One of the things that I teach when I’m teaching people how to simplify their inbox is that you shouldn’t leave your inbox open all day. I get so much resistance to this. Everybody thinks that their inbox should be open because they need to be able to access things inside of it or answer emails as they come in. There’s just general resistance to shutting that email app or the browser window and not leaving it open. And I get it; we’re conditioned to put other people’s needs above our own and in business, that means being available and responsive 24/7. But that’s killing our attention spans and productivity. It costs us hours every day.
There are a couple of things you can do to get more comfortable with the idea of shutting your inbox for hours at a time.
The first thing that you can do is set the expectations of the people who email you the most.
In the grand scheme of things, you’re probably setting higher expectations on yourself than anyone else does. Your inbox shouldn’t be an instant messaging service, and unless your contract states otherwise, replies within 1 or 2 business days are perfectly reasonable under most circumstances. The only reason anyone expects a faster reply is because you’ve conditioned them to expect it by always replying within a couple of hours.
For people who are already in your inbox, try waiting an hour or two to reply and then slowly lengthen it out to four or five hours. Most likely, they won’t even notice the shift. If anyone does comment on it, you can simply let them know that they should expect a reply within 24 hours. Always set the expectation longer than you plan to check to give yourself some breathing room.
For new clients, establish that expectation right up front in your welcome packet. If needed for your industry, you can always create a guideline for urgent communication either through another channel or adding “URGENT” to the subject line.
You can also use your email signature or an autoresponder to help set those expectations.
Reduce the Flow
The second thing that you can do to get more comfortable with shutting your inbox is reducing the flow of what’s coming in. Second to “but what if someone needs me” is the complaint that if they wait a few hours, the number of emails will be overwhelming to deal with all at once and take too long.
There are two points I want to make here. The first is that batching is valuable. When you handle emails as they come in, they all seem important. When you process emails in a batch, you see them in contrast to each other, and it’s easier to prioritize, which in turn makes you more efficient. The second is that if it’s piling up that quickly, you have some unsubscribing to do.
The most straightforward place to reduce the flow is notification emails. If you are getting the notification in another more appropriate location, you don’t need the email, too. These days email notifications are almost always redundant. If it’s an email notification that a payment was processed, we probably got a push notification from Stripe as well as a notification from our cart platform or CRM. Disable all but the one that makes the most sense for you. If it’s a social media notification, we already got it in the appropriate app, where we can do something with it, so those can go, too. And do we need notifications for every new email subscriber or follower on Medium? Nope. And if you can’t disable them, set a filter to mark as read and archive them automatically.
There are three types of newsletters in our inboxes. There are the ones we actually read, the ones we think we’ll read and feel guilty about when we don’t get to them, and then ones we just delete. The first ones are keepers, the second ones you need to consider why you aren’t reading them, and then the rest need to hit the unsubscribe button. Unsubscribing is a friendly gesture—you’re helping their open rates! And I highly recommend creating a filter for newsletters so that you can tuck them away and read them when you have extra time versus letting them take up space in your inbox.
We all get these, we bought something or use a service, and it landed us on their marketing email list, as well. We don’t immediately unsubscribe because we still need some communications from these companies, but most of what they send is clutter that goes straight to trash when we deal with our inbox. Thankfully, these days segmenting is more popular, and you can adjust your email settings with these companies so that you are off their marketing lists but still receive relevant transactional emails. Take a few minutes and explore your email preferences and see what you can get rid of.
Another way you can reduce the flow is by diverting communications to other tools and apps. Diverting communications not only reduces the flow of emails that you have to deal with but can help keep conversations in context. Have your assistant or business associate communicate primarily through a project management tool or platform like Slack. And the same for clients. Keeping communications where the projects are happening means less reason to open your inbox through the day and get distracted by everything that’s come in.
And for the love of everything, keep your personal and business emails separate. Personal email can go way longer without being checked and is often much more distracting.
Trade Notifications for a Timer
The third way that you can get more comfortable with closing your inbox is to stop getting the notifications. And I know that sounds counterintuitive
because if your inbox is closed, you feel like you need the notifications to rely on, so you don’t miss anything important. But hear me out.
Notifications open loops in your brain that distract you from the work at hand, even if you don’t open them. Just knowing that something came in and you don’t know what it is, divides your focus. And it’s worse if you saw the sender or subject line, because then your brain starts trying to fill in the blanks, and it’s usually pessimistic.
But FOMO is real, I know. And if you don’t have notifications turned on, you’ll feel the need to open your inbox every 10 seconds to see if anything is there. It’s a double-edged sword.
And that’s where the timer comes in.
A timer means that your brain can rest and focus on the task at hand. When the timer goes off, you’ll open your email and deal with anything. Knowing that there is a time set aside for that will give your brain a break from thinking about it. It closes the loop.
In the beginning, you may need to set that timer for a small amount of time, maybe just 15-30 minutes. And then work your way up as you get more comfortable with not seeing those notifications and emails.
As you get used to shutting your inbox and your brain gets more comfortable with the idea that it can relax and focus, you’ll find that you’re getting more done in less time because your attention isn’t divided and fractured. And you’ll probably notice that your clients weren’t expecting immediate responses like you always believed.
You’ll be more productive without sacrificing your professionalism and maybe even have time to read those newsletters you filed away.
If you’re interested in going deeper on this topic and learning how to simplify your inbox, join my live training, the Simplified Inbox Blueprint, on July 22nd at 6 pm Central. Click here for more information.