Best-selling author Tim Ferriss offers digital minimalism tips to reduce the amount of time you spend in your email inbox.
Investment bankers aren't known for their impulse control. Several global firms in Zurich don't allow their bankers to check email more than twice per day. The reason is simple: the more they check email, the more compelled they feel to send email. Technologist Robert Scoble has said that for each email he sends, he gets 1.75 to 2 messages in return. This phenomenon highlights the unscalable nature of most time-management approaches: striving to do more just produces increasingly more to do.
Fifty email messages beget 100, which beget 200 and so on. It's impossible to manage this with a results-by-volume (or frequency) approach. There are two cornerstone behavioral changes for reversing this trend: check email less frequently (so we send fewer messages) and send fewer messages when we do check (so we trigger fewer exchanges).
Here are eight concrete tips and services for digital minimalism that can help eliminate—as a start—compulsive inboxing during the evenings and weekends.
Treat all of them as short experiments and customize.
- "Batch" email at set times.
Have an email-checking schedule and do not deviate. There is an inevitable task-switching cost otherwise—U.S. office workers spend 28% of their time switching between tasks due to interruption, and 40% of the time, an interrupted task is not resumed within 24 hours. Use template autoresponders to alert people of your email schedule and encourage them to call if something needs faster attention. The "urgent" email-to-call conversion is usually less than 10%.
This gives you breathing room to focus on predefined to-do's instead of responding to manufactured emergencies and ending the day with nothing to show for it.
Alternative approaches include appending your signature with your email schedule, having only email from certain contacts forwarded to your Crackberry/PDA, and—if a manager of a small group—setting an inbox checking schedule for internally-generated email. Ensure that your first batch is around 10 or 11 a.m. and never first thing in the morning, as you want a meaningful volume (1/4-1/3rd of the daily total), and you should accomplish at least one critical to-do before going into reactive mode.
- Send and read email at different times.
Go offline and respond to all email from a local program such as Outlook or Mail to avoid having the outgoing flow interrupted by immediate responses.
Ever noticed how effective it is to respond to your email while on an airplane? Manufacture that environment by going offline to batch send.
- Don't scan email if you can't immediately fix problems encountered.
One simple example: don't scan the inbox on Friday evening or over the weekend if you might encounter work problems that can't be addressed until Monday. This is the perfect way to ruin a weekend with preoccupation. Remember that just as income has no value without time, time has no value without attention.
- Don't BIF people during off-hours.
"BIF" stands for "before I forget" and refers to emails sent on evenings or weekends out of fear of forgetting a to-do or follow-up. This sets a mutual expectation of 24/7 work hours and causes a plethora of problems. There are a number of better alternatives. First, use a service like Jott.com instead that allows you to send voice reminders via cell, which are transcribed and sent to your inbox or someone else's. If to someone else's, be sure to add "no need to respond until [next work hours]." Second, if you prefer low-tech, externalize follow-ups and to-do's in a small notebook like a Moleskine instead of entering the "bet you can't eat just one" inbox.
- Don't use the inbox for reminders or as a to-do list.
Related to 4 above. Don't mark items as "unread," star them, or otherwise leave them in the inbox as a constant reminder of required actions. This just creates visual distraction while leading you to evaluate the same items over and over. Put them into a calendar (or Moleskine or other capturing system) for follow-up and archive the email, even if that calendar item is just "Respond to 2/10 email from Suzie." (Editor: See Lifehacker's "Trusted Trio" system for moving email messages out of your inbox and into one of three places: Archive, Hold (calendar item for a later date), or Follow-Up (your to-do list.))
- Set rules for email-to-phone escalation.
One Senior VP in a Fortune 500 company recently told me that he's established a simple policy with his direct reports that has cut email volume by almost 40%: once a decision generates more than four emails total in a thread, someone needs to pick up the phone to resolve the issue.
- Before writing an email, ask yourself: "what problem am I trying to solve?" or "what is my ideal outcome?"
Unclear purpose, usually a symptom of striving to be busy instead of productive, just requires later clarification from all parties and multiplies back-and-forth volume. Be clear in desired results or don't hit that Send button
- Learn to make suggestions instead of asking questions.
Stop asking for suggestions or solutions and start proposing them. Begin with the small things. Rather than asking when someone would like to meet next week, propose your ideal times and second choices. If someone asks, "Where should we eat?", "What movie should we watch?", "What should we do tonight?", or anything similar, do not reflect it back with "Well, what/when/where do you want to...?" Offer a solution. Stop the back and forth and make a decision. Practice this in both personal and professional environments. Here are a few lines that help (my favorites are the first and last):
"Can I make a suggestion?"
"I'd like to propose..."
"I suggest that... what do you think?"
"Let's try... and then try something else if that doesn't work."
Remember: in email, the small things are the big things. If you can cut an exchange from six to three email messages, that's a 50% reduction in your inbox volume over time. This can make the difference between working all the time and leaving the office (both physically and mentally) at 5 p.m.
Less is m
Timothy Ferriss is author of the #1 New York Times bestseller, The 4-Hour Workweek.