WE all have that friend who never lets their phone battery get below 70%, has a 10-year savings plan and — most frustratingly of all — seems to always be on top of their inbox flow, with their important emails filed away in neatly organised folders.
If you’re anything like me though, your desk is littered with empty coffee cups, your clothes are haphazardly strewn around your bedroom and your inbox can be described as ‘organised chaos’ at best.
And that’s OK; Albert Einstein was famously messy, and recent studies have found that people with disorderly desks tend to be more creative on the whole.
What’s not OK though, is getting into work and having a mini-meltdown over the number of unread emails in your inbox, when you’ve got a whole list of other things to be getting on with.
Unread emails equate to insidious clutter on the brain, and just like working in an unclean space, having the spectre of hundreds (or even thousands) of unanswered requests can really start to take its mental toll.
When I’ve paid my bills, cleaned my room, banked eight hours sleep, worked out and drank a small lido’s-worth of water, I feel so much more prepared to take on the day— and the same goes for the state of my Outlook account.
That’s why we should all be practising a thing I’ve discovered called ‘inbox mindfulness’. It sounds like an oxymoron — surely being connected to tech is the opposite of being mindful? But it’s really not.
Because being conscious about the fact an out-of-control Hotmail account can leave you feeling frazzled is always a good thing. Plus, taking manageable steps to fix it can help you to live more peacefully in the present moment.
It’s not about checking your emails 24/7 or staying constantly connected to work. It’s about recognising that emails can trigger stress, which causes up to 40% of all workplace illnesses (so says an HSE report), and therefore, a certain proportion of your working day should be spent keeping your emails in a healthy state.
Thankfully, there are loads of easy tips and tricks that can help you achieve digital nirvana. Here are just a few I’ve found helpful...
1. Go through your emails first thing in the morning
It sounds obvious, but there are mornings where I’m so busy with other things that I only have the chance to do a quick scan of my inbox for the important stuff, and then I don’t get around to looking at my emails properly until lunchtime.
This isn’t great, because I constantly have the niggling feeling that I’ve missed something important.
Now I’ve made it a rule to set aside at least 20 minutes each morning to click through everything that’s come in, before I move on to any other tasks.
If your inbox regularly fills you with trepidation, make a relaxing playlist, brew a calming herbal tea and tackle it before anything else — email by email.
2. Clear out the junk
Mass delete any emails you know you don’t need, like notifications from social media or newsletters from retailers. The easiest way to do this is by searching your inbox for common senders or subject lines (for example: Pinterest notifications), highlighting and deleting them all at once.
3. Get a nice folder system going
Every organised inbox owner will have one thing in common — they file away their emails in folders. It’s a really simple thing to do, but it makes your inbox so much more user-friendly.
Every job will have different folder needs, but I’ve found it’s always helpful to have one for account login information.
I can’t tell you how much time I’ve wasted searching for software passwords floating around in my general email flow.
4. Get into the habit of deleting unwanted emails
I used to keep every email I received, but this is such a drain on your storage, can cause your computer to crash and makes searching for important emails more cumbersome.
Now every time I get an email that I know I won’t need in the future, it goes straight into the bin, Marie Kondo-style.
5. ...And archiving any you may need in the distant future
If you’ve finished with an email, but you’re not sure if you’ll need it later on, archive it instead of deleting it (you can normally do this by right clicking on the email and selecting ‘Archive’).
This removes it from your inbox pane but keeps it in the system, should you ever need to revisit it in the future.
6. Colour categorise
This is a bit more fiddly to do but so worth it in the long-run. Categories can help to organise the emails in your inbox, so you can tell what’s still pending and what’s completed.
You basically choose a colour to represent a different category — I tend to use red for emails that ‘need a response’ and blue for emails that are ‘done’.
Once you’ve added the colour categories (again, usually a right-click job), you can get an overview of which emails you still need to focus on. You can also use categories to sort through your emails.
So, for example, if you spend one day a week filing your emails, you can quickly locate all the ‘done’ emails, and then move them to their corresponding folders.
7. Unsubscribe from annoying promotional emails in one fell swoop
New GDPR regulations that came into effect this year mean most of us have said goodbye to spammy prize-draw offers and ‘50% off’ sale emails from retailers.
But if you’ve accidentally opted in to a few, Unlistr lets you mass unsubscribe from annoying promotional emails that you might have unwittingly signed up to.
It basically finds all your email subscriptions and allows you to easily opt out of them on iOS, Android or in Outlook, rather than trawling through them all individually.
8. Set up some rules
If you use Outlook, there’s a tool called ‘Rules’ that can make emails auto-filter into a folder.
Once you set up a rule, any new messages that arrive to your inbox will be taken care of as per the rules you’ve created for yourself. This is particularly handy if you get lots of emails on a daily basis.
For instance, you could have emails from your boss automatically moved into an ‘urgently reply’ folder, while newsletter and offer emails you may want to read, but not right away, can be funnelled into a ‘read later’ folder.
Simply setting up a few rules can help make your inbox look so much less intimidating on first open.
9. Finally, be real with your holiday time
Part of being mindful with your inbox is in setting healthy expectations of how often you’re going to access it.
If you’re going on holiday, and if it’s reasonable to do so, let your team know you won’t be opening your work emails, otherwise you won’t properly unplug and unwind.
Out Of Office messages are usually short and polite, but there’s no reason why you can’t use them to your benefit. Let people know to email you again on the Monday when you’re back in the office if it’s urgent, otherwise their email will be deleted.
It’s a bit of a brutal approach, but imagine how much less apocalyptic the first day back in the office would feel without a mountain of unread emails to get through.
Inbox zen? With a few easy tweaks and a bit more honesty, it’s totally achievable