Attention to Email

Does your email inbox stress you out?

By Jarad Johnson

Mar 17 2016 at 1 a.m.


I might have a problem. Over the past month, I’ve used eight different email applications on my phone and laptop. The email app revolving door has included Google Inbox, Polymail, CloudMagic, Outlook and many others. I’ve tried every app that promises to clean my inbox and make email easier; unfortunately, I still haven’t landed on a great solution. I have discovered, however, that the perfect email application is a blend of useful features dictated by the habits of the person using the application—and far too often, those habits are a complete mess.


The many strategies of email management include everything from Merlin Mann’s Inbox Zero, centered around action-based email management, to those who let the notifications stack into the thousands (this is my own personal nightmare). Even with our varying approaches to email management, there are three universal truths most professionals must acknowledge:


1. Using email is a required soft skill.

2. Effective communication is a competitive advantage.

3. Managing email is a pain in the ass.


Through these truths, we can also say that email is important, it isn’t going away and we should spend the time necessary to build a system that requires less of our time while using email as a positive tool for ourselves and those we work with.


At Mostly Serious, we collaborate closely with our clients throughout the lifespan of every digital design solutions project, from initial UX design to development, writing, and ongoing upkeep. So much steady communication gives us ample experience both sending and receiving quite a lot of email.


Coffee and no more email makes for a happy developer.


Exploring Inbox Zero

Since Merlin’s excellent introduction of Inbox Zero and action-based email management, the concept has been hijacked and misrepresented as a type of modern-day Glengarry Glen Ross “ABC” variation—always be checking. This approach is manufactured busyness that can be entirely avoided without sacrificing the goodwill and advantage of effective communication.


Checking email once per hour should be the maximum frequency for most professionals. As Merlin points out, the default Apple Mail app checks for email once every minute. That’s 10,080 potential interruptions per week just so you can get that next batch of junk mail the moment it arrives. This isn’t getting stuff done; it’s being busy for the sake of being busy.


Inbox Zero is about processing email, not constantly checking email. What’s the difference? Processing allows you to properly move through every email in your inbox each time you open it (again, less than once per hour) by attaching every email to an action item. Merlin establishes five buckets, and I’ve created slight variations of those for my own personal system:


1. Archive

2. Snooze

3. Delegate

4. Respond

5. Task


Each of the five action items are, well, actions. Now that I’ve adopted and follow the system, every email I touch can quickly and easily be tossed into one of these buckets with almost instinctual speed. I also discovered an extremely high amount of email is sent to me as a way to loop me into conversations I may later need context for, spam messages or subscriptions, or information I thought I cared about but actually don’t. I can archive all of these emails very quickly.


Snooze (may also be called delay, defer, or schedule) is a common feature in modern email clients based on the need to put off a response yet not allow it to linger in an inbox staring at you like an unamused cat. Snoozing provides temporary relief until you’re ready and able to give your cat the attention she requires.


Delegate, Respond, and Task all serve the same purpose—we’re taking a step toward completing the interaction with that email. Although responding may act as a snooze until we receive a response back, the others have effectively turned an email into a to-do item for someone. Congrats! You’ve done it!


The purpose of this system is not to create hoops to jump through but instead, to offer a clear pattern for managing the virtual truckloads of email dumped into your lap each day. Inbox Zero is as much a strategy to remove email as a looming task as it is a concept about not having any more email to read.

We admit we account for a decent amount of email in our client’s inboxes. We apologize.


Recovering Your Attention

There is a well known story in tech circles describing why Steve Jobs wore the same outfit every day—a story and strategy Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder, later adopted. Every decision we make throughout the day creates “decision fatigue,” a sort of tax on a finite capacity of our ability to make mental decisions. They believe selecting an outfit each day is an unnecessary tax that could easily be eliminated.


Now, I’m not telling you to toss out every suit but one (or in my case, every t-shirt but one), but a less extreme and far more impactful contributor to decision fatigue is your inbox. Every time you open your phone or pull up your email on your computer, you are paying a tax on your ability to perform on another task later that day.


Beyond decision fatigue, there is a much more clear payment when checking email: your time. Or more specifically, your attention. Knowledge workers are increasingly being pulled in multiple directions and splitting their attention among many different areas every day. Our phones buzz to tell us about photos, videos, tweets, posts, updates and, yes, email nearly constantly. The computers that were built with ambitions of becoming the bicycles for our minds are slowly starting to turn us into dogs at a squirrel farm. Fixing this problem will take many more changes than when and how we interact with our inboxes, but this is an excellent and relatively easy place to start that will lead to immediate and obvious benefits.

Jarad Johnson is president and head of design at Mostly Serious, where he helps form and direct the digital agency's vision as well as oversees all design services. In addition, he was President Emeritus of Springfield Creatives, a member-run organization joining to build a better community for creative professionals in Springfield. | @mostly_serious on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram