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Seven Ways to Get Control Over Your Inbox

How to become the master of your email domain

by Austin O’Connor

Work
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If you’re at your computer reading this, and you’ve been online for a few hours, there’s a good chance you’ve already compulsively checked your email a couple dozen times. If you’re reading this at work, the odds that you’re distracted by your inbox are even better: Studies show that checking email takes up more than a quarter of the work week for the average office employee, and that the average worker bee checks email 11 times each hour.

The dawn of the internet ushered in what creative productivity expert Jocelyn K. Glei calls the “age of distraction.” Glei examines the modern worker’s complicated relationship with email in her upcoming book, Unsubscribe: How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distraction and Real Work Done, which hits bookstores in October. “We’re living in this age where there’s an enormous strain on our attention,” Glei says, noting that even with the explosion of text messaging and social media, email remains the single biggest offender. “Think about how many browsers and tabs you have open at any given time, how many emails, how many alerts and notifications you get. It’s kind of insane.”

Used judiciously, of course, email has improved the life of the average worker. “You don’t have to play phone tag,” says Atlanta-based productivity expert Peggy Duncan. “You don’t have to rely on someone else to relay your message. You can attach documents. You can send a link directly. It’s the misuse of email that’s the problem.”

See also: How To End Inbox Insanity

The explosion of smartphones over the past decade has made a challenging situation almost impossible to control. There was a time, not that long ago, when being briefly out of touch was acceptable. If someone called or stopped by your home or office, they’d leave a voicemail or a note, the expectation being a courteous response in a reasonable amount of time. Then came email, and that reasonable response time was cut down to “whenever you read this.” We now live in the age of the smartphone, a device that, in combination with email, has slashed the notion of the reasonable response time down to “right now!”

“The way email follows you around creates this sort of sense of 24/7 urgency,” says Glei. “That creates a lot of anxiety and stress for people.”

Exacerbating the issue is what Glei calls—a touch ominously—the rat brain: It turns out that people checking email behave a lot like the rats in “Skinner boxes” in early 20th century science experiments in which rodents pressed a lever over and over in hopes of being given a food reward. The more unpredictable the pattern of reward was, the more often the rats pressed the lever.

A person checking email, compulsively clicking to see whether any new messages have arrived in their inbox, is like that rat, says Glei, chasing the high of a fresh email. Whether it brings a wanted or unwanted message is beside the point. The mere appearance of a new email is the brain’s reward.

Ready to retrain your brain? Here are seven good habits to boost your productivity and wrestle back control of your email:

1. Check your mail in batches.
Studies have shown that people who check email more frequently are more stressed and less happy. That’s not a recipe for productivity, whatever your task at hand. Take control of your day by scheduling specific times when you’ll check your email. How many batches you schedule depends on your workload and lifestyle, but Glei recommends two or three times per day, reading and responding to emails for a half hour to an hour each time.

2. Fall in love with filters.
While it would be nice if everyone agreed to follow the first tip and handle email in batches, it’s not always doable—especially if you’re working on an important project or an important event is looming. In that case, create a filter to search for words related to the project, and direct all those emails to a separate folder. That way, when an email that requires a fast response arrives, you’ll know. You should have this option no matter what email service you use. At work, Duncan advises creating separate folders for messages from internal and external senders.

3. Turn off push notifications.
Nothing stops a great burst of progress and creative productivity like a new email notification sliding onto the top of your screen. If a ding or ring accompanies it, the brain hiccup is even worse. Those notifications pull your mind away from the task in front of you; Glei’s book cites research that shows multitasking lowers your IQ the equivalent of ten points. Smarten up and toggle off those alerts and notifications.

“The way email follows you around and creates this sort of sense of 24/7 urgency—that creates a lot of anxiety and stress for people.”

— Jocelyn K. Glei, creative productivity expert

4. When appropriate, “Slack” off.
More and more companies are utilizing real-time instant collaboration tools like Slack or HipChat, which allow co-workers to send messages to each other related to a certain project. It’s instant messaging designed for people working in groups, and it reduces their need for email. But Glei doesn’t see it as a true threat to email’s dominance. “Slack is great for certain usages and for working collaboratively in a dynamic way,” she says, “but email is ideal for asynchronous communication. You want to use it when you don’t need or expect an instant response from people. You’re never going to send a cover letter in Slack.”

5. Be proactive, not reactive.
If you start to feel like you’re spending most of your day inside your email inbox responding to an escalating series of seemingly silly requests, you may be stuck in reactive mode. Before you know it you’ve spent your entire day solving other people’s problems. “It’s really easy to get sucked into busy work and not really get to any of the work that is a little bit more creatively satisfying,” says Glei. She says reactive work can be addictive because of the psychological satisfaction that comes with checking things off a to-do list, even if the to-do list isn’t yours. Think of it this way: If all you’re doing is other people’s busy work, all you’ll ever be is busy, and your own important projects will fall by the wayside. Be proactive by thinking clearly about what you need to get done. A lack of clarity about your creative priorities “allows other people’s demands dictate what you do with your day.”

6. Don’t be afraid to delete.
When it comes to email, too many of us are hoarders. There’s no reason to keep thousands and thousands of messages in your inbox. “Stop using your inbox for storage,” says Duncan. “It’s not a warehouse.” She stresses that any message you deemed important enough to merit a response can be retrieved from your sent box. If you’re worried about losing pictures or documents during a mass delete, create a folder for all emails with attachments and store them there. Just don’t forget to winnow down that folder at least once a week, moving any important pictures or documents to your hard drive.

7. Unsubscribe to junk email senders.
If your inbox is overstuffed with unwanted newsletters and promotions pushed your way whether you asked for them or not, you’re not alone. And there is a fast solution. Those senders are required to give the recipient an option to be removed from their lists, so here’s an easy, quick way to rid yourself of the annoyance: Do a word search within your email for “unsubscribe.” You’ll end up with a convenient lineup of all the offenders. From there, just click through and—zap!—remove your address from any or all of them. Prepare for a shot of emotional satisfaction each time you do it. You’ll be putting the email monster back in his proper place—under your control—so you can spend more time focusing on what is truly important to you.

See also: Talking to Customers: Email, Text or Phone?