The Washington Post recently had an article on email bankruptcy that discussed a number of people who are giving up on email (or just deleting all their old messages) after being buried under the pile of messages. Merlin Mann responded by saying that even bankruptcy isn’t enough to save him:
A one-time erasure of communication debt would give temporary relief, but the basic challenge remains; the net number of requests for my attention exceed my ability to provide that attention by at least an order of magnitude. And the disparity around my ability to thoughtfully respond to my pile may be ten or more times worse still. The scale is insanely out of whack.
If you’re one of those people who is drowning in deluge of email, you have options. You don’t need to go as far as declaring email bankruptcy — and declaring yourself incompetent in dealing with the world of technology and business today.
We’re going to look at an approach that applies rules to your email processing to help you get out from under the pile, and to help you stay out, no matter how many messages you get a day. But first, let’s look at three principles that will guide us in this approach:
Principle 1: You don’t need to respond to every email. If you get more than 50 a day (or even hundreds), you can’t possibly.
Principle 2: Prioritize. If you can’t respond to every email, you must realize that you’ll have to prioritize in order to respond to the important ones. The rest will have to be prioritized too, and the lowest priority will just be given a glance.
Principle 3: You can’t do email all day. Admit this to yourself. You have other things to do, more important than email. So only do it at certain times of the day. One of the problems noted in the Post article is that people no longer feel like they’re done working for the day. Well, the only way to feel done for the day is to set a time limit, and when the limit is reached, you’re done. The rest you’ll have to get to tomorrow. Even in the rest of our work lives, we never finish every single task on our to-do list. We work until the 5 o’clock whistle blows, and we go home.
Using those principles, let’s look at a system of rules to help deal with massive amounts of email:
Rule 1: Separate the wheat from the chaff. We all know that there are certain emails that must be dealt with today, and others that can languish in a folder for a week and it wouldn’t kill us. So let’s set up some filters to deal with them (I’m using Gmail as an example, but most mail programs have similar filters or rules):
- Important. Create a filter with all of your important contacts (coworkers, colleagues, advertisers, business associates, mom, etc.) in the “from” field. Label these “important”. You could also have a keyword, such as “batgirl”, that you put in your filter for the “important” label. Then put that keyword in your signature, and anyone who responds to one of your emails gets labeled “important”. These will remain in your inbox, and you can check them 2-3 times a day.
- Reports. This will vary from person to person, but I have a lot of “information” type emails that are not urgent but that I don’t want clogging up my inbox. Create a filter with the email addresses of all these types of emails (amazon.com, your blog stats services, your calendar notices, etc.) and label these “reports” and have them automatically archived. Now these won’t be in your inbox. You can check these once a day.
- Others. This is all the rest. Create a filter with “important” and “reports” in the “doesn’t have” field, and have these emails labeled “other” and automatically archived. This will prevent your emails with the “important” or “reports” labels from being put into this “others” folder. Now your inbox should only have the “important” emails in it.
Rule 2: All old emails go into “others“. This is the only way to get your inbox clear in the beginning — after this point, you’ll keep it clear. Even if you have emails from your important contacts, you need to get your head above water. Dump them all in the “others” folder and archive them out of your inbox. Your inbox should now be empty. Let’s keep it that way with the following rules.
Rule 3: Set regular times to process email. You shouldn’t have your email notifier on all the time. Learn to hold yourself back from checking email 20 times a day. Do it in 2-3 sessions a day, at set times. Let’s say 10 a.m., 1 p.m. and 4 p.m., if you get a lot of email, or 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. if you don’t. Even better: only once a day. Whenever you feel the pull to check email, stop yourself. Take a deep breath. Now get back to the task at hand.
Rule 4: Scan through “others” and prioritize. The Others emails is really what makes you feel overwhelmed. Most of us can deal with the Important emails just fine, and scan through the Reports emails. But for the Others, we feel that we should be responding to them all, or we are incompetent or that people will feel we’re arrogant. Well, we need to own up to the fact that we cannot respond to them all (Principle 1). We have to live with the fact that some people are going to think we’re arrogant. Here’s how to deal with Others:
- Scan. In your first email processing session of the day, quickly go through the Others emails, and decide if they should be deleted or responded to. In Gmail, I do this quickly by using the keyboard shortcuts: “#” to delete, “y” to archive, “o” to open. So I go through each email, read it, and either delete it or mark it for a response.
- Prioritize. Which ones do your mark for a response? The ones that will have the most benefit for you. Sometimes an email could lead to a job offer, or advertising, or a collaboration that could pay off big time. Those are the ones you need to respond to. Sometimes it’s just a really interesting email that you’d like to respond to. If that’s the case, go ahead an mark it. But for many, you will simply have to read them and move on.
- Canned response. If you feel you need to respond to most emails, you can set up a few canned responses using a text expansion program such as AutoHotKey. I would recommend you set up 5-10 different canned responses, instead of just one. One response to thank them for their positive feedback, another to turn down a request, etc. If you notice you give the same response a lot, enter it in AHK and set up a key combination. Then, by pressing just a few keys, you can have your canned responses out in a hurry, perhaps customizing them with a few personal words.
- Mark for later. The ones that you decide are a higher priority, that need to be responded to, you should label “Respond”, and remove the “Others” label. This just takes a second. Then move on. Then in your later email processing session, go through the “Respond” folder and do a quick response.
Rule 5: Set a timer, process quickly, and be done. You should set a timer for 15-30 minutes (depending on the volume of your email), so that you don’t end up doing it for more than an hour. Remember, when you’re done with your email session, you’re done. You can breathe easy and get to the rest tomorrow. Here’s how to process quickly and empty your inbox:
- Process the important emails (the ones in your inbox) first, to empty. Respond quickly, or delete, or forward, or archive (for later reference), or write down any tasks that need to be done later on your to-do list. Don’t ever read an email and then leave it sitting in your inbox. If an email requires a longer response than you can do right now, mark it “Respond” and get to it later.
- Scan through Reports and Others. Most of the Reports and Others emails don’t need a response or action. Just read them and either delete, forward or archive. Mark the ones that need a response “Respond” and get to it later.
- Respond. Once you’ve gone through the Important emails in the Inbox, and scanned and marked the Reports and Others, all you should have left is Respond. For these, you might not get done today. That’s OK. Do as many as you can, quickly, and leave the rest for tomorrow. There’s no need to empty this folder. When the timer goes off, get out and be done.
- Keyboard shortcuts. You really should memorize the important shortcuts. For Gmail, they are “r” for reply, “f” for forward, “#” for delete, “y” for archive, “o” for open. And really, those are the only actions you need. Once you get good with the keyboard shortcuts, processing should be a breeze.
Learning how to live a stress free life may seem impossible, but the truth is that there are specific things you can do to begin eliminating sources of stress.
No, it doesn’t look like a made-for-television movie. No, it doesn’t look like something only people with extra time and money can do. It looks like your life—but without any self-created stress triggers.
Here are 11 ways to help you live a stress-free life:
1. Stop Overanalyzing Situations That Haven’t Happened
The first step to living a stress-free life is to stop overanalyzing imaginary scenarios. It’s easy to spend time in the world of worst-case scenarios. People tend to cultivate this world for one of two reasons.
First, because if you know what the worst-case scenario is, then it won’t surprise you when it happens. Second, if you know what the worst-case scenario is, then you can do everything in your power to control the universe so the worst case never happens.
If that’s really the world you want to cultivate, then become a professional risk assessor. If not, then ask yourself how you are benefiting from continuing to live that way.
Does it make you feel better about yourself and your life? Does it make you want to leap out of bed in the morning, eager to embrace the worst-case scenario? Does it bring you joy or fulfillment?
If your answer to these three questions is no, then stop living in the future and bring yourself back into the present.
2. Don’t Take on Other People’s Problems
The whole advantage of other people having problems is that they aren’t your problems. When you frequently take on other people’s problems, you get into the habit of enabling.
Let’s get crystal clear about the definition of enabling: enabling is the art of continuing to take responsibility for other people, thereby disallowing their personal responsibility.
It is of no service to other people to take on their problems because they can’t/won’t/don’t know how to fix the problem.
It is of service to empower others to take responsibility for themselves and their lives, to encourage, teach, and motivate others to address their own problems. So stop enabling, and start empowering.
3. Get Present in the Moment
Being present in the moment involves being in your body and feeling your feelings—two things that lots of folks actually don’t know how to do.
Ask yourself these two questions: What does fear feel like in your body? What are you afraid of?
If you don’t know the answer to these questions, you probably aren’t present in the moment. Being present involves vulnerability, humility, and openness.
The past and the future stop being so relevant and intriguing when you’re able to get in your body and feel your feelings. When you can do these two things, you actually want to be in the present moment.
To get started, close your eyes, focus on your breathing, and watch your stress levels drop. Then, try these tips: How to Live in the Moment and Stop Worrying.
4. Focus on What You Have, Not What You Don’t
The easiest way to stop focusing on what you don’t have is by not watching TV commercials. Marketing teaches us to focus on what we don’t have, and advertising campaigns spend millions of dollars convincing us that we must have what we don’t yet have.
Can you think of a marketing campaign that teaches you to enjoy what you already have without buying something to enhance it? Odds are you can’t.
In a world dictated by Super Bowl commercials and Facebook ads, it takes stalwart focus to recognize what you have more than what you don’t. If you want a stress-free life now, get stalwart, and stop letting other people dictate your focus.
In order to do this, try cultivating a gratitude practice to help refocus your mind toward what is good in your life. You can get started with this guide.
5. Stop Surrounding Yourself With People Who Don’t Make You Happy
Honestly, what kind of people do you really like to be around with? People who get you, who see you clearly, who accept your flaws and all; people you can be yourself with; people who have shared interests?
How many of those people are in your life? What characteristics do all of the other people in your life have?
If you find that the people in your life aren’t adding anything positive, it may be time to make some changes. If you find that other relationships you have are downright toxic, start working to cut out those relationships immediately.
6. Find a Job That Makes You Feel Good
You don’t have to stay at a job just because it pays the bills. Most people spend more time working than sleeping. The average person spends 40 to 80 hours a week—or 2,000 to 4,000 hours a year—working. That is a significant investment!
If your best friend or child told you that they were going to spend 4,000 hours giving their emotional, mental, and physical energy to something (or someone) that wasn’t going to value them, give anything back to them, or pay them what they were worth, what advice would you offer? Give that same advice to yourself. You won’t be stress-free unless you don’t learn this.
7. Only Take on What You Can Handle
Busyness is an addiction. Slowing down can actually be terrifying because it causes you to notice that you have feelings that you now have time to feel.
I get it.
By the time I slowed down, I had decades of busyness under my belt. I went into a tailspin depression because I didn’t understand how to be in the right relationship with my own emotions.
When I finally figured out that feelings are just feelings and allowing them to express themselves is healthy and natural, I stopped experiencing withdrawal from my addiction to busyness and started figuring out the pace of life that felt best for me.
Remarkably, I discovered that I don’t actually like being busy. What will you discover about yourself?
8. Let Go of Grudges and Anger
For me, it took 20 years of adulthood to figure out that holding on to grudges and anger only hurt me. Lucky for you, though, you can benefit vicariously from my experience just by reading one short paragraph!
No one is holding your feet to the fire, demanding that you hold on to grudges and anger. The energy of anger slowly eats away at your body, mind, and spirit, until one day you wake up more resentful than optimistic.
One day, people no longer want to be around you because the stink of negativity is oozing out of your pores. One day, you even get tired of hearing yourself get angry. And the person or people you are angry at or holding grudges against probably haven’t been affected at all.
Who gets hurt the most in that process of repeating negative thoughts? You do.
Some good advice for you here: How to Let Go of Resentment and Anger
9. Stop Reliving Your Past
To live a stress-free life, you have to stop reliving your past. I know it seems like fun to compare everything in your present to your past, and to experience the present through past-colored glasses, but it actually isn’t.
When you wear past-colored glasses, you can’t truly experience the present for what it is. Your boyfriend or girlfriend gets compared to a list of expectations and failed relationships rather than recognized for the unique blessing they are in your life.
Your boss gets compared to all the bosses who came before her/him. Your friends’ ability to parent gets compared to your parents’ ability to parent.
People, including you, deserve to stand on their own past-free merit.
10. Don’t Complain About Things You Can’t Change
There are always going to be people elected into office whom you don’t like, taxes that you don’t want to pay, idiot drivers who refuse to move out of the left-hand lane, and a person ahead of you in the check-out line who won’t stop chatting with the clerk.
The great benefit of being human is that we get to experience all of what life offers us. To live stress-free is to learn to deal with this fact.
Dwelling on your frustration with something that can’t be changed doesn’t do anything other than drag you down. You are the only person who will ultimately decide how to respond to what is.
11. Stop Living Through Other People’s Lives
Someone else’s life is not your life. Your life is your life.
What that means is you get to live your life in the way you want. You get to make ridiculous mistakes, take leaps of faith, and stuff things inside your handbag of fear just as much as the next person.
Going through stuff is the whole great messy adventure of being human! Being alive and living life is terrifying and glorious and everything in between.
Stop living through social media, trying to soak in all of the experiences everyone else is having. Focus, instead, on what it feels like to be you in this moment. You may find you like it.
An astounding thing happens when you reduce stress and anxiety, get into a relationship with your body, mind, and spirit, and just be yourself without judgment.
Your life literally slows down. You stop wishing for the weekend. You begin to live in each moment, and you start feeling like a human being. You just ride the wave that is life, with this feeling of contentment and joy.
You move fluidly, steadily, calmly, and gratefully. A veil is lifted, and a whole new perspective is born through improved mental health. And this is how you live a stress-free life.
More Tips on How to Live a Stress-Free Life
- Do You Want to Know the Secret to Living a Fulfilling Life?
- 7 Stress Management Techniques to Get You Back on Track
- 18 Basic Rules to Lead A Fulfilling Life
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