My Takeaways’ from Jocelyn K. Glei’s book Unsubscribe

More than a book about email management

Unsubscribe was right up at the top of my list of most impactful books with Deep Work and Essentialism. It sparked a few new ideas related to managing my focus.

This is much more than a book on email. Though email is a large portion of the context for the principles Jocelyn lays out, her clarity regarding our impulse checks, communication blunders, and focus deficit, is revealing. You won’t find a book of tips-and-tricks related to email management. Though you will learn an abundance of best practices when it comes to managing your inbox. This book will challenge your disposition toward digital communication, edit your writing tendencies, and retarget your focus on that which is truly important. If you want to gain clarity about doing work that matters, Unsubscribe is a breath of fresh air.

Lab Rats

One of the first principles that stuck with me since reading is the concept of a variable interval reward system. It was an experiment conducted by psychologist B. F. Skinner back in the 1930s in which rats were rewarded with food pellets for pressing a lever on a fixed interval and a variable interval.

The short of the experiment, the rats were much more engaged by the variable interval than a fixed interval. With the variable interval, the rats never knew when they would be surprised by a food pellet, thus, they would remain steadfast in repeatedly pressing the lever down until they were rewarded. Where as when they were rewarded on a fixed interval of say, every 200 level presses, they lost interest.

Applying this theory to our compulsive checking of social feeds or email, is revealing. We love that personal interaction hidden in the flurry of activity. It comes at a variable interval, there’s no rhythm to it. A personalized email doesn’t just pop through every 200th spam email. Doesn’t happen. The heart felt messages come at random and it keeps us coming back for more.

Quoting the research from Jocelyn’s book, the average office worker checks their email 74 times a day. 😳 It’s the compulsion that something new and exciting is going to be waiting for them. We derive a feeling of productivity by our responsiveness to our inbox.

This experiment shed some light on my own impulse checking with different social channels. Checking and checking again throughout my day, looking for that special reward. The impulse to check becomes stronger the more I return. Eager for that next social interaction.

But this awareness has also led to new ways of limiting distractions. I’ve changed some of the ways notifications are displayed on my phone and computer. Only checking messages when I choose to, not allowing them to intrude my mental headspace by displaying on my lock screen.

Focus is a Precious Commodity

The other main takeaway from the book is that our attention is a precious commodity. We have a finite amount of focus each day and we must be selective with what we give it to. It’s helpful to think of our attention capacity in terms of currency. You have a limited amount to spend each day how are you choosing to spend it?

Every email, task, twitter ping, and cat video takes a small portion of this currency.

Am I spending my focus currency on what is truly important?

Secondly, when interacting with others, how much focus currency are you asking for? Do you make it easy for others to respond? Do you send vague emails with no clear ask? There’s nothing worse than getting a vague email that is requesting a slew of information in a really unclear way. Don’t contribute to the exasperation take an extra minute or two when composing a message and articulate your request succinctly.

Just as we seek to limit our attention cash flow, we should be aware of how we are asking others to spend theirs. Email is one context, but this principle applies through basically any channel of communication.

You don’t owe anyone your attention. And conversely, no one owe’s you theirs. It’s a privilege to be given the thought and attention of others in our overstimulated society.

Email best practices I picked up

  • Don’t send emails (or process emails for that matter) when hungry, tired, or angry.
  • Write the email first, then address the email to whom is going. Prevents you from sending a incomplete email, and forces you to think through the purpose of the mail.
  • Always re-read your email completely before sending. Check for grammatical errors, spelling, and overall friendliness :) See below.
  • People have a negative interpretive lens bias when interacting with digital communication due to the lack of body language, facial expressions, and tonal emphasis. Error on the side of positive and gratitude when composing messages.
  • Debating over email is never a good idea.
  • Ask yourself, is email the best form of communication to accomplish this task?
  • What is the objective of the email you are sending? Are you making a request? Do you need more information? Are you scheduling something? Make action items clear and succinct if requesting information. If scheduling, give all necessary details. Date and time options, as well as specific meeting location. This will reduce redundant email exchanges and close the thread more quickly.
  • Batch process emails. Set a timer for 10–15 minutes, open your inbox, and process as many emails as you can in the time period. When the timer expires, continue if you feel up to it, but it’s a choice not an obligation. When you’ve decided you have finished, close your email client.
  • Pre-determine how many times you will check your email in a given day.
  • Throughout the workday, do not leave your email open in the background. This leads to a constant state of dual focus. You may be working on something else, but your brain is never able to fully focus on one task because it is waiting for another email to come through.
  • Regularly unsubscribe from newsletters you are no longer interested. Make a habit of clicking the unsubscribe button to reduce the clutter in your inbox. Just because you were interested at one time, doesn’t mean you still are. And if you’re worried about missing out, you can always resubscribe down the road if you really want to.

Final Thoughts

Jocelyn finished the book in splendid fashion making the argument, “Distraction is the enemy of creativity.” This summarizes the book very well. It’s not merely about managing your inbox better, it’s about managing your focus. If you are constantly being pulled to check your email or social feeds, you are not doing what is most important. Fill in the blank for whatever that may be for you.

Value emerges as the product of focused work that unfolds over time. — Jocelyn K. Glei

To do our best creative work, it will only come as we harness our ambition on a singular task over time. The things that disrupt our ability to give our attention to the important work are distractions. Be proactive about limiting the distractions in your world.

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