Tips for making e-mail less of a horrible, crippling nightmare

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Ah, e-mail. A tool that revolutionized the way we communicate with one another. It has, however, unintentionally become a chamber of horrors for many people. On the other hand, e-mail might not be such a big problem for you yet, but word on the street is that it becomes exponentially worse the older you get. Prevention is better than cure they say, so let’s check out ways to tackle this tricky customer before it ends up biting you in zee arse in a few years time.


Desktop e-mail clients: No more browsers!

I’m sure many of you know about these already, but desktop e-mail clients basically save you the so-called “hassle” of opening up a browser, typing in the website, and logging on because you just open the app. I know, mind-blowing stuff. Why are they so special then? For the same reason that I use pen-and-paper for my to-do lists, using an e-mail client instead of the browser version means that I don’t have to face the potential distractions that come with accessing the Internet. If I open the browser, maybe I might be tempted to check social media, sports, funny memes, and other stuff. By just opening the e-mail client, I mitigate the risk of additional distraction because I only open the app. Remember, you gotta stay aware of the structural weaknesses of your mind, so that means you have to put in place mechanisms to guard against them.


Unsubscribe: Get out of m’life!

Just like when you unfriend people from Facebook you never talk to, you have to mercilessly unsubscribe from e-mail feeds you never check. A nice and surprisingly simple trick is to search the word(s) “unsubscribe” or “opt out” in your e-mail search bar to find all the feeds/newsletters you’re subscribed to (big thanks to the guys at Fizzle for that trick). Newsletters are legally obliged to have an unsubscribe option in the mail, so just searching that word will make them all show up instantly. Then all you need to do is hit the unsubscribe button for the ones you don't care about anymore.


Folders: The New York Times conundrum

Another simple yet effective method: I created five or six folders for the different categories of mail I had, like school, work, bills, etc. Then, unless it was immediately relevant to something important in my life, I put every mail from my inbox in an appropriate folder so that I knew that my inbox only contained currently relevant stuff (thanks to Merlin Mann and his ‘inbox-zero’ concept for this one). This reminds me of something that Merlin said in an episode of Back to Work:

To me, the most serious way you can take e-mail is for what it is: a piece of information that will be truly alive for about 36 hours… It’s sort of like thinking you’re going to save every week’s New York Times that you hadn’t finished yet. It’s not really ‘alive’ anymore and, as much as you wanted to do it then, a newspaper is not as valuable the day after it comes out because now there’s other stuff.
— Merlin Mann (Back to Work, Episode 233)

This analogy is, as noted in the episode, absolutely spot on and it’s for this reason that I archive e-mails aggressively after I’ve dealt with them. Make your inbox a place for only important and relevant correspondence: the rest is either deleted or archived.


Two accounts

I discussed this briefly in the previous post because I do believe that having two accounts is quite useful and it has worked out for me fantastically. I use one for serious, personal stuff and the other one for things like promotional mails from webstores, social media accounts, sites where you need to make an account to start a free trial of something, etc. However, Merlin does well to stress in that same episode of Back to Work (link below) that by creating another account, you’re just making another inbox that you to have to check and maintain. In other words, it becomes yet another mouth to feed. But I think if you treat it in a way in which your second account is really just a preliminary “filter” for your main account, it could work out nicely. Nevertheless, this one is going to depend on your preferences.

Access Denied

Last but not least, is a strategy for treating junk mail. There are two sides to this problem. First, there’s the need to block stuff you know is clearly nonsense (no way, a secret ten-thousand dollar insurance grant for students of Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters!? Sign me up!). G-mail and Hotmail have strong security measures in place for this but people forget that they’re not going to do all the hard work for you. All you need to do, therefore, is to add spammers to your “blocked sender” list (note: this is also why I use a desktop client because it offers far better/easier options for blocking senders without needing to open the mail). This simple habit made a dramatic difference to the amount of junk-mail that I used to receive and makes it so much more refreshing to check my mail now. So anytime you get spam that you know is obviously spam, block the sender instead of just ignoring it!

There is, of course, another reason this is quite important. You know when you get mail for the first time from someone you know but it ends up in Junk because your mail freaks out from this new/unknown sender? Well, if your Junk folder is somewhat organized/sanitized, you’ll be able to spot this mail far more easily because it won’t be drowning in the sea of nonsensical mails about secret insurance grants for X-Men.

The other side of this issue is to simply adjust/turn off e-mail notifications from your connected accounts, especially social media. Go to LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, whatever you use and either turn off the mail notifications or reduce their frequency to weekly/monthly.

The overarching moral of this post is to create a deliberate tactic to proactively deal with your email. Like I said, e-mail won't get much better as you get older so anticipate the problem before it ever becomes one. Just like with productivity and planning your day, don’t wait until the chaos comes to you, deal with it first so that it can never hit you (or your inbox). 


Useful Resources

  • Episode 233 of Back to Work. If you don’t feel like listening to the entire episode (shame on you), then just listen from roughly minute-25 to minute-40. The discussion about escalating communication methods from e-mail to instant messaging to phone calls was extremely insightful and quite entertaining as well (around minute-35).



  • Slack. I’ve never used it myself, but I’ve heard some very lofty praise about this software that “fully eliminates the need for e-mail.” Granted, it’s useless if you’re the only person you know that’s using it, but I still recommend checking it out and reading about it. You never know when you might need it. They have a free version anyway, so no harm done there.

See you, Space Cowboy.