How to conquer your inbox

If your inbox is constantly full of flagged and unread emails, Jocelyn K Glei, author of Unsubscribe: How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distractions, and Get Real Work Done, may be able to help…

What made you write Unsubscribe?

For many years I ran an organisation called 99U which is a website, it’s also an annual conference and the mission of that company was to shift the focus from idea generation to idea execution. What I learned was that everyone was kind of struggling with distraction and not just distraction from technology but also just from this load of increasing self-management that we all carry, as we see the workplace flattening, more people going into business for themselves, so more and more you just manage more of everything you don't have a manager figuring it out for you. 

When you look at what the number one distraction is in the workplace it's still email. Prior to that I was like “I really want to write a book about email, people are still struggling with this”, it's still a huge time-suck for people at work so I think we need to address and also I think our struggle with email is like a microcosm of our struggle with tech in general.

The stuff in the book applies to email but a lot of it pertains beyond as well to social media and all of these other types of technologies. 

What’s the best tech to help with email management?

For my email problems I use this app called EasilyDo email. There's a couple of reasons I like it, the number one reason is that when you go through your inbox, any subscription-based email has this huge unsubscribe button at the top that's a one-touch, you don't have to go to the website, it's just one touch and it's done and you're off the list.

They also have some nice stuff where they sort your travel and your receipts. It's really helpful, a lot of times I think people have an email solution that works on desktop but then it doesn't work on their mobile so then it gets out of sync and so this is a good one for mobile as well which I think is important.

Do you ever see a time in the future where we will have a balance?

No, I don't think so. I think that this is an emergent challenge right now because everything is accelerating so quickly and we're not really used to adapting to new tools and understanding that we need to take control of them.

There's this old adage that I think about a lot - tools make excellent servants but very poor masters and so I really think we've let our tools become our masters and I don't think that's gonna change because new tools will keep being invented.

Also there will be people who are working at these tech companies who are constantly digging deeper into the psychology of addiction and in the psychology of capturing our attention and they'll figure out new ways to do that, so I don't think unfortunately we're going to reach a place of equilibrium. 

Part of the reason email is so problematic now is that we had it under control when it was on desktop, but then we had smartphones and the now it follows us everywhere. You can get it on your Apple watch if you want. So I think it's a two steps forward, one step back type of a progression. Advertisers are always gonna want our attention and they're gonna figure out new ways to get it.

What’s the most shocking statistic you came across during your research?

It was a relatively small study, in this one organisation that they looked at people were on average checking their email about 11 times an hour - I think the total was like 74 times a day. That was the most terrifying because obviously if you're checking your email 11 times an hour it's pretty clear you're not accomplishing anything but checking your email.

Tristan Harris is trying to get people in Silicon Valley to be more ethical about how they create apps and tools in terms of being mindful of the fact that maybe they don't want to steal all of our attention and take it for Facebook or Slack or what have you. I read an interview in The Atlantic with him and on his desk there's this little post it that said ‘do not open without intention’, which has become my new mantra for the year.

Every time you open your phone, open an app, trying to be intentional about it, focus. 

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