Getting Happy with Email

A while ago, I realized that I was deeply unhappy with my email setup. I got hundreds of emails a day, and dealing with them all took a lot of time and energy. So I decided to do something about it.

Let’s start with the easy changes I made – simple steps that didn’t require a lot of mental work.

# Unsubscribe from things

This one seems obvious, but it’s important to mention. It is always easier to just archive an email instead of hunting to the bottom, finding the tiny unsubscribe link, clicking it, maybe even signing in, and navigating a confusing UI.

Ugh.

But I made it my rule that when I get a message and I can unsubscribe from future ones, I do. Every time, no exceptions. It takes discipline, but it’s been the easiest win in the long term.

# Disable GitHub’s auto-watch

If you’re a developer, go to your GitHub settings and uncheck the box “automatically watch repositories.”

GitHub settings

See, when you get push access to a repo (someone forks your repos, or an organization you’re in creates a new one, or whatever) GitHub “watches” this repo for you by default. How kind.

But this generates a tonne of email. Every issue, and every pull request gets sent directly to your inbox. Yuck!

Once you’ve disabled the auto-watch setting, you need to unwatch all the repos you can. For me, this cut down about 40% of my daily email – messages I wasn’t reading anyway.

One big caveat: you need to be careful to watch any important repos. Even ones you create won’t be watched anymore.

# GitHub filters

Now that I was only getting emails from GitHub from repos I care about, I needed to only receive notifications I care about. For Artsy’s repos, I want to stay on top of any PRs I’m assigned to, but 90% of the emails I get are for someone else. So if an email comes from eigen or energy and it doesn’t contain the text “ash”, then it gets auto-archived.

Sure, I’m not as up to date on all the changes being made in those repos, but I’m also a lot more productive in general. I think, from my team’s perspective, the trade-off is worth it.

# Accept not replying

This is really difficult. If someone tweets at me, or emails me, I don’t have to answer.

Whoa.

What a strange concept, that people aren’t entitled to my time and energy.

Usually, people contacting me start their messages with “I know you’re busy, but…” and there is a huge part of me that wants to go above-and-beyond and impress them. I want to help people.

But it hurts my mental health. Having weeks-old emails in my inbox gives me a sense of looming dread. Now, if I haven’t replied within a few days, I accept the fact that I probably won’t ever reply, and archive it. If it’s really important, they’ll get back to me.

# Be judicious with recruiters

Like a lot of developers, I get a lot of recruiters trying to hire me away from my current job.

Not gonna happen.

I used to reply to each one. I even have a TextExpander snippet for it. When I type “sosorry”, it expands to:

Hello,

Thank you for contacting me about this opportunity. I feel like I still have more to accomplish at Artsy, so I must decline.

Cheers, Ash

Eventually I stopped replying altogether, but lately recruiters have been doing this really annoying thing where they email me again and again. Gosh.

To be honest, giving them a form-letter response is easier than getting subsequent “hey, did you see my other emails?” messages.

# Disable email notifications

I’ve had a hard time with this. There’s something scary about not being constantly connected – from severing yourself from email.

But it’s honestly been the most rewarding part of this whole process. I’ve disabled push notifications on my phone, disabled all badge numbers, turned off all UI that indicates I have unread messages.

Honestly, it is a huge distraction to have a big red badge number. I don’t need to see unread email counts in my menu bar, on my home screen, an in my command-tab task switcher. They’re not benign, they hurt my ability to concentrate. I’ve done the same for my Twitter clients, too.

I treat email as something I need to fetch, not something that is allowed to grab my attention. This leads me to my final point.

# Treat email asynchronously

This is very behavioural, not a switch I can flip. I don’t need to answer an email immediately, I can leave it in my inbox for as long as I need to. Accepting the fact I have something to do without doing it right now has been a huge shift for me.

I need to be OK with not answering emails immediately, and trusting that if something is important, then I will get to it later.


These steps have worked for me – I have almost no anxiety around my inbox. Looking back at how much energy I was dumping into this toxic behaviour, email has significantly contributed to my anxiety levels. Letting go has been amazing for my mental health.

Going forward, I want to stop answering emails throughout the day. I want to close my email client while I’m at work except maybe in the mid-afternoon, where I can slot out time to just do email. That’s tough, though. We’ll see.


Posted on October 31, 2015