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How to stop the suckiness and make email work for you again

Why email sucks so bad

Email gets a bad rap. It’s almost as trendy to hate on email as it is Taylor Swift. For sure, there are a lot of things that really suck about email.

  • Too many file attachments
  • People use it to communicate frikkin’ everything, when an emoji text would do just fine
  • So, so many attachments
  • More spam than a Hawaiin luau
  • Useless group email chains
  • Ok, enough with the image signature attachments already, we know who you are by now.

So yeah, there’s a lot about email to hate. It wasn’t always like this, either. I remember setting up my first Prodigy email address (Probably after watching the Friends pilot and now you know how old I am), dying for someone, anyone, to send me a message. Skip ahead to today and I’m at Greta Garbo levels of leave me alone.

Is there anything good about email?

There are some new solutions to email that threaten to banish email to black and white TV status. Basecamp comes to mind, and it’s super useful for working groups. There are still some pros to using email that I believe are going to keep it around for a while longer.

  • It’s easy to use
  • There are tons of free email clients out there
  • You can store thousands of messages and refer to them later
  • File attachments! Okay, sometimes we need them
  • Just about everyone already has an email address

Since email isn’t going anywhere soon, we all have to figure out how to deal with the things that suck. I’ve spent over 20 years trying out different clients, platforms and systems for taking control of my email. I now have a tried-and-true system that has not only made me love email again, I’ve been able to corral this runaway hoss. You can have this feeling, too, and I’m going to show you exactly how to get it.

Think Different

So much of managing email well isn’t in the platform, it’s in your head. We think of email as this modern technology that’s different than anything else we’ve dealt with before. In reality, it’s just like that analog In/Out box you might keep on your desk. Papers come in that you have to deal with. Things go out that you’ve completed or are ready for someone else to handle for you. It really is that simple and I’m going to show you the direct correlation to your email. Plus, if you’re not so hot at handling that physical inbox on your desk, this system will help you with that, too.

Stop working out of your inbox

Like, right now. Stop. It’s called an inbox, not a things-pile-up-until-I-can’t-see-the-bottom box. Most of the time you can’t complete everything that lands in your inbox as soon it arrives. However, you can deal with it faster by getting it out of your way.

Rather than dealing with things, you’re going to redistribute them. If you have emotional avoidance issues, this should feel familiar. It requires some setup, but once you do that everything will start falling into place (literally) very quickly. To use an analog example, let’s say you get the electric bill in your inbox. Rather than stop everything you’re doing, open it up, peruse it, and possibly pay it, you’re going to get it out of your way, fast. As in immediately. 

Before you do that, you need to create a (super easy) 2-step system. First, you would have a folder labeled “Bills.” Clever, I know. Then, in your calendar, you would set a reminder for a day or time when you take care of bills.

Once you have that system in place, it’s easy. The bill comes into your inbox. You see the bill, but you’re in the middle of writing a blog post about forgetfulness and you need to stay focused. You take the bill, throw it into your “Bills” folder and poof! Your inbox is empty and you’re back to writing whatever it was you were writing about. Oh, right. Forgetfulness.

Think of it as a game, a challenge to keep your inbox clear at all times. It should be totally empty 90% of the time. It sounds like a Neil Gaiman fantasy, but it really can be that way, I promise.

Let’s take this into the electronic world and deal with your email.

My super secret never-fail email sorting method

If you’ve followed along so far, you can probably guess where we’re going with this. Yup. We’re going to set up some folders. And some flags. Maybe even some labels.

First, let’s talk about email clients and platforms. You might use Gmail, Apple Mail, Outlook or even Thunderbird. The beauty of my system is that it’s totally agnostic. It doesn’t matter what you’re using for email, the system is so simple you can do it anywhere. In fact, I’ve often switched platforms and besides a few minor details and tweaks, the basic system is the same.

The first thing you want to do (besides become hypnotized by the massive amount of emails in your inbox), is create places in your email client where you will redistribute the items in your inbox. Depending on what you’re using, this could mean creating folders (Outlook), mailboxes (Apple Mail), labels (Gmail), or tags (Thunderbird). Just like in the analog world, you might create folders like “Clients,” “Bills,” “Travel,” or “Expenses.” I even have folders set up for newsletters I’ll want to read later but don’t want hanging around my inbox.

Once you have those set up, it’s easy to drag those emails into the appropriate folders, or tag them with the right labels (like in Gmail). If your inbox is already inundated, this will take some time but once you’ve got that sorted out, new emails hitting your inbox will be a dream to sort.

It’s filtered, so it’s healthier

If you’re like me and you don’t want to spend your day sorting email every time the little bell dings (or that evil red button pops up), you can set up filters to handle it for you. In my newsletters folder example, I have a filter set up for different newsletter emails that come in. They automatically skip my inbox and go right into the appropriate place, keeping my inbox clear and happy.

The mantra you need to recite as you deal with email is “Sort it or delete it.”

Working out of your email

It’s the bane of the modern working world, but sometimes when you’re working, you have to have your email open. Many times I have to refer to client emails to get details about a project I’m working on. It can be distracting to be in my email sometimes. What I like to do is have a specific folder set up for that client and only have that one selected or open while I work. It eases a little bit of the inbox distraction.

Your smartphone is really dumb

One frustration that can pop up after you’ve created this system in your desktop is that your smartphone doesn’t want to play along (jerk). Either your folders and flags aren’t syncing or your phone app doesn’t manage email the same way. It’s like the difference between driving a car and riding a bike. Both have pedals but they work totally different. Also, it’s hard to drink a latte while riding a bike.

Digressions aside, the best advice is to steer clear of managing email on your phone. Yeah, I know it’s there. I know it’s convenient. I know you’re stuck in line at the post office for the third time this week. Try to avoid it if you can.

You may have to check email or even respond to email when you’re away from your desk. It’s a beautiful thing that we have the ability to do that and you should take advantage. What I advise you to avoid is trying to manage your new inbox-clearing system from your phone. It’s likely not going to be the same and you’ll probably end up as frustrated as before. So check and respond, but do your sorting when you’re back at your laptop.

Conquer your inbox, conquer the world

I’ve been there. I’ve seen my inbox pile up on a busy day, or come back from vacation with more emails than I can scroll through without having a wrist injury. I’ve also been to the other side, where my inbox is totally clear and I find myself with nothing to do but make myself a latte, put on my helmet and go for a ride.

We all deserve more sanity when it comes to email If this has been helpful for you, don’t be stingy. Share it with a friend. Send them an email.

I have a long and weird history with analog organizational products. Starting around age seven, I developed a mild folder fetish, spurred along by gloriously shiny document holders with The Muppets on them. Then there was that year I asked for a Trapper Keeper for Christmas. My mother simply blamed it on my Virgoness and indulged me. Throughout my working life, I’ve kept and discarded too many systems to count. Just hearing the name Franklin Covey still makes my upper lip sweat in anticipation.

A few years ago, I designed a planner myself. It never really took off, but going through that process led me down the rabbit hole of the latest in planner tech, culminating in my purchase of not one, but three Passion Planners. I was sucked in by the idea of planning my life and the gorgeously embossed covers cinched the deal.

After using them for a while, I started to notice that while I had every moment scheduled and all passions planned, I still felt a little chaotic. Something was missing. I was still writing notes and making sketches in other books or on printer paper. There wasn’t room in the little pre-designed boxes for my random shower thoughts and weird doodle ideas. I felt a little hemmed in by all those little boxes. I needed a new system.

Then I found out about Bullett Journaling. Jenni was doing it and sent me to the website. I admit that at first I wasn’t sure if it would work for me. I was still in Planner Denial. I decided to try it for a while and see what happened.

Wait. What is a Bullet Journal?

If you don’t already know, a Bullet Journal is a totally individualized system of tracking thoughts, notes, drawings, and yes, your schedule if you want.

A human named Ryder Carroll created the system.

Diagnosed with learning disabilities early in life, he was forced to figure out alternate ways to be focused and productive. Through years of trial and error, he developed a methodology that went far beyond simple organization. – BuJo website

A Bullet Journal (BuJo if you’re nasty), is more than just another glorified to-do list or boring scheduling planner. Yes, it can be that, but what I love about it is how individualized it can be. If you want to catalogue your DVD library or create a meal plan, you can do it here. There’s no end of ways you can use your Bullet Journal. You can track workout progress, keep a list of places you want to visit before you die, or just use pages for a brain dump (my favorite). I love the analog aspect of taking pen to paper, taking time to get all the things out of my head and stored somewhere I can easily find them. Sure, I can do this on my iPhone a lot faster, but it doesn’t have the same effect on my mental state.

Plus, it’s called a journal because it is one. What I also love about Bullet Journaling is the ability to look back and see what I’ve been doing over the past months or years, and see if I’m growing or still stuck in the same place.

Ryder sells a premade BuJo on his website, but you can pick up any dotted notebook at your favorite stationary store. I got mine at Michaels for under $10. I also picked up some colored pens because I’m a geek about writing instruments.

How do you use it?

There are tons of videos about how people do their BuJo. Seriously, there are endless ideas about cataloguing, listing and brain dumping. On the website, there’s a quick tutorial about getting set up and after that, it’s totally up to you to make it fit your life and your brain.

How Bullet Journaling saved my brain

I feel like I’ve finally found my system. I start every day (before email) by sitting down quietly with my Bullet Journal and planning my day. I’ll create tasks, but I also look back at my year and month to make sure that the things I might do that day are taking me in the right direction.

Throughout the day, I’ll come back to my journal, take some of the buzzing bees in my head and stick them where they belong, on paper. Getting that stuff out of my head frees me up to think other thoughts or just focus on what I’m supposed to be doing. It’s magical.

Do you use a Bullet Journal? If you do, please comment below! I would love to hear about how you use it and what it’s done for you.