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How I Learned to Stop Feeling Like Shit All the Time, Part 1: Conquering Email

Steven Weber and croquet mallet from The Shining miniseries

So here’s the deal. I have been dealing with not feeling great for a while now–hence the title. So once I’m down I’m particularly susceptible to those things in life that are, well, seemingly crafted to bring you down. And I’m not talking about listening to The Smiths and watching Dancer in the Dark. Well, there’s plenty of reasons to stay away from the latter, but you get what I’m saying. What messes me up more are the things that just wear on you, slowly and inexorably. The things that you feel like you cannot affect–instead they’re just there to affect you.

Over the past two years, I grabbed a metaphorical croquet mallet and started to go to work on these things. I wanted to try and turn it around and take the wheel instead of letting the horde of drunken demons control where I was going and how fast. What follows is a series exploring what I learned in the hopes that it can help somebody else.

One note: I took a long time to start writing this because I was concerned I didn’t have it all wired yet. But then I realized the answer was in my title: “…All The Time.” There’s always going to be periods in which I feel like shit…but the more control I have, the more I can control when those periods are and for how long. Let’s begin.


That’s a valid concern. However, I respond two ways. One, if you had seen my inbox, you would have agreed. Especially when you consider that my entire work day is spent at the keyboard, so an out of control inbox has a tendency to…well, I don’t know about you, but my inbox was like this:

Vultures in Wait

Lying in wait. Biding its time. And then, before I knew it…my productivity was roadkill and my inbox was just dining on it, ripping off bits and chortling. Or, you know, whatever sort of evil laugh vultures have. Because you know they have one.

Second way I respond is this: I think it was David Allen in his Getting Things Done who talked about undone things and how they wear on you. His point is that everything you have waiting to be done–and without a plan or timeline in which to do it–it just wears you out. The brain just says, while walking through the garage, “Oh yes, there’s that unused paint I still need to get properly disposed of.” Or while looking for something in the closet, “Oh yeah, here’s all these clothes I need to sift through and I’ve been meaning to clean this out and take the stuff I don’t need to Goodwill.” And it does this every single time you see those undone things–and that takes brain juice. In my case, however, I walk through my garage a few times a day. I go into my closet for something the same amount. My inbox is just there in my digital POV for hours as I work.

After attacking it, here’s the end result:

Empty Gmail

That’s my inbox right now. Nothing in there but the occasional digital tumbleweed. There are probably many routes you could take to get there, but if you’d like to implement some things that I’ve road tested, here’s my method:

[ad#rightpost]1. Get (and use) a smartphone. Or some sort of device that you can use to access your email on the fly. While I’m standing in line at the grocery store, waiting for water to boil, sitting in the cinema before the film–whenever I have a minute, I’m processing email. Are you playing Angry Birds while there’s email to deal with? Cut it out. Are you checking Facebook while your inbox is out of control? Well, don’t do that. Clear your inbox and then maybe you can screw around. That’s the rule I’ve imposed on myself and it mostly works.

2. Unsubscribe like your internet bandwidth is powered by the souls of innocent kittens. I know, trust me…you never know when you might need that Amazon newsletter or that Disney vacation deals email. (Your Need Coffee email subscription is, however, sacred and saves lives.) But with each email that comes in, ask yourself: when was the last time I actually used this? Or, for example, if it’s something to alert you to some money-saving deal, ask yourself: have I used this enough and saved enough money to pay for the amount of lost time I’ve spent looking over this each day/week/month/whatever? Be ruthless. If you miss something, you can always re-subscribe. And if you are hanging out on Twitter or Facebook or elsewhere, if something big is going down, trust that your network of people will alert you to it. You have better things to do.

Concerned kitten
'Whoa, whoa, back up a second there, Sparky. Powered by which?'

3. Screw the kittens, I need to keep this stuff. Okay, fine, then here’s a trick. I have two filters that I’ve set up on Gmail for those things that I still want to have coming in but I know the world isn’t going to end if I don’t deal with them that very instant. They are @EOD and @EOW. Anything that I shouldn’t let linger for more than a day or so I check at End Of Day. And End Of Week is the same. Auto-send appropriate items to those labels and keep them out of your inbox. And if a month later you find that you haven’t really looked at @EOW because you’ve been too busy and–wow, what a concept–your life hasn’t ended, then just go in and purge. And remember–at least with Gmail–you can filter on practically anything–sender, sender domain, words in the subject line, you name it.

4. Your inbox is for things that have to be dealt with and processed–period. In other words, if you aren’t taking action on an email in your inbox that instant, move it elsewhere. I use labels under Gmail and archive things appropriately. If I’m on my phone, for example, and I have something that I need to do that is a very quick item–but I can’t do it from my phone, then it goes into !Quick. The ! puts it at the top of my Gmail labels and so it’s easily accessible. This is only for items that, again going back to Allen, I can knock out in a second. I also recommend coming up with additional labels: in my case, I primarily use !Deal/Short and !Deal/Long. “Short” for items that need to be handled in the short term and “Long” for items that I need to take care of…well, eventually. But there’s no real deadline. You can also make !Deal labels of different flavors: “!Deal/Office” for items that you have to be in the office to do. “!Deal/Call” for items that you can kick out when you have access to a phone but nothing else (like while en route to your next power lunch). The whole point is to have labels that work for you and you can attack as needed–but nothing stays in your inbox.

The only time I leave something in my inbox for any period of time is when I do so overnight, knowing I need to handle whatever is there first thing when I get back at the keys. And create filters for anything that never has to be dealt with immediately. Here’s an example: one Amazon newsletter I kept is the alert about free MP3s. But do I need to do that this instant? Hell no. I send it to a folder and handle it later. I do that with it every time it shows up…so why not have Gmail do it for me? Ah, technology.

(Since we’re talking Deal/Whatever, any excuse to show you a monolith of chicken seasoning…)

5. Turn off any notification and make yourself wait to check your email. I got this from Tim Ferriss and his Four Hour Work Week. Put two different ways: one, if you were email crazy like I was, you’d know well enough that if doing email all day would make you rich, you’d have had that killer party in Liechtenstein already. And secondly, let’s be realistic: when a real crisis happens, zombie apocalypse or otherwise…that’s what the phone is for. If something’s an emergency, you’ll know soon enough. Checking your email every time the notifier dings means that you won’t get shit else done. I’m usually checking email on my phone or inbetween writing bits while I’m also poking my nose into social media before shutting it all down and moving on to the next thing.

6. Stuff will get out of control and you’ll need to break out the machete. Trust that your inbox will, from time to time, blow up. And from time to time, whatever folders or labels you create will overflow. But if you’ve gotten control once, you’ve at least established a track record that it is possible to get things under control. And if nothing else, know this: I’m an utter stooge. If I can go from an inbox of 1000+ emails and hundreds coming in every day to a zero inbox, then you can too.

Next time: I think we’ll talk about clutter, both digitally and in meatspace. Until then, what do you do to keep your email from trying to suck out your will to live?

Vulture image. Kitten image.