This is weird to say: I'm enjoying email these days. Part of that is because I'm spending less time on it than I have in years — that feels really good given that I have a higher volume of it than I've ever had. But part of it is because, thanks to this neat book, I'm starting to think of emails as letters.
Emails as letters?
What if email didn't exist and all that we had instead was physical mail? Here's how my three sources of email would look in that scenario:
- Work emails would go into a physical mail slot in the school I work in. I couldn't physically check it every hour — it's a five minute walk through the building. So, I'd have to check it once — maybe twice — per day.
- Personal emails would come to me through snail mail at my home address. Once per day, six days a week.
- And blog-related correspondence would come to me through snail mail the same way. Once per day, six days per week.
In all of these cases, I'd have two types of people trying to get in touch with me:
- Folks with something urgent. These would probably end up using telephone (or the loudspeaker at school).
- Folks with something non-urgent. These would keep using the mail.
And of course there'd be things I had subscribed to, and there'd be junk mail in there too. All of this stuff would need processing, and sometimes reading, and sometimes acting.
Would I want my life to be driven by my mailbox?
No — not at all. But when I live my life on default, that's kind of what happens with email. On default, it saturates and addicts.
- It's always open in a tab. So the second I get an urge to check it, I can.
- It's a default on my phone. So the second I get an urge to check it, I can.
- It feels productive to check and manage email. It's not all that productive, but it feels like it.
And the only reason the whole (crazy) email saturation default works is because some of it actually is important. Some of my emails are human beings that I'm meant to connect with, to encourage, to be encouraged by. Some of them are articles that are meant to challenge me, grow me, deepen me.
Treating emails like physical mail
So I'll share how I approach my three email inboxes and sprinkle in some critical principles and mindshifts as I go.
Treating work email like a physical mailbox.
I check my work email once per day, in the afternoon when my brain's tired of deep work and is in the market for something shallow. I set a timer for a stretch goal (e.g., 45 emails in 30 minutes, knowing that some will take a few seconds before I know I can archive them, others will take a minute or two, and those requiring more extended time may need a phone call or a different work block instead [e.g., I need to create a screencast walking through a common question I'm getting]).
It's also important to watch that I'm Only Handling It Once (OHIO). OHIO is life-giving — it honors the people who genuinely need to hear back from me (students, parents, colleagues, bosses) and it frees me from the slow-death Sarlacc pit that is unanswered email anxiety.
In the default mode of email, we don't do OHIO. Instead, we check it frequently but in such low-quality, unfocused doses that we're only ever able to make ourselves aware of what's there. We can't respond to the difficult parent/guardian email when we're reading for ninety seconds in the checkout line; we can't decide on scheduling that Zoom coffee with a colleague when we're in the middle of a paper marking session and don't want to hassle with our calendar right now.
(By the way: pay attention to how frequently you use the “Mark as Unread” button. That thing is the worst.)
All that we tend to accomplish with undisciplined work email checking is… Anxiety. Tension. Pressure.
Like those things? Not me. I've got plenty of sources of those already. That's why I need the discipline — and it is that! — of Only Handling It Once.
Sidenote: Do you carry a physical mailbox with you everywhere you go? Me neither.
Email isn't on my phone — not Gmail, not the native Mail app, not Helpscout (which I use for my blog inboxes.) When I used to travel sometimes for speaking work, I reasoned that I needed Gmail on my phone in case I had to access a hotel receipt or airplane ticket or a client communication.
About three months into COVID, I realized, “Dude. I'm probably not going to travel any time too soon. Why is email on my phone?”
(Sidenote within a sidenote: I don't know the password for downloading apps onto my phone — only Crystal does. This makes it harder for me to go on a download spree when I'm bored or craving novelty.)
Half a year with no email on my phone, and it's clear to me that the reason for having it on there — accessibility during travel — was dumb.
Don't carry physical mailboxes with you.
Treating personal email as a physical mailbox.
My personal inbox is kind of a no-man's land of subscriptions, spamishness, and the occasional email from a friend that matters.
- Subscriptions need to be evaluated each time you open one up. Do you really want to be receiving these? A while back I gave myself permission to unsubscribe from literally anything that I didn't like seeing in my inbox. Now I've got less than five email newsletter subscriptions — the rest are toast. I like to read these in a single sitting, once per week — during a time when I'm able to relax and let my mind expand a bit.
- Spam is fun to delete. It would be more fun to not have to delete it, but during that 1x/week that I'm processing personal email, it is nice to see the number go down so dramatically after I've selected anything I have no interest in reading and mass-archived.
- Emails from friends that matter are the letters. More about that in a bit.
(Also, I use SaneBox in my personal email. It helps with subscriptions and spam especially. I'm not sure if I'll renew it next year, but for now I do appreciate some of its features.)
Treating blog email as a physical mailbox.
Running the blog produces quite a few emails, mostly falling into three groups: product support (purchase orders, invoices), project development (emails about works in progress like books, blog posts, or speaking engagements), and correspondence from colleagues like you who read my work.
- Product support and project development emails usually go to the support_at_davestuartjr.com inbox, which I check a few times per week using the OHIO discipline.
- Product support stuff tends to be very quick — a link here, an invoice there, something not working for someone — and I know it's really nice for folks to hear back from me on these within a business day or two. The key here is to use OHIO and a stopwatch so that I don't get distracted, and I process the emails efficiently.
- Project development emails take a bit longer but also often have less urgency attached — I process these 1x/week, usually on Mondays. (There aren't a lot of them because of the amount of time that teaching and family require. I try to be stingy in how I choose projects.)
- And finally, correspondence from colleagues. These are letters!
A whole section on treating email correspondence like letters
The thing I love to do most in my inbox is to correspond with readers. I learn so much about our field through simple correspondences. But back when my inbox was an anarchist tyrant, these wonderful messages — about struggles, triumphs, appreciations — produced pressure.
Now… they don't. Because now I know that each Friday afternoon, I get to sit down, C. S. Lewis style, at my writer's desk, and I get to correspond from the fullness of my humanity with other people in the fullness of their humanity. When I write a blessing or a well wish in a message, I get to relish in the unseen power of that act, to think for a moment on the goodness I wish for the person I'm writing to. I get to meditate on the reality that this is a person that's written to me, and that I have no idea what may come of this relationship — what may come for me in my work and life or for them in theirs.
It's the last working hour of my week, and I love it.
So emails are letters. That's really helping this year, and I hope it helps you.
Huge thanks to Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky, whose book is charming, fun, encouraging, and sippable. It's been in my satchel most days this school year just because it's good and it helps.