There is a strange desire for more within our culture. More apps. More programs. More devices. More ways to pay. More places to subscribe. As a connected society, we are constantly being offered more and increasingly specialized products.
Having a camera app isn’t enough. We want a camera app specifically for taking pictures of documents.
Having a PDF reader isn’t enough. We want a special app that can scroll the PDF and read it out loud.
Having a text editing app isn’t enough. We want a minimalist distraction-free writing space that plays meditation chimes in the background and has customizable keyboard sounds.
Okay, that last one might be an exaggeration, but you get the point: we’re faced with an ever-expanding field of digital things to have.
While it can be highly valuable to find just the right tool for the job, we get distracted by the very process of looking. We spend hours reading websites dedicated to telling us about new great things.
Yet after all this searching, I’ve come away with a dramatically opposite conclusion: Use less technology to accomplish more things.
If you’re a regular reader at The Minimalists, you don’t need me to tell you that less can often be more.
Less possessions means less things to break and replace, less to buy, and more money saved.
A smaller house or apartment means less time cleaning and maintaining, more time to pursue your passions.
In everyday life, we hear the phrase “less is more” so often that it’s become cliche. But the number of people who actually live a “less is more” lifestyle are few and far between. Of course, when it comes to paring down, some areas of our lives are a lot easier to address than others. Getting rid of the majority of your possessions is difficult due to the emotional connections we have with our things.
There’s one area that I think is relatively untapped, in which adopting a more minimalist mentality isn’t too difficult, and offers huge gains in the form of time savings, and stress reduction.
That area? Email.
Think about it: For most of us, our email inboxes are the epicenter of our lives. Personal and professional communication all mixed up in a stew of disorganization.
The newest things are on top. Older things are pushed to the bottom or onto the next page, with no regard for importance. Most are things that don’t require immediate action—things we could read later, file for reference, or delete right off the bat.
Before I addressed this problem in my own life, the volume of email I received created the perfect opportunity to procrastinate. I could avoid responding to the more important messages by cleaning up and moving around the unimportant ones.
The task of maintaining my inbox took precedence over actually taking action, as critical items would get pushed down the page and I would deal with the junk that just kept flowing in on top. This task was complicated by the fact that I had both personal and professional emails all flowing into the same place with no system for determining which was which.
The solution to my problem only came after I realized that I didn’t need any other product, app, or gadget to solve it. The tools that I needed were already built into the mail program I use (Gmail), and I only needed to learn how to use them to create a better system.
The basis of my system is what Gmail refers to as filters. A filter is a set of actions that you tell Gmail to enact when it finds a message that matches specific criteria. If you get a message like X, do Y to it. Simple, but powerful.
Over the course of years of experimenting and trying things out, I developed a system that keeps my inbox automatically organized.
The changes I’ve experienced as a result have been what you might expect: Of the time I spend dealing with email, I spend the majority of it writing or responding to important messages. I spend a small fraction of it actually organizing or finding the important things. They are automatically called out and highlighted before I ever open my inbox.
Gmail is by far the most popular mail service out there, but do you think that most people using it have created a system that organizes their email? Doubtful.
What’s holding you back? Just like getting rid of your possessions, deciding what email is important and what email isn’t forces you to choose. You do have to let go of certain things and decide they are less critical than others. It’s this process of letting go that people often have trouble with.
Some of the things I ultimately decided I could let go were all social media email notifications, nearly all email newsletters, all “deal” or coupon notifications, and all message board notification. This list may be a starting point for you—the point is that every person must decide for themselves what they are willing to forgo seeing “at the top” of their inbox, in order to gain more clarity and focus on what they define as important.
But where to begin? Focus on what’s important. Create a folder or just use the star in Gmail to start collecting samples of messages that you find are important. Do this over the course of 1 or 2 weeks, and you will soon have a good sampling of what should be high priority in your inbox. Now you can look through them and determine how you’ll teach Gmail to treat the message. Is it from a specific person? Certain domain? Specific subject? Does it have an attachment?
These are all criteria that can be used when you create your filters and teach your inbox to organize itself.
I’m sure you know someone who keeps every single message in their inbox. They never move things into folders, they never delete anything. They never organize. And they defend their system—they don’t want to change because they see no need to. They are happy living with an overflowing email inbox, just like other people are happy living in a house stuffed to the gills with things they never use, or a smartphone overflowing with apps.
In my own life, I’ve found that my inbox minimalism rippled into my business and personal live. The time it took me to respond to important things decreased, and everybody was happier as a result. Less email, truly became more time.
At the end of the day, the choice is yours on what, if anything, you decide to implement. I promise positive effects of your efforts will be felt in and outside your email inbox.
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