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Surprising Science

Climb Out From Under Your Oppressive Mountain of E-mails

The more unread e-mails staring you in the face every morning, the worse you feel. Here’s how to clear out that inbox and, in the process, clear your mind.

Brigid Schulte’s article in The Independent about the overwhelmingness of e-mail has me thinking about the degree to which a clear inbox contributes to a clear mind. I wrote last month about how Tim Ferriss recommends avoiding your inbox in the morning because e-mail is toxic to productivity; it just positions other people’s problems above your own to-dos. 

Schulte’s story is one less about the dangers of checking e-mail and more about the dangers of letting your e-mail pile up to the point where it becomes a staggering mountain of stress. At one point Schulte was looking at nearly 24,000 messages in her inbox, over 14,000 of them unread. Just the sweat-inducing anticipation of eventually having to sift through that mess can send debilitating shivers down your spine:

“Every time I thought of my inbox, I’d start to hyperventilate. I’d tried tackling it before: one night a few months ago, I was determined to stay at my desk until I’d powered through all the unread emails. At dawn, I was nowhere near the end. Before long, the inbox was just as crammed as it had been before I lost an entire night’s sleep.”

Schulte eventually sought the help of what she called “four productivity gurus” and over two weeks reduced her inbox to the beautiful emptiness she so desired. Her tips for attacking the e-mail monster can be summed up as such:

1. Systematize: Your e-mail client has folders for the same reason you might employ a filing cabinet — so that your desk (or inbox) doesn’t have to be regularly cluttered by stuff dropped off by other people. If you get more than 25 e-mails a day, you need to maintain a system so that when you exit your inbox at the end of the day you’re facing no more than a page of messages on the homepage. Take advantage of flags and deadline reminders. Respond to easy stuff quickly, file other things away for later. Delete messages you know are useless and train your inbox to siphon away spam and other unwanted e-mails.

2. Adapt: Buy into your system. Just like you don’t want to sign up for a gym membership on January 1 only to stop going on January 8, you can’t let previous bad habits interfere with your resolution to organize your life. If your new system calls for setting aside a time every day for inbox maintenance, don’t start blowing it off — treat it like any other appointment. You’re working toward bettering your mental health here. Don’t feel like it’s not a noble priority.

3. Persevere: Continue to develop new protocols for managing your inbox. Innovate and don’t become complacent. Smartly arrange your tasks and avoid distractions. When you make the decision to organize your e-mail you’re also taking a step toward organizing your life, so don’t stop with just the web. Allow your abilities to maintain order to grow and branch out.

My acronym above reads out SAP, which is what an unorganized inbox will do to you if you don’t follow Schulte’s advice. E-mail is necessary — you can’t just ignore it completely but you also can’t let it control your life. Take control of your inbox and you’ll find yourself feeling calmer, less stressed, and more confident in your ability to organize your life.

Read more at Independent

Photo credit: TACstock1 / Shutterstock


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