
- Get as many things out of my head and stored in a logical and easy to access way.
- Limit stimulus that had a dopamine loop, distraction – dopamine – distraction – dopamine – distraction – dopamine.
Now that we know why, we will have to save much of the “how” for later, because it would be more of a series of blog posts. For now let’s focus on how your Email inbox became a key battleground for all three of these items.
The Inbox Battleground
There really is no place so sacred in a business persons life than perhaps their Email inbox. This is where so much critical correspondence enters and leaves your work activity stream. For most, the inbox is treated as a todo list. If something is there it probably means there is an action related to it that has yet to occur. The reality is, even with great effort to the contrary our inboxes are full of useless distraction. Most of it serves one purpose only – other than perhaps an unhealthy hit of dopamine, a priority for someone other than you. That might sound rash, but if you do not make an effort to claim your inbox as sacred ground, you will find that statement to be true. In fact Statista shows that even in 2017 where relatively good anti spam measures are in place, over 50% of Email is still spam. This is an improvement since a high of over 71% in 2014, but still a tremendous amount of useless messages. So to reclaim your inbox, the first priority needs to be ensuring that as many irrelevant or non critical messages are not there. This can be accomplished by taking the following steps:
- Ensure that your email provider offers great anti-spam service.
- Perform an Opt out frenzy
- Create folders and rules to sort messages to them based on organized criteria.
- Stay diligent, stay the course
- Constant Improvement
Now let’s see what it looks like to address those steps, one at a time, and work to reclaiming your inbox.
No-one should have a high tolerance for poor anti-spam filtering. If you’re serious about reclaiming your inbox, you need to be prepared to shop around for a new Email provider if necessary to address this. Speaking from experience both Google Apps/Gmail and Rackspace have quite good filtering. Your mileage may vary, and you may have something even better. Quality filtering involves two criteria:
- Little to no spam arriving in your inbox
- Extremely rare false positives
Many providers will have you thinking the above are difficult to impossible, do not accept that. If you have both of those criteria well at hand, you have a great anti-spam provider. Here are some additional things you can consider to improve this regardless. You should know how to or be prepared to:
- Consider a change, test out a new provider, see how they handle your messages, you can forward your old address to the new one and get an idea.
- White list your friends and any domains and Email addresses that you want to make sure you receive messages from.
- Black list any you discover that have nothing positive to offer and never will.
Hopefully you can get spam under control, if not then maybe you need a more intensive solution. Do not accept less, life is too short to waste away droning away sorting and deleting useless Emails. Having been in the IT industry for much of my career this has been paramount to effectively using Email in business.
Opt Out Frenzy
It seems obvious If you didn’t sign up for something or aren’t interested (or will never read it!), request to be removed or use the unsubscribe option. An alternative to unsubscribing is to black list the domain. It seems harsh but that is often the best way to go particularly if you feel the senders organization has nothing positive to offer. In some cases it is faster to just blacklist. Over time you will start to get a feel for which companies to make a legitimate attempt to reduce and which ones need the nuclear (welcome to my blacklist!) option.
Creating folders and rules
Given that we’ve established how your inbox is sacred, we need to simplify what that means. The simplest test is to aim to have only messages that require priority up to the minute responses, or require action within a relatively (to be determined by you) time frame. This can be a lot of messages for some people, if you’re one of them you may need an additional step beyond what is being discussed here, but this should be a step in the right direction. Here are some things to do to make your inbox more actionable and sacred, you should be prepared to and learn how to:
- Create folders that organize by topic
- Use rules/filters to move messages to topic folders or for messages you cannot manage with black lists or anti-spam
- Give your rules names that make sense, I use two major formats one is “Move items to (Folder Name) by Domain” and “Move items to (Folder Name) by sender
Topic Oriented Folders
Earlier we talked about how humans are terrible at multi-tasking. This means we work best when we work on similar tasks together and don’t jump around much. Obviously things of the utmost priority (hopefully only what is in your inbox) merit this kind of multi-tasking. You can’t exactly leave a critical request laying around for days while you wait for other similar requests. You can however leave lower priority items hidden away in your unread items, sorted by folders, for eventual efficient review and action at a time of YOUR choosing. You can set aside time to look at them when you’re mind is tired from doing your high quality work for the day, or for a time when you are focused on a certain topic area. In my case this is things like:
- Rotary (checked the day before the weekly meeting)
- Makers/IOT (later afternoons or during cleanups*)
- Manufacturing Industry Advocacy (during focus times while working on the Manufacturing Advocates Podcast or periodically during cleanups*)
- Social Networking, etc. (During time emphasized for the Podcast, Inbound Marketing, or during cleanups*)
*A cleanup is a time when you can go into the “Unread items” in Outlook and sort through messages sorted by their topic folders and often mark huge numbers of them read saving you hours of time wasted on low priorities. 🙂
All of these items have their time and place, but not when you are fresh and capable of your best work. That’s when your sacred ground is most sacred, reclaim it and perform at your top level for the things that matter most to you. In the next step we’ll review how to automatically get content into these folders so it bypasses your inbox.
Rules and Filters
In order to get messages into your topic oriented folders, you need to learn how rules work to automate this process. In Outlook, there are rules that allow you to use a wide range of criteria to accomplish this. These are some best practice tips for doing this:
- Update an existing rule whenever possible rather than adding a new one.
- Be prepared to use a separate rule to move back certain items that might match another rules criteria but should be in your inbox.
- Be clever and unafraid to learn, rules are extremely powerful, you may find uses for them that go well beyond what is talked about here.
Another bit of neuroscience to keep in mind is that it can take a while to form a habit but once you do it is difficult to undo. Use this to your advantage, form a habit of being diligent about performing the positive tasks related to the reclamation of your inbox. Embrace the dopamine your brain likes doing things that serve you, your family and your customers best. Don’t stop performing that simple test when you see something new in your inbox and decisively deal with it or save it for a time where you can handle a group of them together.
You’ve probably heard the saying at some point to the effect that if you’re not improving you’re declining. There are dozens of books written about this subject, but it is true. Anyone who has formed the positive habit of working to be the best they can be at their craft or role know this. It is doubtful that you are not one of these people, or you probably would never have gotten to this last paragraph of this article. Thank you for taking the time to read it, and you are likely to have something to add. Comment where you saw it shared or here on the blog. I love hearing from people interested in being the best at what they do. – Joe
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