Don’t check email in the morning. Only check email twice a day. Turn off all of email notifications.
That’s increasingly standard productivity advice these days, and for good reason. We’re at our most productive when we proactively choose the things on which to focus. But email is entirely reactive – it hands control of our to-do list to anyone who happens to send a request our way.
For a while, I tried to follow that advice, cutting back on my email checking frequency. But I quickly ran into a problem: many of my proactive tasks involve sending email. Or searching through my email history. And as soon as I opened a Gmail tab, I’d find myself inexorably drawn into processing and responding to the latest messages, even if that wasn’t what I had set out to do.
So, a month or two back, I hit upon a simple solution. I set up a folder called “Incoming”, and a filter to send all of my new mail to that folder. And then I hid the folder from the label sidebar, so I wouldn’t get distracted by the unread message count.
Voila. Problem solved. Now, I can load up Gmail, send or search as needed, and still only see new stuff coming in when that’s actually what I want to do.
For bonus points, I also set up a single “Robots” folder, to hold all incoming promotions, mailing list messages, social media updates, etc.
Now, a couple of times a day, I can process the “Incoming” folder to to respond to real, from-a-person emails. And, once each day, I empty out the “Robots” folder, to see if there’s any wheat in that sea of chaff.
It’s completely changed my experience of email, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. Here’s how to set the same thing up yourself:
First, copy this string into your Gmail search box:
category:(forums | updates | promotions | social)
Then click the downward arrow at the right side of the search field, and choose “Create filter with this search” on the bottom right of the pop-up. On the next screen, select both “Skip the Inbox (Archive it)” and “Apply the Label” for whatever folder you’d like to route incoming junk into.
Then do the same thing with this string:
!from:email@example.com !category:forums !category:social !category:updates !category:promotions
For this one, you’ll need to replace my email (firstname.lastname@example.org) with your own, and choose a label for incoming ‘real’ messages.
Finally, hover over the names of each of those two labels, click the downward arrow that appears, and select “In Label List: Hide”, so that you don’t have the sirens’ call of unread messages perpetually in your sidebar.
Try it yourself. Seriously, this one changed my life.