How To Conquer Your Email Once And For All

November 11, 2020
Estimated reading time:
7 minutes

It’s possible the invention of email has been a net negative for society.

It’s not the tool itself. That’s fine -- it’s a way of getting information to people, just like the post, or texting, or Slack. 

But the way we use email is all broken. No one’s job is to “do email.” Our jobs are to produce an end result: serve our customers, design marketing campaigns, or produce financial analysis (hello!). Your inbox shouldn't rule your life. And yet, how often have you heard people say things like:

Or worse, how many times have you been talking to someone in a meeting, only for them to get an email and stop listening to you as they read it?

These habits will destroy your productivity, not to mention your conversations and relationships.

Thankfully, there is a better way.

This guide is intended to go as deep as you want. Following the first few recommendations will improve your life a little. Going all the way will improve it a lot.

Before we get into it, I'm making two assumptions here:

  1. You use Gmail. If you don't, you can adapt the below to suit e.g. Outlook or Yahoo Mail, but Gmail is optimal.
  2. You handle your own email, and don't have an assistant to do all that sort of stuff for you. If you do have an assistant, skip straight to Nat Eliason's excellent article on how he spends 5 minutes per day on email. It's behind a paywall that's well worth paying for.

OK: without further ado, let's get into it.

Step 1: turn off email notifications

Notifications are the ultimate distraction. You must turn them off.

Otherwise you’ll try to focus on something important, or hold a conversation, and all of a sudden a box pops up saying “URGENT REQUEST”. You click it, get distracted, and all of a sudden an hour has passed while you respond to requests that, actually, weren’t that urgent.

To do this, go to Gmail Settings, select the ‘General’ tab, and scroll down to Desktop Notifications.  Select ‘Mail notifications off.’

Then make sure to turn off your phone notifications too: this is in the notification settings on an iPhone or Android phone.

Step 2: only check your email at specified times

A former boss of mine once told me what work life was like when she first started her career.  Once a day a pile of letters would land on her desk. She’d craft responses (by hand), send them to the typing pool, and off they’d go. The next morning, the process would start again.

It sounds archaic, but it’s actually a better workflow than how most of us use email. (This is also the inspuration behind a new product called Mailman that I'm super excited to try.)

This gave my boss the rest of the day to proactively work on important things, rather than reacting to incoming messages.

We can get the same benefit by batching email.

Pick a couple of 30 minute windows per day, and block those out as a recurring meeting called *do email*. Once in the morning and once in the afternoon works pretty well for me. Flex the timing and number of slots you need until you find what works for you, then stick to it.

Step 3: get to inbox zero

There are two types of people in the world:

I used to be the person on the right, and it caused me a lot of stress and anxiety. 

Keeping a clear inbox will dramatically help your mood and your productivity.

The best analogy here is to view your inbox as a hospital triage room. Some incoming patients need help urgently. Others don’t. You need to be able to notice the urgent cases immediately, and get them in to see a doctor now. To do so, you must keep the triage room clear. If you use the triage room as a waiting room as well, then a new patient can enter the room, sit down in a chair, and collapse from their injuries before you even notice them.

For this reason, every well-functioning hospital separates its triage room from its waiting room, and keeps the triage room absolutely clear. You can do the same with your inbox. This means addressing all the urgent cases right away, and maintaining Inbox Zero every day.

When you sit down to do email at the specified time period, you need a workflow to deal with new messages. Thankfully, a great one already exists, from David Allen’s book Getting Things Done (or GTD for short). I’ll spare you from reading the whole book -- it’s a bit dense, but the crux of the system is:

Does this take two minutes or less to respond to? If yes, do it now. If it takes more than two minutes to respond to, put the email in one of four places:

Repeat this process until you get to inbox zero. That might take a while. It’s worth it.

You can set up your Next Actions, Waiting For, Someday and Reference as folders in Gmail if you like, or you can move on to step 4.

Step 4: set up multiple inboxes

Here’s my inbox:

I have 10 new emails waiting to be triaged, and on the right I have my multiple inboxes: next actions, waiting for, delegated, and reference.

This is probably my favourite feature in Gmail, after the reminder that you’ve forgotten to attach something. I shamelessly ‘borrowed’ everything here from a guy called Andreas Klinger, so feel free to read his original post. 

Here’s how to set it up. 

Go to Gmail settings, and on the ‘General’ tab, scroll down to Stars, and drag and drop these into ‘In use.’

Then go to the ‘Inbox’ tab, change your inbox type to ‘multiple inboxes’, and create these these multiple inbox sections:

I like having my inboxes on the right, with 15 items, because that fits nicely on my screen, but feel free to change these to whatever you like.

If you want to copy and paste the queries and section names in, here they are:

Now, when you’re processing an email, you can either respond right away, or star it with the relevant icon to put it in the right inbox. To star an email, just click the star icon on the email a few times until it changes to the icon you want.

Step 5: keyboard shortcuts

Steps 1-4 should give you a clear workflow to reduce the burden of email. Now we just need to speed up the process. That’s where keyboard shortcuts come in.

Go to Gmail settings, click ‘Advanced’, and enable Auto-Advance. This means that when you archive or delete an email, you’ll go to the next email automatically.

Next, stay in Gmail settings, and go to the ‘General’ tab. Scroll down to Keyboard shortcuts, and toggle keyboard shortcuts on.

Lastly, stay on the General settings, make sure “Send and Archive” is turned off (I’ll explain why in a minute).


Now, burn these keyboard shortcuts into your mind, because they’ll do 90% of the heavy lifting for you. This is how we map the GTD workflow to the keyboard.

Here’s how this works in practice. First, open the email at the top of your inbox. 

Ask yourself, can I respond within two minutes? 

Auto-advance moves us to the next email, where we start the process again. 

If a response will take >2 mins, you can hit ‘s’ then ‘e’ to tag it as a next action, then archive.

With this setup you can fly through your inbox in record time.

Step 6: let’s get philosophical

This last step is much more strategic.

Why do you receive, and send, email? It’s a medium of communication just like any other.

So if you feel overwhelmed by email, think hard about what you can move into other comms channels. For example:

It’s easy to default to email, but there are many ways to send and receive information. Let’s be thoughtful about those, and use the best tool for the job.

Because after all, email is just a tool. We’re not here to send and read emails. Let’s conquer the email inbox once and for all, and free up time to do great work we can be proud of.

Thanks for reading. If you like this article, you might be interested in my upcoming course, Crush Your Job, where I teach people how to be super-effective in their day to day work. Click here and sign up to be one of the first to get access.

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