We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us. Did you ever think what those [ties] are that underlie the railroad? Each one is a man, an Irishman, or a Yankee man. The rails are laid on them, and they are covered with sand, and the cars run smoothly over them.
—Henry David Thoreau, Walden
Email is the modern railroad. For many, a convenient tool to communicate with loved ones turned quickly into a primary source of nagging oppression and dread. We have stopped riding it and it now rides on us.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
Last week, I wrote (probably too much) about my big edit. I had initially anticipated including a section on email because email contributes more to our collective sense that we are “drowning in clutter” than any other aspect of life in the developed world in 2012. More than cabinets full of paperwork, more than overflowing bookshelves, sports equipment, computer cables. More than anything else, email clutters our existence.
But, I couldn’t really make the subject fit into that essay and decided that email is worth its own, separate discussion anyway.
Developing a better relationship with email and cultivating a quieter inbox is probably the single best thing you can do to get a quieter mental state. 
Later in this essay, I’m going to offer a few tips, tricks, and tools for you to consider using to process the flood of emails and quiet your inbox. However, and this is important nothing—no application or service—will save you if you do not first develop a healthier perspective about your email and redefine your relationship to it.
For this work, this work of deciding how much authority you are willing to cede to your inbox over your time and attention, there’s nobody better than Merlin Mann. Merlin chafes when labeled as a “productivity guru” and for good reason.
As Merlin explains in his foreword to David Sparks’s excellent book, iPad at Work, “productivity gurus” often profit by peddling the false notion that what you really need is a better way to work. Better tools, better processes, etc., etc., etc. That is, they convince you that if you just had this one thing, THEN you’d be able to write that novel. This is not true. What you need to create a novel is not a better word processor but the willingness to sit your ass down and type. And suck. And come back again tomorrow.
What we all really need to do is to work hard at the things we love and occasionally—only occasionally—look up from that work, look around briefly, see if there’s anything available that will help us work better, and then get back to work.
I hope this essay will be one of the only articles you take time to read about email because, frankly, you shouldn’t have time to read many more. (So, I’ll try to make this one good.)
With all this said, Merlin’s hour-long talk at Google about email, called Inbox Zero, is now canonical and required viewing for anyone wanting to develop a healthier relationship with their email (and, really, anything that is going to consistently demand more of your time and attention than it probably deserves).
Because our time is short, I will only say that I think it’s worth your time to decide how much of your life you are willing to give to email. And, I think it’s worth a small investment of time to get marginally better at email. (Seriously, stop reading this and watch Merilin’s talk.)
Okay, let’s talk about some basic moves you can make that are going to improve your email game significantly and give you a quieter inbox.
1) Probably the best way to get a quieter inbox is to get fewer emails. I’ll admit it: I am borderline crazy about not signing up to receive email from companies or organizations. And, if I accidentally do sign up and emails start hitting my inbox, I click the “unsubscribe” link at the bottom of the email almost every time. If the sender doesn’t have a heartbeat, it’s probably not landing in my inbox.
Sometimes, giving an email address is unavoidable. Consider setting up a dummy email address for all the dummies who want your email address. One that you use only for commercial transactions.
On the topic of getting fewer emails…let’s talk about spam. Look, it’s 2012. We’ve beaten spam. If you’re still using an email provider that allows spam through, that’s on you. I run all of my email addresses through my gmail account. Yes, Google is getting creepier, but I’m willing to put up with creepy in exchange for massive storage and bombproof spam filtering. For a less creepy service, check out fastmail.com.
I want to go through a few more basic moves you can make, but keep reading to the end for some ninja moves to get a quieter inbox.
2) Turn notifications off in your email client. Whether this is Microsoft Outlook, Apple’s mail.app, Sparrow, a web-based email provider, whatever.
Allowing the distraction of a ding or a pop-up is inexcusable. Your work is important. Stop allowing email to interrupt it.
3) Use rule-based filtering to send listserv emails directly to a separate folder or folders. That stuff does not need to be in your inbox.
4) Develop a task management system that will allow you to read an email, determine the action you need to take as a result of that email, place that action in the task management system, and archive that email. In other words (and stated negatively, which I know is sort of frowned upon by psychologists if you hope to change a person’s behavior) STOP USING YOUR INBOX AS A “TO DO” LIST. If I have to explain to you why this is insanity, you clearly have not taken my advice to watch Merlin’s talk about email and do not deserve further explanation from me.
Regarding archiving: I wrote at length in the essay about my big edit about how any taxonomy you create in life should be commensurate with the likelihood that you will need to retrieve information from the classification system and how quickly you will need to retrieve that information. And here’s the thing, in 2012 search functionality in every major email client is so good that my classification system consists exclusively of a folder called “Archive”. That is, the only question I need to answer before I can decide where an email goes is, “Is it possible I will need this email again someday?” If the answer is “Yes”, it goes in my archive folder. If the answer is “No”, I press “Delete”. (If you use Apple's Mail.app and decide you want/need a higher level of organization than an "Archive" folder, consider MailTags as a solution. Combining MailTags with the developer's Mail Act-On program supercharges Apple's Mail.app.)
I’ve had this system in place for over four years and have never been unable to find an email (or thread of emails) I needed within 30 seconds of searching. I know people—smart people—who devote their valuable—very valuable—time and attention to dragging and dropping individual emails into a complex taxonomy of folders and subfolders and sub-subfolders. This is madness. Stop the madness.
5) Designate specific times of the day to read and process email. Spend the rest of your time on actual work. If you fail to corral email into specific, designated chunks of time, it has a way of creeping into the rest of your day and taking over. You know what I’m talking about. I have to admit, I’m not as good at this as I want to be. Yet.
Notice that I’m not saying, “ Only check email when you arrive at the office and before you leave work”. Or, “ Check email at the top and bottom of every hour.” Your job is different than my job and you have to determine for yourself the maximum amount of time you can spend away from email and not get fired. That’s why they pay you the big bucks. For me, depending on the day, the maximum time away from email is probably once every hour. If you have the kind of job where you need to be constantly checking email, maybe consider finding another job because that’s no way to live.
Consider adopting the Pomodoro Technique to avoid the temptation to dip into your email.
As I’ve already explained, the real ninja move is deciding that email will not dominate your life. The real ninja move is putting email in proper perspective and in its proper place given our ultimate job as human beings to love one another and make life better for everyone.
How much is our constant attention to email promoting that mission?
Within the understanding that no service or system will develop the proper perspective on email for you, I have recently discovered a couple services that are worth mentioning because of how well they work to quiet your inbox.
I started using unroll.me a few months ago as a way to unsubscribe from tons and tons of email lists to which I had become inadvertently subscribed. You give them your email address, they look at your emails, determine what companies and organizations are sending you emails, and provide an easy interface from which you can massively unsubscribe. Then, for the lists to which you decide to remain subscribed, unroll.me consolidates each one of those individual emails you would have received into one daily email digest.
The service is free.
About a month ago, I heard about a service called SaneBox from Brett Terpstra (Terp! Stra!) on Mac Power Users. Basically, SaneBox works by only allowing email into your inbox that it thinks is important. Everything else goes into a folder called “SaneLater” for you to check at your leisure. Out of the gate, the algorithm SaneBox has developed works beautifully to determine an email’s importance. During the first two weeks, I think I needed to move one email from the SaneLater folder to my Inbox. (And, SaneBox watches these actions and refines its algorithm based on how you treat your email.)
SaneBox is a great service. It dramatically reduces the incoming traffic to my inbox so that I can process my inbox (when I check it) much more quickly and get back to work. Then, when I check my SaneLater folder (once a day or so), I can quickly scan to see what happened on Facebook and Twitter, see if an email got put in the SaneLater folder that shouldn’t have (it didn’t), and check my unroll.me digest of mass-mailing emails. This digest lands directly in my SaneLater folder; Unroll.me within SaneBox twice removes me from most of email’s bullshittiest bullshit.
It’s worth it.
I know, you are so used to not paying for things on the internet, but here are two things to consider. First, services that you don’t pay for with money, you pay for with your eyes. If you’re not the customer, you’re the product and the company’s business model likely involves advertising to you (Google and Facebook) or monetizing you (Instagram). Second, businesses that don’t make money don’t stay in business. Services that you don’t pay for can go away. Fast. I do not want SaneBox to go away. It has dramatically improved my email game.
* * * * *
Email is awesome. I’m glad I grew up in a time before email and lived until a time when email became commonplace because we truly live in a miraculous age. At the beginning of email, it was a miracle. I specifically remember sitting in a computer lab in Madrid, Spain in 1997, emailing my family, and staring in slack-jawed awe at Hotmail. Then, email became a burden and a bane because we hadn’t developed the tools—psychological and technological—to relate to email in a way that wasn’t insane.
That is no longer the case.
It’s 2012: email can be a miracle again.
Quickly, let me say this about people and organizations who send out mass emails without offering the recipients a way to unsubscribe: they are awful people and awfuler organizations. When I receive a mass email that does not contain a way to unsubscribe, I usually respond with a TextExpander snippet that allows me to type “;unsubscribe” that then expands to read: “Please unsubscribe me from this list. You really should put an ”unsubscribe“ link on any emails you are sending to an email list. Just a suggestion: You may want to look into a MailChimp account for sending out email blasts. It’s free for lists of up to 2,000 people and you can send up to 12,000 emails a month. Good templates, too.” I sort of think it’s everybody’s job to make everybody else a little better, or at least a little more considerate, about email. ↩
This directive includes removing the red badge that screams at you from your iPhone’s mail app: “You’ve got four messages waiting on you! What are you doing enjoying lunch??? YOU’VE GOT MAIL!” I’ve turned off the badge and I’ve turned off “push” behavior on my phone so that my phone is only checking for mail when I go to the mail app. ↩
Again (as I explained in My Big Edit, I use OmniFocus for a task management system, but that’s because I’m awesome. You’ve got to get a system that works for you. Reading Getting Things Done is not a bad place to start. ↩
Yes, I am aware that for many of us, email is actual work. That is, part of our jobs is to check and respond to email. But, unless you work in customer service as an online customer service representative, it’s probably not your entire job. ↩
In reality, it is probably much longer than this. Very rarely is something so urgent that it needs my attention now rather than perhaps three to four hours from now. ↩
Full disclosure: if you use any of the SaneBox links in the body of this post to subscribe to the service, I get a small credit for referring you to the service. Like, 5 bucks. So, just assuage concerns that I'm recommending this service because I want some sort of kickback rather than recommending it because it is awesome and it works, here's a link to SaneBox that won't give me a referral credit. ↩