Oh email how we hate it. We can spend an entire day in the office pushing email and feel like we did nothing of value. For most of us that sentiment is true. We did almost nothing of value with our email time.
This state is a place we all exist in at some point. Some try to solve it by subscribing to ‘inbox zero’. Many swear inbox zero changed their life. Others wonder how on earth inbox zero did anything but increase email stress.
This is where Unsubscribe by Jocelyn K. Glei comes in.
The true source of our love-hate relationship with email is that we treat it like a task when it’s actually a tool. We cede control of our workday – and our to-do lists – to the dictates of others in pursuit of a mirage called “inbox zero”
Glei’s goal is to help you master email but not in the way that others have tried to help you with some plan to sort it all. She wants to flip your email script so that you think of it like the tool it is and not the life management software we’ve let it become.
By the time you finish Unsubscribe you will have mastered how to think about, manage, and write email with less anxiety and more grace, freeing you up to focus on the work that really matters – the stuff of building a legacy, not just keeping busy.
She breaks the book up in to 4 main sections. First she looks at the neuroscience behind how we deal with email. Second she talks us through the development of a new strategy with our email which puts our meaningful work back at top priority. Finally, she provides us with a series of tips to deal with email and templates of great emails we can use with our interactions.
Part 1: Psychology
After you complete this little therapy session, you will have the proper foundation to begin building an effective email strategy and style as well as a wealth of ammunition for defending yourself against email’s many psychological evils.
The thing about email is that it makes it so easy to feel productive. It’s a way to be very visibly productive because others are getting your emails.
If you send and answer e-mails at all hours, if you schedule and attend meetings constantly, if you weigh in on instant message systems like Hall within seconds when someone poses a new question, or if you roam your open office bouncing ideas off all whom you encounter — all of these behaviors make you seem busy in a public manner. – Deep Work
Add to this visible productivity the fact that sending an email is a completed task. Our brain rewards us for the completed task with dopamine. Jumping in to email and ‘dealing with it’ reinforces the behaviour that we likely shouldn’t be doing.
When you recognize a task as complete, your brain releases the neurotransmitter dopamine, which makes you feel good and makes you want to repeat the behavior again to feel more pleasure.
This reward is the allure of inbox 0. By processing each email we’ve ‘done’ something and we get our happy reward. Nevermind that if you wait 3 seconds you’ll have an inbox with more email in it again.
Instead of starting your day with email, Glei, tells us to decide our most important tasks the night before. Then get in to the office and do those tasks before you open email.
Instead of tracking inbox zero, start tracking the number of words you’ve written for your site or the number of books you’ve read this year or the number of prospects you’ve reached out to this week.
Your inbox will always have something more for you. Just let it be there and do the good work you should be doing.
Part Two: Strategy
With a new understanding of email and it’s pervasive rewards for simply pushing it around, Glei now walks us through a better strategy for dealing with the beast that is email. She does this is two main parts. First, we zoom out and look at our goals. Second, with our goals in mind we get tactical and craft a daily email routine that allows us to accomplish our goals.
Starting with the first point, Glei says that we should be writing down our goals and keeping them in front of us all the time. With them staring us in the face it’s much harder to excuse our lack of progress towards the goals as we tackle email and ‘be productive’.
Another key point that Glei makes is how we decide to respond to email. It’s a faulty assumption that every email needs to be responded to within 24 hours. Some can way a few days. Some a few weeks. Some never need to be answered at all.
Your relationship to the person emailing you should govern its importance-or lack thereof.
I use this strategy in my responses (or lack of) to people that randomly email me to add content to my site. Most of these requests are some script I’ve seen many times. They ask me to tell them I’m not interested, but that puts the burden on me. Choosing not to reply tells them I’m not interested just as well as saying no and means I do nothing but delete the email.
Glei provides us with 5 categories of people.
- VIP: Boss, main client and these people need attention right away as in a few hours at most.
- Key Collaborators: like main colleagues who may need something from you. 1 – 3 days response
- Fun people: they are more fun to talk to than ‘needed’ in work. Friends, family, colleagues. If you’re busy then 2 weeks is fine for a response
- Potentials: possible clients or people that have been introduced to you. They may be important in the future and can wait for a few days to get responses. If it’s an introduction then it’s from a trusted contact
- Random: Everyone else. and you may not even respond to them
She also reminds us that we need to keep these groups as small as possible until we get to the last group. I’d add here that none of the groups should be set in stone. Even those ‘fun people’ that you want to communicate may fall in to Random if you’re really busy.
Be wary of letting random emails chip away at your productivity – life is too short to let strangers dictate what you do with your day.
She finishes off with a number of other tips to help you handle email like:
- don’t check email more than 2x a day
- set a time limit and put it on the calendar and stick to that time (mine is 25 minutes)
- also put your meaningful work time on the calendar and do it first
Not everything is urgent. This is the mantra you must internalize to take control of your email. Of course, the challenge is that most everyone who sends you a message tends to be convinced that their correspondence truly is urgent.
Part 3 Style :How to write emails that provoke reaction
In this section on style, I’ll outline how to write effective emails in a world where everyone is busy and attention is scarce.
Assuming that you follow many of her ideas, how on earth do you get your email read? What if the person on the other end you desperately want to talk to puts you in their ‘random’ bucket?
Here is where Glei goes further than many people that write about managing email. She provides you with a bunch of tips and then templates for emails that have a higher likelihood of getting attention.
When everyone is busy, a key part of getting people to pay attention is being respectful of their time. In the context of composing email this means being clear, concise, and actionable.
Some of her tips include:
- lead with the ask so they know the time investment up front
- make the next action clear, like a link to your meeting schedule
- don’t just ask questions, propose solutions to the problem at hand
- use bullets so your email is scannable
- add a deadline
- don’t reply all
- don’t email when hungry, angry or tired
I use many of these. Recently I got an email that attacked my integrity. While my first response was to fire back full force, I took a few minutes and played with my smiling 10 month old. With her smiles changing my mood I wrote a short email and left it at that.
Glei’s tips also bring to mind one I’ve used for a while which is often called “unless I hear otherwise”. In this you propose a solution and then say “unless I hear otherwise I’m going to go ahead with this tomorrow.” Clearly the date you’re moving forward can change based on the circumstances but this means there is a clear action and deadline right in the email.
Part 4: Superpowers – How to use your new arsenal of email skills to conquer social media, technology and other distractions
The rise of smartphones, text messaging, and social media have each had an equally seismic impact on how we live and how we work: smartphones made location obsolete, text messages made talking obsolete, and social media made privacy obsolete.
The final section of the book is much like another great book called Deep Work (my review) and Cal Newport’s ‘any benefit mindset’. This is the idea that if there is ‘any benefit at all’ we must adopt a new thing.
There is benefit to getting email on our phone when we need to have a mobile office, but that doesn’t mean we should take the next step and check our email regularly from our phone.
In essence every new technology acts like a pop quiz for our priorities, offering new delights and distractions that compete for our attention. The upside is that we are never at a loss for something to entertain or absorb our minds. The downside is a corrosive, minute-to-minute brand of choice anxiety that requires us to constantly make decisions about when, where, and how much attention we give an item, app, or task. We must decide, over and over again, which activities are worthy of our concerted focus and which are unproductive distractions.
In my house we’ve decided that I put my phone in do not disturb mode almost all the time. That means my wife can vent about a bad day with the kids and I don’t see it until I pick up my phone. I don’t get interrupted and since 99% of the time she doesn’t really need a reply she gets to vent. If there is a proper emergency she calls which always rings through for her, my only VIP that gets to ring through all the time.
This means I get to focus fully on the task at hand without distractions. I get to apply my focus fully instead of in fits and spurts between things that are not relevant to getting my best work done.
Success has always gone to those who could apply their talents in a single-minded manner over an extended period of time to achieve a given outcome.
Finally, Glei provides us with a bunch of email templates we can use. Many of them are great, but I hate a few as well. Particularly her advice on negotiating rates for your work are terrible. It entirely ignores the value you bring and puts you in a discount race to the bottom.
As with any email templates (even mine), make sure you don’t use them without rewriting them to suit your business needs.
If you’re struggling with email then yes Unsubscribe by Jocelyn Glei is a great book. It’s a short read with lots of great advice you can put in to practice today to make your email stop sucking up so much time.
photo by: stavos52093