What is your relationship with your email? If you are like me—it is complicated.
I love email
I love email. I can love receiving it. There is still a small rush in seeing the number in parentheses increase on the tab hosting my email. Could there be something unexpected—a friend reaching out from out of the blue, a new social impact opportunity, or collaboration idea from an unlikely source. I can love sending email, too. Writing is one of my favorite ways of articulating ideas, and so crafting an email can create a special kind of satisfaction and fulfillment.
I get overwhelmed by email
That being said, I can feel weighted down by an overload of email—I think of all of the people who I haven’t gotten back to, the emails I am behind on, many messages I haven’t had a chance to open. As an entrepreneur, these emails can range from requests for podcast interviews to marketing opportunities to offers to feature sponsored content to cold emails from service providers, and everything in between. The emails are important to process, but can create a serious feeling of overwhelm. And, instead of getting through more email, I notice my mind shifts focus to other projects completely.
And then there are the email newsletters
Increasingly prevalent in my stream of email have been email newsletters. Oh, the newsletters. I have spent a good part of my professional career writing, strategizing, and distributing content, including email newsletters. It is an incredible way to connect with people who are in our ‘tribes’ through direct notes and updates. At Innov8social, we have the #goanddo guide, an email listserv that has updates on Innov8social and a smattering of event postings and job and internship opportunities in social impact. Newsletters have been a way to connect with our tribe.
However, I am afforded another view as an email newsletter recipient.
Along my social entrepreneurship journey, I have subscribed to an email newsletter, or two, or over a hundred. It happens innocently enough, you attend an event or engage with a website and think “sure, why not subscribe—at least I’ll know the latest news. And delivered right to my inbox! What could be better?!” The convenience and feeling of connection of being part of a community and receiving news is thrilling. Each newsletter arrival is like a small tap on the shoulder, “psst, this just in” or “oh hello there, I have something to say” or “excuse me, I know you are doing that, but look at me,” or “no rush, I’ll just be hanging out here in bold font until you have a chance to check me out.” What started as a feeling of being part of an inner crowd of a website or initiative, when scaled, can feel like a futile attempt to win at Tetris when pieces are piling up faster than you can put them away.
And many listservs can be a bit deceiving—because they come in the form of follow-ups to a place you visit, something you purchased, or related to an event you attended. They may feel like account-related updates, but actually work like a listserv. Over time, these messages come to the inbox on equal footing with and often adjacent to business and client messages and can dilute focus.
Overwhelm is real for entrepreneurs
We may not agree on everything related to entrepreneurship and social entrepreneurship, but news stories, anecdotes, and studies show us that entrepreneurial overwhelm is real. We knew that finding a viable business model, finding partners, and scaling were all par for the course for entrepreneurs. But now, we can add fighting overwhelm.
And feelings of overwhelm don’t happen at just one stage in the entrepreneurial journey—but they pivot and scale too. We have to be vigilant about actively taking steps to reduce feelings of overwhelm so we can focus on the things that matter most—including our work, physical and mental health, and our loved ones.
Hacking email overwhelm: how might we make email better
As an avid communicator-a-la writing, I noticed that one of the key sources of overwhelm is my email. And, I decided to try to hack it.
Over the past year I have polled my social media communities, asked friends, and tried different techniques to create a new strategy for organizing email. This has included incredibly helpful new practices and tools such as customizing labels and tabs in Google email, adding Streak as a CRM overlay to Google mail, and using Boomerang to help re-surface important messages.
These steps have been helpful as post-inbox measures. But if you forget to organize for a few days, your inbox can again fall into disarray, giving path for overwhelm to creep up once more. I realized, that the next level of ‘hacking’ would come from exploring pre-inbox solutions.
From all of this, I recently tried a radical life experiment
So, just as I created a practice around decluttering physical belongings which helped me reduce the things I own, store, and carry by over 70% last year (more on that in another post : ), I decided to unsubscribe. Radically.
Save a few key email newsletters, I have been unsubscribing, to the tune of over 100 email newsletters.
Why and how I unsubscribed
This experiment has included email newsletters from individuals and organizations I adore, respect, and value. I know as an email newsletter sender, we take newsletter unsubscribes incredibly seriously. Beyond the slight heart palpitations that (still) occur each time an edition of the #goanddo guide newsletter is sent out, the next wave of anxiety comes when checking how many unsubscribes followed the mailing—and then second-guessing why a person unsubscribed.
I didn’t want my attempt to reduce overwhelm to create overwhelm or anxiety for content creators, nor make it feel like I don’t value their work.
So, when possible and appropriate, I unsubscribe and then under “reason” I select “other” and write a brief note such as the following:
“I value your work and content. Am simplifying my inbox to sidestep overwhelm : ) If there are any ways to collaborate or co-create, please don’t hesitate to reach out directly. Warm Regards, Neetal, www.innov8social.com”
I hope that giving an honest reason may provide the contextual explanation that being a mere statistic of an unsubscriber cannot convey.
What I learned from unsubscribing from 100+ newsletters
I have learned a lot from this process and wanted to share while the observations are fresh and in case they can be helpful to you.
1. Email can be a form of digital clutter
Even when filtered, archived, and labeled, email newsletter can still be clutter
It’s like having a storage unit. You store things and you feel better because you’re organized. But you are paying for that space–not just with your pocketbook, but with the mental energy of still owning and taking care of things that you might not even need.
2. It’s okay to unsubscribe
In this process of simplifying, I had to give myself permission to unsubscribe. In first part, it was a major change in operating procedure to see new newsletters and instead of thinking, “okay, mental note that I need to get to that” to thinking “let me unsubscribe for right now.” In order to focus on what matters most and become better versions of ourselves, it’s okay to unsubscribe. I think a calmer and more focused mind can also help connect us more meaningfully to other content creators, thinkers and doers in our space. I have made it okay to unsubscribe from newsletters, and also okay for subscribers to unsubscribe from Innov8social’s.
3. No one will unsubscribe for you
When I recently spent time at our family home I realized that my Mom was still receiving snail mail—twelve years after she passed away. Maybe I secretly thought there was a special alert system that would automatically let agencies, companies, marketing organizations of someone’s passing—especially after a number of years. The tough part was thinking that all of these years my dad regularly receives these mailings addressed to my mom.
Similarly, I realized that no one is going to magically unsubscribe us from our digital listservs when we are not around to receive them. Some listservs regularly prune and preen their lists, removing subscribers who do not open or who “don’t respond to this email”— but those that do are few and far between.
And that started weighing on me. If I feel overwhelmed with email clutter in my living days, it’s definitely not something I want to continue receiving after.
4. You can request/find the information in other ways
One of the tenets that guides my social media strategy to this day, and is something I focus on with my clients, came from Gary Vaynerchuk in his famous 2008 TED Talk. He iterated and reiterated that we, as content creators, need to be where our audience is—and not the other way around.
Extend that to email newsletters, and best practices would mean that web versions of email newsletters are also being distributed via social media—a practice that enables us to view, read, share, and enjoy—but not store, these important updates.
5. You might feel mentally and physically lighter, and ‘new’ again
I kid you not when I say I have felt mentally clearer and even subconsciously lighter from a cleaner inbox experience. Also, the simplified inbox makes me feel the kind of excitement and curiosity I felt when I first launched Innov8social—and I have noticed that I have had new ideas around content and partnerships.
6. Less email = more focus
This clarity has allowed me to focus on clients, potential opportunities, and following up with greater ease, and even more joy. Just as negative or white space can make graphic design more appealing and call to actions more pronounced, so too can negative email space help to create a sense of calm and renewed focus.
7. You can always re-subscribe
Another thing I have seen is just like every part of a Business Model Canvas is essentially a ‘hypothesis’ to be proven or disproven as an entrepreneur– so is unsubscribing.
In case you miss a newsletter, you can always re-subscribe. For me, I have a feeling that once I create a system in which I can regularly zero out my inbox, I can re-incorporate a few email newsletters without overwhelm.
8. There has to be a better way
This deep dive into hacking email has made me think of technology-based solutions.
Gmail introduced the concept of ‘snoozing’ emails which is a positive start. But, what about being able to automatically delete emails after a period of time?
For example, I would love the ability to tag email newsletters to automatically delete after a specified time. Though a post-inbox solution, the automatic deletion would ensure that they would not go the path of becoming digital clutter.
Additionally, this would be excellent for calendar reminder emails too—which are incredibly important prior to an event, but can lose nearly all value after the scheduled event.
We are evolving. So too can our communication solutions.
Using an innovation mindset, I have to believe that just as email and email newsletters originally came to be, presumably as communication solutions, we are merely at the next stage where they have become incredibly powerful tools that are now in need of solutions to continue to reach their impact potential.
Curious to learn how you streamlined your inbox, create processes to reduce overwhelm, and zero out your inbox!
Tips from the community (updated)
- Tash Jeffries of HireKind mentioned unroll.me
- David of Innative mentioned using Slack or Asana for project and team communications + quickly assessing emails as soon as they come in (versus letting them sit in inbox)