Category Archives: Digital

Inbox Zero: Emails You Keep as Reminders

We’ve all had an email that we left in the inbox to serve as a reminder for something. Perhaps we even marked it as unread, thinking that would bring more attention to it. Maybe it’s a task we still need to do, maybe we can’t deal with it until next week, or maybe we’re worried the other person won’t get back to us in time and we’ll have to nudge them again. Regardless of the reason, we leave the email in the inbox as a reminder so we won’t forget.

The problem is, this is the exact opposite of how reminders are supposed to work. The brain is triggered by novelty (things that are new or different), and the brain adapts to repetition (things it sees all the time). The longer an email stays in your inbox, the more often you’ll choose to ignore it, the more it will become part of the scenery.

In contrast, a good reminder shows up when and where it is most useful. If an email can’t be dealt with until next Monday, that’s when you want it to appear in your inbox again. If it’s related to something you have to do at work tomorrow, that’s where you should see it. If you want to get those reminder emails out of your inbox, you’ll need to find a better system to remind of you things. Here are some of my favorite systems:

1. Boomerang for Gmail or Outlook

Boomerang is a free program (as a Chrome Extension for Gmail or in the Microsoft AppStore for Outlook) with two main features: 1) It gives you a Send Later button, allowing you to write emails now that won’t be sent until a specific time in the future, and 2) It has a boomerang function that will remove an email from your inbox but send it back to you under certain circumstances, such as “send this back to me if they don’t respond in two days”.

2. Calendars Reminders

In addition to adding date-specific reminders to your calendar like any other event, most calendar programs have the ability to set reminders for existing events. For example in my early days of employee reviews, I would set my Google calendar to email me 10 days before an employee’s anniversary so I could set up their annual review.

3. Task Management Apps

Any task manager worth using will include reminders as part of the system. My favorite is Asana. I can create a task, set a date for it, and throw it on the very bottom of my “Later” list, hidden from sight. A week before the due date Asana will automatically bring it into my “Upcoming” section, and on the due date it will show up in “Today.” This means I can throw any long-term tasks into Asana and forget about them, confident that I’ll be reminded when it’s time to do them.

4. Waiting Folder/Label

In my previous accounting job I often ended up with small issues that needed to be reconciled but were temporarily on someone else’s plate. For these things, I had a Waiting folder. Items that were currently someone else’s responsibility went in the Waiting folder, and I went through the folder every Friday to see who I needed to nudge. The key to making a Waiting Folder work is scheduling a regular time to look through it, otherwise items may get forgotten permanently.

5. Siri / Okay Google / Cortana

The majority of modern phones and computers have some kind of built-in digital assistant, and this feature can be great for capturing thoughts for later. I use Siri on my iPhone, and I’ll often tell her things like, “Remind me to email Brian when I get home” or “Remind me about tote bags tonight at 7PM”.

You may find yourself needing to use several different systems to account for all the different types of reminders you need in your life. I’m currently using four of the five I listed above. I would recommend starting with the system that feels most intuitive, and exploring the other options as needed.

We leave emails in our inbox to nag us, to keep being a bother until we finally do something about them. But if we can’t take action on it right now, that nagging is just another form of distraction.

Your Mission:

  1. Choose the reminder system(s) that seems most appropriate to your life and your emails
  2. Identify 1-3 emails you’ve left in you inbox as reminders
  3. Ask yourself “When and where will I need to see this next?” and replace each email with a reminder
  4. Check back in a week to see if more reminder emails have appeared, and if your current system(s) can accommodate them

Inbox Zero: Unsubscribe

When I teach classes on helping people get to and maintain Inbox Zero, I will sometimes get a lot of pushback on unsubscribing from things. Here are a few of the most common excuses I hear and why you should ignore them.

1. They’ll just add me back again later

Yes, its true that sometimes you end up being put on the same email lists over and over again. It could happen if you buy another product from the same company, if you sign up for something related, or if your email is on some publicly available list. But just because the problem may return at some point in the future doesn’t mean you have to put up with it in the meantime. You still clean your house even though it will just get dirty again later.

2. It never seems to work – I still get emails from the same company

Rather than having a single, central email list, many companies will have multiple lists based on what info they want to share. One list is for general news, one is for deals and offers, one is for a niche interest, etc. Theoretically these are so people receive the content most relevant to them, but unfortunately most companies start by putting you on every list and waiting for you to self-select out of the ones you don’t like. So maybe you did unsubscribe from the “Offers” mailing list, but you’re still subscribed to the “News” list. It may be annoying when you feel like you’re repeating the same action over and over, but eventually you will make it through each list and stop the onslaught.

3. It’s easier just to delete

In the moment, yes it is easier to just click the trash icon rather than finding the unsubscribe button, getting re-directed to another page where you might have to manually type in your address or uncheck a bunch of boxes, and then going back to delete the original email. But the difference is an extra 15 seconds now in order to never spend 3 seconds hitting the delete button for this company again. Taking the time to unsubscribe pays for itself quickly.

4. If I click unsubscribe they’ll know my address is good and send me more

There was a time when clicking on any link in an unwanted email could cause your address to get used and abused even more. However that’s not really how modern email scams work, and it’s not where the bulk of your unwanted email is coming from. Most of your unwanted email is coming from completely legitimate companies or individuals who are just trying to market themselves and their business. Most are doing so using companies like MailChimp which actively discourage malicious use of people’s email addresses. If you’re still suspicious, just think about the person or company the email came from. Is it really worth it to Target or Macy’s to sell your email to scammers? Or are they just going to auto-remove you from the list exactly as promised, because it’s not worth the negative response if they don’t?

(As an aside, I’ve often heard it repeated that you only have to worry about unsubscribe links that make you type in your own email, not the ones that do it automatically. This actually has more to do with the level of sophistication in their mail campaign program, not anything nefarious.)

5. I’ll just mark it as spam instead

While marking all unwanted emails as spam does generally work, I don’t recommend it because it’s a bit like using a machete instead of a scalpel. You’re relying on your email program to learn what you do and don’t want rather than telling the offending company directly. So your email may not catch everything you want it to, and it may overcorrect and start marking wanted emails as spam by accident. Additionally, if the company sending these unwanted emails changes their send address or mailing program, you may have to re-teach your spam filter that these emails are unwanted. Save the spam button for “Nigerian Princes” and “Cheap Prescription Drugs”.

6. It’s not that big of a problem

It’s easy to dismiss these unwanted marketing emails, or to say you “don’t really see them” and they don’t effect your work. But they do. Anytime your space is filled with something unwanted it effects you and how you live your life. This is especially true if you have any form of notifications set up for your email, such as sounds, buzzing, or badges. Every time you receive an email you get interrupted, and most of the time for no good reason. Even without notifications these unwanted emails are cluttering up your inbox, making it harder to see what’s important. This is especially true if there are some newsletters you actually want to read, because it’s easy to disregard them with everything else.

7. It’s such a big problem there’s no point in trying

Dealing with email, and especially unsubscribing from unwanted email, can sometimes feel futile. But I promise that small changes you make now will compound over time. The more you take the time to hit that unsubscribe button, the more automatic the habit will become. The fewer unwanted emails you get, the more obvious it will be to you when you’re added to new lists, and the more likely you are to keep unsubscribing.

When I working at a real estate brokerage my work email was on many of the same lists that were repeatedly used and sold to marketers and other agents for self-promotion. My flood of unwanted email should have been just as bad as the agents, but it wasn’t. This was because I was ruthless about unsubscribing from every unwanted list starting with the very first offense. This kept my inbox free from unwanted email most of the time, which meant when it appeared it was so obviously out of place that I couldn’t just gloss over it.

 

Your Mission

  1. Do a search for the word “unsubscribe” in your inbox.
  2. Find one of the worst offenders – either because they send so much or because they consistently send content you find worthless.
  3. Open one of the emails and unsubscribe.
  4. Do a search for that specific offender, most likely by searching for the company name or their email address.
  5. Delete all the existing emails you have from them.
  6. Repeat these steps 4-5 more times.
  7. Bask in a sense of deep satisfaction and revel in your dramatically improved inbox.