Get out of your inbox. 3 steps to email independence.

Oct 1, 2010 by

The other day a co-worker asked me how to turn on email alerts in Gmail.  I didn’t know the answer and more importantly I asked her why she would want such a thing turned on.  She replied, “so I don’t miss an important email”.  I followed up with “how often do you actually receive an ‘important’ email?”  And thus lies the problem.

Most of your email isn’t important.

But wait, doesn’t more email mean you are more important?  Working harder?  More connected to whats going on?

nope, nope and

Most of the time email isn’t work.  Its a distraction from the things you should be doing.  Its a crutch to help yourself feel and look busy.  Its not helping get the product done. Its not helping the customer with their problem.  Its a distraction that “feels” like work and its time to stop it.

I have a bad habit of living in my inbox.  Leaving your email open 24/7 and jumping every time the iphone buzzes with a new message.  This is a wonderful way to work if you want to get nothing meaningful done.  I am working on changing that habit and here’s how I’ve gone about it.

Step 1: Reduce

This one is easy.  The goal here is to reduce the amount of email you get.

The first step of this is to eliminate all extraneous emails.  Simply unsubscribe from all of those messages that come into your box that you don’t want, you don’t read, and you just throw away anyway.  Go through all the messages in your inbox and do a clean sweep of everything you don’t want and get rid of it.  Unsubscribe, unsubscribe and unsubscribe some more.

Step 2: Filter

Gmail just came out with their Priority Inbox feature which helps a lot with our goal here, but it still isn’t quite where we want to be.  You want to filter your mail so only the really important things hit your inbox.  You can still get the rest of the mail, but you just don’t need it in your inbox distracting you.

I’m doing this in Gmail but you can do it any email program.

1. Select the message you want to filter and choose “Filter Messages Like These” from the menu

2. Create the filter and select the criteria by which you want to filter.  Gmail is great at doing this for you and it will usually filter by the email address, which is fine for this process. You can also filter by the subject or key words if you need to.

3.  Now figure out what you want to do with those messages.  We want to skip the inbox as much as we can here.  You can also select to mark it as read which is great for emails you may want to get and keep but aren’t important to look at.  I do that with re-occurring bills that are the same every month.  For this example I am filtering all my Groupon deal emails into a filter I call “Stuff to buy”.

How you set up what filters you have is up to you.  I’ve created the following for my setup:

  • Stuff to buy – these are promotions or ads for stores I like and buy from
  • Travel – my frequent flier updates or emails for travel sales
  • Events – events and local stuff happening around me
  • Bills – bills and stuff

You can create as many filters as you want.

Step 3: Get to zero

Rinse, and repeat as necessary.  Now as you go through your email start unsubscribing from all the crap you don’t need and filtering the ones you want but don’t need to read right away.

I only get emails that are important or that I want to read in my inbox.  Once I’ve read it it goes in the archive folder.  I keep only those in my inbox I still need to do something with, i.e. follow up, or research something on etc.  Then on Friday’s I go through and purge everything into the archive folder.  The goal (for me) is to have no mail in my inbox.  Its a clean slate.  A new start.  And its a great feeling.

I’ve been doing this for several weeks now and here’s what I’ve noticed.

As you begin you will feel a great sense of peace sweep over you but you’ll still check those other folders when you see the little numbers next to them.  This sensation will pass.  You will soon start checking those folders only once a day, or once every other day, then once a week, then less.   Its such a great feeling to not be a slave to email.  I now get very little email and I love it.  All of it is sorted and waiting for me whenever I get around to looking at it.

Additional tips for you iPhone users: (applicable to all smart phones)

Turn off push email delivery and turn off sound alerts and vibrations for when mail arrives.  Don’t let yourself be setup to be distracted.  You don’t NEED to know IMMEDIATELY when you have a new message.  That’s what this is about.  YOU are in charge of your email and YOU will get around to checking it when YOU want to.  Don’t let your phone dictate what you are doing and when you are doing it.

This email method allows me to only see important emails in by inbox.  All others are sorted and I can dig for them on my iPhone if I want, but I don’t.

I hope this works as well for you as it does for me.  If you’ve got a good tip on managing your email please email me: ben (at)


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