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How To Care Less About Your Email

Inbox taking over your life? Take a page from the email slackers and naysayers and try declaring email bankruptcy, setting filters—and just letting it go.

By RACHEL FEINTZEIG
Tue, May 24, 2022 3:22pmGrey Clock 4 min

Reed Omary, a radiologist in Nashville, Tenn., logged into one of his work inboxes one day last winter, selected thousands of unread emails and, with the click of a mouse, removed them from his life.

“I just deleted the whole kit and caboodle,” he says with a shrug. “If they’re important, they’ll come back.”

So many of us spend our days ruled by email: constantly refreshing, wading through detritus, paralyzed by the pressure of crafting a reply to the one note that actually matters. The moment we reach inbox zero, and few of us ever do, the ding sounds again.

Maybe we need to take a page from the defectors. You know the ones—those co-workers who are good at their jobs, but don’t seem to care all that much about your note. If they bother to move messages into folders, it’s with the express purpose of forgetting them forever. They stick to Slack or Teams and ignore everything else.

Some set up highly specific out-of-office responses—I only check email at 9 a.m. and 3 p.m.; I’m with a client today—which they seem to actually mean. They’ll get back to you next week. Meanwhile, they…get work done?

“Checking email feels fast, it feels productive,” says Greg McKeown, a business author and speaker. “But the stuff that matters isn’t moving forward.”

His suggestion: Don’t even go there. Start your day by writing a list of priorities on a piece of paper. Block two half-hour slots on your calendar to really deal with your email—rather than scrolling through constantly—and ignore it the rest of the time, he says.

Of course, some jobs take place almost exclusively via inbox. Some folks might get in trouble with the boss if they let a note languish for half a day. Some are just addicted to seeing what’s new.

“You never know what you’re going to get,” Mr. McKeown says. “Pull the handle again. Could be amazing, could be terrible, could be nothing.”

For years, Stephanie Worrell took pride in responding to emails nearly instantaneously, even at 2 a.m. She bought a board to affix to her bathtub and positioned her laptop there, just watching her emails come through while she soaked.

“There’s a high to it,” says the 54-year-old, who lives in Boston. “Someone thinks I’m important.”

Her children were less impressed. They complained she was always typing out a note. She developed back pain from sitting so much.

She started setting a timer, limiting herself to two 15-minute checks a day, and found that not much happened if she only answered the five most important notes out of 100. She urged clients and colleagues to text her if they needed something fast.

These days, she has 46,000 emails languishing across three inboxes, and zero anxiety over it.

“I feel free,” she says.

People who take control of their inboxes are calmer, happier, more productive and better at hitting work goals, says Emma Russell, a senior lecturer at the University of Sussex who studies the impact of email. The key is making a plan—for example, pledging to log off after 6 p.m. and on weekends–and then publicly declaring it.

Talk to your boss to find out what’s acceptable and what’s not, coaches and researchers told me. Negotiate if you have to. Often just asking your manager to verbalize specific guidelines makes clear no one expects a reply within two minutes.

The liberation can go awry. When Johan Lundström, a scientist based in Stockholm, deleted all his email after a three-week vacation, he was elated. A year later, a colleague asked him why he hadn’t moved forward with an award for his research, which focuses on the human sense of smell. Turns out, he’d been up for a $10,000 grant. He’d just needed to respond to an email within a week.

Though irritated about the lost funding, he has no regrets.

“I was high for a week, looking at my almost clean inbox,” he says.

Now he reads his emails but rarely responds; when he does it’s with a couple-word answer. He’s implemented a 15-minute delay for incoming messages so he isn’t constantly inundated. The best part: The less email he puts into the world, the less the world sends back to him.

He still remembers once spending an eight-hour trans-Atlantic flight clearing out 200 messages. His inbox was flooded with replies the next day.

“It was just like a horrible circular work of hell,” he says.

Filters and folders can help ensure fewer useless emails clog your inbox, says Matt Plummer, chief executive of Zarvana, a coaching and corporate training firm. Move things like newsletters into a separate folder for less important emails, ones that require a scan, not a response. Set a weekly appointment to read those.

Then route emails from the top five people at your job—your big client, your boss—into a folder you check hourly. You can get even more granular, flagging emails that have your name in the body, or assigning ones where you’re just cc’ed a less important label. But no need to spend five hours on a Sunday creating some elaborate system, he says. Just sort as you go, and keep it simple.

“Don’t have 37 email folders,” he says.

Every few years, digital and agile consultant Luba Sakharuk will get inspired by a productivity guru and attempt to organize her inbox. The effort generally lasts a few hours.

“The second I clean up, I freaking lose something,” she says, by misplacing files in mystery folders, accidentally deleting documents.

She had pined to be like the zero-inbox crowd, tidy and under control. But recently she has been thinking: Eh, whatever.

“I’m getting stuff done. Clients are happy,” she says. “If this chaos is my way, then that’s my way.”

Reprinted by permission of The Wall Street Journal, Copyright 2021 Dow Jones & Company. Inc. All Rights Reserved Worldwide. Original date of publication: May 23, 2022.

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