Inbox Nirvana: The Revolutionary Email Practice That Saved My Sanity

Five effortless strategies for putting email in its place

by Samantha Pollack

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Call me a slow adapter, but I still find smart-phone culture a bit jarring.

I’m often personally affronted by the expectation of constant availability. I don’t answer calls when I’m driving or absorbed in a writing project (even when it’s my mom). When I’m out to dinner, my phone is buried in the abyss that is my purse. I don’t respond to work-related texts on the weekends or after six pm.

We call these practices boundaries, and any working person in the 21st Century needs to set them.

If you’re self-employed, boundaries are vital to your sanity and productivity – and extra challenging to enforce. You have to create your own structure for working, taking breaks, fitting in exercise, and shutting down at the end of the day.

It’s a constant tango between self-care and self-discipline.

Most entrepreneurs know this. We meditate in the mornings (or try to, at least). We structure our workday around the way the sun hits our favorite table in the coffee shop. (High-top, in the window, right next to the outlet.)

We create dedicated time for creative work, product development, website tinkering, accounting, and returning phone calls. It isn’t perfect, but we’re trying. And most of the time, it works.

Until – ding ding ding! You’ve got mail!

Email distraction is the sworn enemy of productivity. It only takes one “Urgent: please respond!” to derail the most meticulously scheduled workday. When you hit 5:30 and realize you’ve been sitting at the computer all day but haven’t actually done anything, your overflowing email account is at least partly to blame.

The problem is, anyone can email you whenever they damn well please. Other people don’t know – or care – that two to four PM is your Creative Flow Time, or that your article is due in three hours (and you haven’t even started it yet).

Email knows no boundaries.

Know what? We’re not supposed to be available 24/7. Constant distraction disrupts your concentration and interferes with your ability to complete projects. It also affects the quality of your work because you’re constantly hopping out of the “flow” – that is, if you can even get INTO the flow, with all those emails dinging.

The two biggest issues with constant email-checking are:

It’s a time-suck.

Try adding up all the time you spend on email-related tasks in one day – including those “quick” phone-checks, and the accidental rabbit holes that suck you into cat video wasteland. None of that time (okay, a very small percentage of that time) actually moves the needle in your business and/or life.

It’s a source of added stress in a world where we already have way more stress than we need, thank you.

It’s the nagging pressure and guilt associated with unfinished business, and the feeling that someone is waiting on you. But what if that was just a figment of our imaginations? (Guess what – it is.)

Even an old-fashioned girl like me gets sucked into the email vortex. Emails make you feel needed, connected. But…not really. What they really do is steal your life. And I’m tired of wasting my energy catering to other people’s sense of urgency.

So, in the interest of spending more of my time doing what truly matters, I’m starting an inbox revolution.

I no longer care if people think I’m unprofessional for taking 72 hours to get back to them. I care about not getting heaps of information and demands thrust at me without my permission. I care about my sanity, my ability to do good work, and my right to a private, uninterrupted life.

So here’s what I’m doing about it. Feel free to steal my strategies – one at a time, or all at once.

Two daily email checks, and NO MORE.

First thing in the morning, check your email and scan for anything truly urgent – as in, someone’s dying (in which case, I think the old 9-1-1 approach would be much more effective). It’s up to you (not them) to decide which things are important enough for an immediate reply. Everything else, read once and then log out.

At the end of your workday, check it again. This time, write the necessary replies. (Hint: sometimes, you can just say, “thank you” and move on.)

Stop replying to things that don’t need a reply.

People like to have the last word anyway.

Turn email notifications OFF.

The temptation to check your email is irresistible. But you don’t really need to know every time you get an email. If you think I’m wrong, just try it for a day or two and see what happens. (If your life falls apart, turn notifications back on, and feel free to send me an angry email. I’ll read it at the end of the day. And probably not reply.)

Unsubscribe from everything (well, everything but Abundant Yogi ;).

Sure, it’s important to stay informed about the trends happening in your industry, and every once in awhile Danielle LaPorte drops a #truthbomb that changes your life. But seriously, you don’t need all this crap in your inbox. If you haven’t opened someone’s last four newsletters, gone-zo.

Make Unroll.me. your new best friend.

Unroll.me is a free service that manages all your subscriptions. The first time you visit, it finds all your subscriptions (ouch). From there, you can unsubscribe in bulk, and “roll up” what’s left into One. Daily. Email. Brilliant!

Reaching Inbox Nirvana is a never-ending job, like pulling weeds. It requires diligence, compassion, and patience – like any practice. Sometimes, it falls apart – hours and days will get lost in the email weeds, and it takes a little while to clear up.

But when you finally disentangle yourself from the nonstop stress of interruption and expectation?

You and your inbox can finally find peace.

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Samantha Pollack
Samantha Pollack traveled a winding road through personal training, health coaching, and the restaurant business, before hitting her stride as a full-time writer. In 2010, she bid a fond “peace out” to her demanding career in Boston and relocated to the mountains of Asheville, NC. Since then, she’s launched (and ...read more

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1 comment

  1. Michelle Houston
    says

    Fantastically written and oh-so-true.