What distinguishes email from other digital communications is that it has become a world-writable to-do list. A world-writable to-do list is an abomination that steals our time, our attention, our autonomy, and our souls. It stops us from doing productive work.
We should resist email, and prefer most other form of communications. But until we kill the concept of email, we have to live with it. Here is how I kill my email before it kills me.
My to-do list items seem to have a bimodal distribution: there are things I can resolve in less than 2 minutes, and things that require work. For me, there isn’t much in between. So, I split my inbox into 2 sections, using Gmail’s Multiple Inboxes feature.
My main inbox is new to-dos that people have sent me. The 2nd section of my inbox is any email I’ve ‘starred’. I read my inbox from the bottom (oldest) up, either resolving them immediately or starring and archiving them if they can’t be resolved quickly. I then work my way up to the top, achieving 💖 Inbox Zero 💖. I do this about twice a day.
When burning down the inbox, I do not hesitate — I don’t put off burning down that thing whose subject line makes me anxious. There are only 2 possible outcomes, neither of which is too scary: either I’ll resolve it right then and there, or it goes into the starred list to be worried about later.
Then, I work my way through the list of starred items, again from oldest to newest, and un-star them as I finish them. These are the tasks that constitute work. When chewing through these, I consider whether they represent work that furthers my goals, if they are properly somebody else’s job, or if they are not all that important. I am ruthless about this: either this task is part of my job, or it is not. If I don’t think it is, bonk — unstarred. If it was really important for me to do, people will raise it again. If not, well, I have important things I need to achieve, and only 8 hours in the day.
I also use Gmail’s keyboard shortcuts. I find they help the initial inbox-murder phase go faster: when you’re skimming subject lines, you can assassinate many mails without even opening them. I archive everything in case I need to look it up later. I typically only delete messages that I sent myself to represent tasks, after I’ve completed them.
Needless to say, notifications are anathema and have no place in our wild and precious lives.
I also use Chrome’s ‘Shortcut’ feature to turn a tab into its own window. This allows me to fully maximize that window, with no browser controls. I find this minimizes distraction.
You’ll get this dialog box:
I then pin this window/app to my macOS Dock.
Go forth and kill email!