4 Simple Rules for Email Mastery (And Maintaining Sanity)

I hate email.

Well, that’s not entirely true. I love email as a tool. I hate how dependent we all seem to be on it (myself included).

I’ve come to realize that the more I check my email, the less happy I am. Here’s a crude mock-up of what this looks like for me (culled from years of my own very unscientific tracking):

The Email Effect

I didn’t fully understand this connection until I began to learn more about conditioning and intermittent (random) reinforcement.  My favorite explanation comes from behavioral economist Dan Ariely, in the excellent bookManage Your Day-to-Day from 99U:

“The psychologist B. F. Skinner came up with the idea of random reinforcement, where you give a rat a lever and every hundred times it presses the lever, it gets a piece of food. For the rat, that is exciting.

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But if the number is a random number — any number between one and one hundred — it actually ends up being more exciting. And the rat keeps on working much, much more, even if you take the reward away altogether.” 

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Email is a great example of random reinforcement. Typically, when we “pull the lever” to check our e-mail, it’s not that interesting. But, from time to time, it’s exciting.
And that excitement (which happens at random intervals) keeps us coming back to check our e-mail over and over each day. Many times at the expense of our productivity levels and ultimately, our happiness.
Email roulette
Here are the four rules I (try to) follow to get the most out of email as a tool…and also use it as little as possible. I’ve also included a quick explanation of why it works, how often I’m able to actually stick to it (I’m far from perfect at it) and what sometimes gets in the way.
Hopefully these simple rules can help you gain a few extra minutes each day…along with a bit more of your sanity.

Rule #1: Check Email Less Than 10 Times Per Day

What: In the morning I take out a new Post-It note and write “Email” on the top of it. Every time I check my inbox, I place a tick on the paper. Once I get to 10, I can’t check email anymore for the day.
Instead of responding to things as they come in, I batch everything and use a Pomodoro session (25 minutes of focused work) to do them all at once.
My email tally
Why: I want to be happy and productive (see ‘Email Effect’ above :).
Success Rate: ~80%
Pitfalls: I run into issues when I am in the middle of something like a big launch, negotiating a deal or when I’m waiting for immediate feedback on something.

Rule #2: Filter Ruthlessly

What: I setup Gmail filters to make sure things like newsletters, notifications and other non “mission critical” emails are bypassing my inbox and going to folders (labels) where I can check them when I want to.
Some of my filters
Why: In order for Rule #1 to work, I have to make sure that only the most important emails are landing in my actual inbox.
Success Rate: ~95%
Pitfalls:  This one is pretty straight-forward and I only run into problems if I don’t take the time immediately to setup a filter for a new type of email.
Here is a free cheatsheet you can fill out to practice rules #1 and #2- 

Click for your FREE Cheatsheet

Rule #3: OHIO

What: OHIO stands for Only Handle It Once. Email comes in and I deal with it right away by (a) replying (b) delegating or (c) deleting/archiving it.
The other OHIO
Why: If an email comes in to my inbox and I don’t take immediate action on it, I wind up wasting time and mental energy…because I’m now adding on the time spent remembering (over and over) that I need to take action on it. So the OHIO rule cuts down on decision fatigue and also saves time.
Success Rate: ~90%
Pitfalls:  Long, complicated emails.

Rule #4: No Email on My Phone

What: I don’t setup email on my phone. The only time I will add it is if I’m going to be out of my office for the day or traveling and then I remove it again once I am back.
No email on phone
Why: If email is on my phone, I will feel a greater pull to want to constantly check it whenever I am doing something like waiting in a line, walking down the street or if I even feel the slightest bit bored. Constantly checking email on my phone keeps me from experiencing life fully and it’s crucial to actually be a bit bored sometimes, because:

Boredom is important work, and our phones are making us too lazy to do it.

Success Rate: ~75%
Pitfalls:  If I don’t uninstall Gmail right when I get back from a trip, it can be very easy for me to fall right back into my old habit of constantly checking it.
If you want to go further to really master email and implement these 4 simple rules, get your free cheatsheet below-

Click for your FREE Cheatsheet

What are your email rules, habits or rituals?

Email is a powerful tool and as Uncle Ben said to Spiderman, “With great power comes great responsibility.” By following these simple rules, I have been able to be more productive with my use of email, my time spent with it and how it affects my state-of-mind.
"Whether we're conscious of it or not, our work and personal lives are made up of daily rituals, including when we eat our meals, how we shower or groom, or how we approach our daily descent into the digital world of email communication."
But now I’d like to hear from you.
How do you manage your email? What do you still struggle with? 
Leave a comment below.

WHAT ABOUT EMAIL TOOLS? There are a few that I consider absolutely indispensable…and next week I’ll share this list with you (along with the ways I use each one). Click here to get notified as soon as I release the list.

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