Unsubscribing from emails

Photo by ÉMILE SÉGUIN 🇨🇦 on Unsplash

Over the last few years, I have been slowly embracing a more minimalist approach to life. For me, minimalism isn’t about ditching everything and living a stoic lifestyle with nothing on my countertops and empty rooms—it’s about living with purpose and only keeping those things that bring value to my life.

Something that I identified that does not bring much value is the tens of email newsletters that I found myself receiving daily. I found them distracting. I found them time-consuming, going through each and needing to decide what to do with it… win it or bin it? Mostly, I’d bin in. What a waste of electricity!

A few weeks ago, I took delivery of Cal Newport’s latest book A World Without Email: Reimagining Work in an Age of Overload. As I began to read it, I was immediately inspired to begin to reduce the amount of email I receive.

I opened a Trello ticket on my current projects board called “Unsubscribe from email newsletters” and created a list to capture everything that I unsubscribe from; that way, if I realise later that I did get value from it, I knew where to go to resubscribe.

I had one simple rule: does this email newsletter give me value? If the answer was either no or I’m not sure, I unsubscribed from it and recorded that in my list.

I have been running this experiment for a little over one month now and I have unsubscribed from 67 email newsletters.

My inbox is now much clearer.

It takes me only a few minutes each day (rather than maybe one hour) to deal with emails.

I can immediately see messages of value—emails from friends and strangers, emails requiring action, and the newsletters that I do want to read and from which I get a lot of value, for example the curious journal and weekly offerings from Documentally).

If you are feeling overwhelmed by the volume of email, I thoroughly recommend it.

Kiwi for Gmail—initial impressions

For the last few years, I’ve been faithfully using eM Client as my preferred way of accessing my Gmail, Google Calendar, and Google Contacts. But this past weekend—having vowed to myself that during 2018 I wouldn’t change any of my productivity tools and instead just focus on getting stuff done—I made the switch to Kiwi for Gmail 2.0 and I have to say that I’m delighted.

Gmail as a native, windowed desktop app... kinda
Gmail as a native, windowed desktop app… kinda

Move away from eM Client

Since Google upgraded their calendar to Material Design I’ve been hugely impressed and have found myself using it almost as much as eM Client’s API view of the calendar. I now prefer the default web app view more than the desktop client.

Similarly, I’ve also found myself using the Gmail webapp almost as much as eM Client, find it to be a little quicker but also feeling that I should get to know the web interface more because it’s the default view.

But what really tipped me over the edge towards moving away from eM Client is how long it takes to open Google Contacts.

Move towards Kiwi for Gmail

I had used Kiwi for Gmail before, but version 2.0 seems to have been a cosmic leap forward compared with what I remembered of the first iteration.

Kiwi for Gmail appears to be a wrapper application that quickly—very quickly—loads the default Google web apps, with a little magic thrown in for good measure.

One of the most immediate is that I now have immediate access to five different Gmail accounts, without the need to log out of one before checking the other.

(This feature is only available in the paid-for version, which is currently on special offer for free with the code: WikiForFree.)

I now have immediate access to five Gmail accounts
I now have immediate access to five Gmail accounts

I’m really looking forward to Gmail getting the Material Design treatment. This will take Kiwi for Gmail to another level.

In the meantime, I’m going to see how I get on with Kiwi for Gmail. But for what it does, I can’t see myself going back to eM Client any time soon. I’ll try to remember to report back after a few months to give an update on how this experience is going.

The importance of a good email subject line

Ever since I first read Sally McGhee’s excellent book on productivity Take Back Your Life! (Microsoft Press, 2005) I have been acutely aware of the importance of writing good email subject lines.

The subject line is the message title that appears in your email client before you open the message to read it. To illustrate, here are a few emails that I received about National Youth Choirs of Great Britain-related activities:

My email client shows me who sent the email and the subject line
My email client shows me who sent the email and the subject line

Write the subject line afterwards

McGhee’s advice is to write the subject line after you’ve written your email, as the subject line should summarise what you’ve written.

How many times have you written a subject line, then written the email message, and then had to go back to edit the subject because it now doesn’t match what you actually wrote?

If the subject line is meant to be a summary of what you’ve written, then it makes sense to write it afterwards.

What makes a good email subject line?

McGhee suggests that when writing a good subject line you should make it very clear:

  1. What project or task you are communicating about.
  2. What action is being requested,
  3. Identify a due date, if there is one.

So, a subject line of “Website” isn’t really helpful at quickly conveying what is being asked. Which website? What would you like me to do with the website? Is it one that you’d like me to update, or visit, or build? Is there a deadline?

Actions

Something that I love about McGhee’s approach, that I would love to see spread more widely, is her use of action prefixes for email subject lines.

There are four different types of action, McGhee suggests:

  1. Action reqiured (AR)
    The recipient has to complete an action before they can respond.
  2. Response required (RR)
    The recipient needs only to respond. There is no action required.
  3. Read only (RO)
    The recipient needs only read the message. There is no action required, and no need to reply.
  4. For your information (FYI)
    The recipient doesn’t even need to read the message, they simply need to archive the message somewhere as it may be useful later.

McGhee then suggests prefixing the subject line with the initials of the action required. For example,

AR Project board status report required by Monday 9 January 2017

Immediately I know that I need to do something, I know what it relates to (the project board), I know what it is (a status report), and I know when it needs to be completed (Monday 9 January).

More than that, if all my emails were prefixed accordingly, I could then sort my inbox by subject line and see a prioritised list of what I need to do: act on, respond, read, or simply archive.

McGhee also has a neat practice for very short messages: write the whole message in the subject line only, so the recipient doesn’t even have to open the message, and end the message with “EOM” (end of message). For example, if I’m replying to an email trying to fix a date to meet for lunch I could write a subject line: “RO Tuesday at 12:30 is fine EOM”.

Don’t make me think!

We know from numerous studies by the Nielsen-Norman Group that screen users tend to scan rather than read every word.

Usability consultant Steve Krug encouraged digital content authors to write with a user-centred approach. His book title “don’t make me think!” has become a mantra in my team.

A bad example from my web host

I became very aware of the importance of writing good email subjects in the light of these insights these past couple of months as the renewal date for my web hosting approached.

45 days left…

On Monday 28 November I received an email from my web hosting provider telling me that I had “45 days left until service expiration”.

Fine, I thought, I have about six weeks to sort it out. I knew that I wanted to look into moving my website to another host, so pencilled in that period between Christmas and New Year to look into it; my current hosting package expires on 12 January 2017 so that would give me plenty of time.

21 days left…

On Thursday 22 December, I received another email from my web hosting provider: “21 days left until service expiration”.

I glanced at the subject line and read the opening paragraph:

There are 21 days left until the expiration of your [package] Hosting garethjmsaunders.co.uk on Jan 12, 2017.

Great! I still have three weeks to do something.

14 days left… WHAT?!

So, imagine my surprise when six days later I received an email from them with the subject line “Sales Receipt”.

WHAT?!

But my hosting doesn’t expire for another two weeks. Why are they suddenly charging me the best part of £260 now?!

That’s when I read through the rest of the email that I received on 22 December.  Paragraph two:

In order to provide you with a smooth and uninterrupted service, we will renew it automatically on the next bill date – Dec 28, 2016. We will charge you 215.46 GBP (excluding VAT) for the renewal period of 12 months.

I quickly got in touch with their support team, got a refund, and instructed them to cancel my hosting on 12 January.

What would have been a better subject line?

Looking at McGhee’s three tips for what makes a good email subject

  1. What project or task you are communicating about.
  2. What action is being requested,
  3. Identify a due date, if there is one.

we can look at the email subjects I received from my web host, and suggest how this could be improved. The email I received on 22 December read, “21 days left until service expiration”.

What project or task were they communicating about? A service was expiring. No indication which—I actually pay for two services with them. It would have been clearer if they’d indicated which one.

What action was being requested? They were implying that I needed to renew (or at least review) my hosting service.

What was the due date? Well, the subject suggested 21 days, but in actual fact I had only 7 days before something was actioned.

A better subject line would have been:

Action required: 7 days until automatic service renewal for garethjmsaunders.co.uk

That is the action that I am most concerned about: when does the money get transferred out of my bank account.

Conclusion

I will certainly be paying closer attention to emails now, but also more careful about writing meaningful subject lines that better summarise the email message for recipients.

Documentally’s Backchannel

Documentally's backchannel
This week’s backchannel email from Documentally

Christian ‘Documentally’ Payne is someone I’ve been following on social media since I first met him in London in 2008.

I love Christian’s style and voice in his writing and the humour and honesty of his videos. I really admire his outlook on the world and his willingness to share so much of his life online with the rest of us. I’m a big believer in the idea that often what we believe to be the most private is often the most universal; I often feel inspired by the stuff that he shares, especially his anecdotes about personal experiences.

I’ve been thinking for a while that I ought to blog regularly about stuff that has happened to me in the past: the stories that I find myself telling in social gatherings, the stories that make me laugh when I’m on my own and wandering aimlessly through my memories, the random stuff that I’m reminded of because of something said or seen or heard. I’ll maybe start doing that as a Throwback Thursday thing, or something.

This year, Documentally started up a weekly email called Backchannel, which has replaced a lot of his blogging. It’s a personal jaunt through his last week: stuff done, books read, drinks drunk, sounds heard, and items bought. I thoroughly recommend it, it’s full of personality and humanity, and a whole bunch of really practical stuff too.

How can I not enjoy something that has a heading of “Greetings from my shed” and opens with:

Nourishing rain. I was starting to feel sorry for the grass. It needs this. More than I need this coffee. But there’s nothing better than sheltering, supping and writing. And it’s too early for wine.

I belong to the rain. If you can be happy on a rainy day, you can be happy any day.

Subscribe to Documentally’s Backchannel.