How to prevent your email from ruling your every waking moment

Monster spoke with author Jocelyn K. Glei about her new book, which aims to help you break free from your inbox so you can be more productive at work—and life.

How to prevent your email from ruling your every waking moment

Whether you’re one of those workers who looks at your email three times before you even eat breakfast, or you’re a job seeker who checks your email every few minutes for an offer, consider this your intervention.

The average person checks their inbox 74 times a day, according to a Microsoft Research study, and there’s evidence that the more frequently you check your email, the more stressed you feel. It’s time to break free from your inbox.

Jocelyn K. Glei, founding editor of creative insights publisher 99U, wants to help you regain the upper hand. Her new book, Unsubscribe: How to kill email anxiety, avoid distractions and get real work done, flips the script on the way you approach email, shifting from a perspective of blind, numbers-based productivity to a mindset guided by your creative priorities.

Monster spoke with Glei about how to filter out the noise, set boundaries and stay focused on your career goals. 

Q. We know it’s bad form to check our emails during a movie, while we’re with our families or when we’re on a date—and yet, we can’t help ourselves. After writing this book, what have you determined to be the root cause of us developing this annoying compulsion?

A. Number one is the concept of random reward, or this idea that your email is like a slot machine. Most of the time, you pull the lever and check your email and you lose. You get something that’s maybe not that great, like an email from an angry customer or an urgent message from your boss for a task you don’t feel like doing.

But every once in a while, you hit the jackpot, you get something great. Maybe it’s an invitation to speak at a conference or a recruiter reaches out to you. It’s those random rewards, mixed in with all that other junk, that keeps you wanting to press that lever and check your email again and again, even when you should be doing other things.

The other factor is the idea of completion bias, or the idea that your brain really likes to feel a sense of completion. When you complete a task, you get a little hit of dopamine and that makes you want to repeat that behavior again and again. That notion of completion bias means we’re predisposed to want to focus on short, easy-to-finish tasks, so we can see that completion, and [checking our] email is such a great embodiment of that.

Q. In your book, you talk about the importance of creating a system for checking email. Can you describe a healthy—and realistic—daily email routine?

A. One study about completion bias found that when people were trying to get going on hard, challenging tasks at work, they actually fared better when they started their day with a few simple, easy-to-complete tasks and then moved to the more challenging stuff. That actually made them more productive.

It’s not that you have to avoid checking email at the beginning of your workday, you just need to limit how much time you spend on it. In terms of realistic routines, you want to quickly process your email. Maybe check it three to four times a day for a certain period of time, depending on your volume of email, maybe 30 or 45 minutes.

Research has shown that the people who process their email single-mindedly in batches are more productive, less stressed and have a higher sense of wellbeing versus people who are constantly reacting and nibbling on their email all day. Where you put those batches really depends on your work schedule.

You’ll also want to combine that with other strategies to help you avoid feeling a fear of missing out when you’re not looking at your email. If there are certain people you can’t miss any email from, set up notifications on your phone so you’ll get a push notification [when they email you].

Q. You make the point in your book that if you received 200 letters in the mail, you would never think to respond to all of them and email should be no different. Approximately how many of the emails that we receive deserve a handcrafted response? And how should we wrangle all the other emails we get?

A. One way I like to think about it is the 80-20 rule, although, I actually talk about it in reverse in the book. It’s the idea that 20% of the emails you receive are going to produce 80% of the impact in the work that really matters to you. One in five emails are probably really urgent and/or deserves a handcrafted response.

How can you get strategic about clearing out all that other noise? I use an app called EasilyDo Email, and one of its best features is a one-touch unsubscribe button, so anytime you get a promotional email, you can unsubscribe immediately without having to leave your inbox.

For the questions you get again and again, I use an app called Canned Text, where you develop a series of template replies on your mobile phone.

Q. Emails are very easy for readers to ignore. What are some hacks for crafting an effective email that prompts action or a reply?

A. It’s important to understand that we usually write the emails that are maybe the most important to us—a pitch email, a job application—on a desktop, but almost all emails are going to be seen for the first time on a mobile phone.

It’s super important to preview those crucial messages that you want someone to pay attention to and take action, so you have an understanding of how digestible that email looks. Sometimes it looks reasonable on your desktop, then you size it down and it looks like an epic poem on a phone.

Get right to the point right away, and lead with the ask. Let them know what the email is about, what you are asking of them. You don’t want to be pushy, but you need to get your point across right away.

Establish your credibility. Tell them why they should care about you and why they should pay attention to what you’re asking of them, whether that’s using stats or something to legitimize yourself or your request.

Finally, make the way forward clear. Frequently, people write emails vaguely asking for something, but the next step isn’t really clear. You really want to be clear what the next action is, so it’s easy for them to say yes and they don’t have to write you back to even figure out what you’re asking in the first place.

Q. Subject lines are the first things people see when they check their inbox. Any tips for writing a clickable subject line?

A. You don’t want it to be too long. Questions are great; you want there to be some level of intrigue, but you don’t want it to seem like marketing.

Q. What about those quick “thank you” emails that can clutter up an inbox? Are they really necessary?

A. Because we’re so overloaded with email, a lot of time we think we’re doing the other person a favor by saving them the message and not saying thank-you, but that’s actually a mistake. There’s some research about expressing appreciation and saying thank-you that was done specifically with email that found when you say thank-you or express your appreciation to someone, they will be twice as likely to help you or to help anyone else in the future.

On the other hand, to cut down on email threads, it's really incumbent on us to do our best to close the conversation at every turn. Make sure to provide all of the information you can, so someone can just say yes or no and move on immediately.

For example, if you’re trying to schedule a meeting, throw out a few windows of time and a few dates, so they can pick one and respond right away. Or if you’re proposing a solution you want your boss to give approval on, instead of saying, “What do you think?” say, “Here’s what I think, let me know if you agree with this.”  Maybe even take it a step further and say, “If I don’t hear back from you by this time, I’m going to proceed with that solution.”

Q. There are so many articles about how to get your inbox to zero and articles that perpetuate the idea that a not-empty inbox means we’re terrible time managers. How realistic is that goal? And how bad should we feel if the possibilities of an empty inbox are less than zero?

A. You shouldn’t view your inbox as an audit of your productivity. Successfully managing your inbox means successfully managing your relationships. Email is about communicating with other people; it’s about your relationships with other people.

Who are the people who matter to you? Who are your VIPs? Who are the key collaborators who are helping the projects that matter to your career moving forward? And then who are the random people showing up in your inbox, asking you to do stuff that maybe isn’t aligned with your work goals?

You have to think about those categories and think less about inbox zero and more about taking care of the people who really matter to you, your career and what you want to accomplish. If you’re taking care of those people, then you’re fine. You don’t need to worry about taking care of all the random people who pop up in your inbox.


Author photo by Jonny Marlow.