How to Free Yourself from the Tyranny of Email

UPDATED: October 24, 2015
PUBLISHED: August 21, 2015

Email is a fantastically useful tool. How else could we so easily communicate with people across time zones and all around the world? What else enables such prompt communication and increases the amount of instantaneous information and updates available to us at any given moment?

But since email has become so central to the professional world, it’s gotten out of hand. It’s intensely becoming less of a tool and more of an oppressor—overthrowing your days, controlling your time, holding you hostage.

The good news? You can fight back and free yourself from its totalitarian grip. Here’s how:

1. Turn off notifications.

This is probably the most important thing you can do to keep email from taking over your life. If you have a smartphone, you probably use it often to read email, and it’s likely that you do this in response to a notification or an app badge indicating how many unread messages you have.

Don’t fall into this trap. Turn off push notifications and unread message counts so that you have to make a conscious decision to check your email. Even giving it a half-second of thought is better than automatically reacting to a notification.

The same goes with desktop clients and browser-based email, too. Close them and only open them when you want or need to spend time on email.

2. Institute an email curfew.

It’s easy to put off email during the day and take care of it later in the evening on your laptop or tablet while you’re watching TV or lying in bed. But these are hours that you should be spending away from work. Set a time of day after which you absolutely will not check your email unless it’s an emergency.

This might seem unreasonable, but when was the last time an email required an immediate response in the evening? It’s pretty rare. When was the last time you weren’t as present with your family as much as you should have been? That’s probably much more recent.

3. Set designated emailing times.

Unless your job requires that you be available to instantly respond to email, one of the most effective ways to throw off your email shackles is to set one or two times during the day in which you’ll deal with your inbox. An hour in the morning and an hour in the afternoon is usually enough. Outside of those times, close your email programs and don’t open them.

But what if someone has a question that they need answered right away? They can call you. Which is probably what they should be doing anyway if there’s a serious problem. If it’s not worth a call, it’s not worth interrupting your work to answer the question in an email.

4. Use filters and folders or tags.

Most email providers now offer the ability to automatically filter your incoming email. Rules like “if the from address contains ‘,’ send it to the ‘Work’ folder” can save you a huge amount of time on dealing with email every day. A lot of things can go straight to the trash, and just about everything else can be categorized in some way.

Once most of your incoming email has been automatically categorized, you can decide when you want to deal with it. If you don’t see your favorite store’s newsletter at work, you won’t be tempted to do some online shopping when you should be focusing on something else. But the “1” next to your Newsletters folder will remind you to go back and read it later.

5. Use an auto-responder when you’re away.

When you’re on vacation, or even on a work-related trip, it’s OK to be slow about responding to email—or even to put it off until you get back to work. Email has an insidious tendency to turn vacation days into working days, and this needs to stop. Again, if there’s an emergency, someone can call you.

For the most part, everyone will be understanding; they’ll get an automated response letting them know that you’re away and that you’ll get back to them as soon as you can, but it might be a while. If it can’t wait, they’ll get in touch with someone else, just like in the pre-email days.

So yes, email is a fantastically useful tool, and stopping to think about just how much it’s changed the world is mind-boggling. But that doesn’t mean you should be a slave to your inbox, on your phone or your computer. Take these steps to free yourself from the tyranny of email, and you’ll be glad you did—you’ll be better able to focus, be less distracted when you’re with family and friends, and you’ll be more relaxed when you’re away. What’s there to lose?

Thanks to constant digital communication, it seems we’re always on the clock. Find out how to manage this new “night shift.”

Dann Albright is a freelance journalist who helps people lead more successful personal and professional lives through technology, organization and positive thinking. His experiences in living abroad, navigating graduate school while self-employed and running marathons have helped him develop a well-rounded approach to problem-solving and creativity.