Study Hacks Blog

Why I Changed My Email Setup

December 16th, 2021 · 43 comments

Last week, for the first time in a long time, I made a substantial change to the configuration of my email inboxes.

This might seem somewhat out of character. As readers of A World Without Email know, I’m largely indifferent about using hacks and technical fixes to improve your email experience. The real problem, I argue in that book, is the implicit decision to coordinate so much of your collaborative efforts with unscheduled back-and-forth messaging. This hyperactive hive mind workflow doesn’t scale: once you have dozens of these conversations unfolding concurrently, you have no choice but to check your inbox constantly, as otherwise you might slow down the ongoing collaboration.

According to this analysis, the solution to email overload is not handling messages more efficiently, but instead preventing them from arriving in your inbox in the first place. You must, in other words, replace the hyperactive hive mind workflow with alternatives that do not generate so much unscheduled communication.

Motivated by these ideas, most of my efforts in recent years to tame my email have focused on implementing better processes — methods for collaboration that don’t just depend on dashing off quick messages. And yet, I still found myself recently needing to make a change to the technical details of my communication setup.

The instigating factor was cognitive exhaustion. On a typical workday, I might put aside a single 30 – 60 minute block in my time-block plan to process my inbox. I use the term “inbox” loosely here, because over the years I’ve built up many different email addresses: my original Gmail address, which I setup back when the service was in beta testing and you needed an invitation to join, a couple academic addresses, and three writing-related addresses connected to my calnewport.com domain. I was forwarding all of these messages to my original Gmail inbox and using filters to move them into dedicated labels, creating mini-inboxes I could quickly cycle through.

The total number of relevant messages arriving through these six addresses on a typical day is not excessive. (Remember, I spend a lot of time combatting the hyperactive hive mind approach to collaboration). But I was still finding the process of responding to them to be oddly draining; a time block I dreaded.

In the end, it was research I had conducted for A World Without Email that helped reveal the issue. In that book, I give a thorough survey of the research literature on cognitive context switching. It turns out that it’s expensive and relatively time-consuming to switch your attention from one target to another, as the process requires a complicated dance of neural network activation and inhibition. In the book, I used this research to underscore the costs of returning to your inbox every few minutes: each such check instigates another expensive switch. It also explains, however, why I was feeling such fatigue during the singular task of responding to messages.

The problem was not the number of emails I encountered, but the fact that were coming from multiple distinct contexts: my personal life, my academic life, and my writing life. Faced with twenty messages to answer, no single missive in the pile would require more than a few minutes of thinking to dispatch. The issue is the context switching between messages: a question from a family member, then a meeting request from a student, then a note about an issue with a podcast advertiser — switch, switch, switch.  The first reply is easy, by the tenth I’m blocked.

So I decided to separate these contexts. I now have three distinct Google Workspaces, each with their own username and password: one for my personal address, one for my Georgetown addresses, and one for my calnewport.com addresses. (Technically, I also have a fourth Google Workspace, for my New Yorker address, but I don’t use it much.)

I no longer schedule “checking my inbox” as a general activity. I instead check these individual inboxes at times when it seems appropriate. I can already notice the difference. When every note in a given inbox falls within the same cognitive context, much less friction aggregates as I move from message to message. Furthermore, I can now schedule inbox checks adjacent to appropriate work blocks: checking my writing inbox, for example, at the end of a podcast recording session, when my mind is already thinking about relevant issues.

If we believe our minds to be black box computational devices, none of this makes sense. Why waste time maintaining three different inboxes if you end up processing the exact same number of messages each day as before? Once we realize, however, that our brain is not a computer, and that it functions in an idiosyncratic, messy manner, these types of humanistic productivity contrivances sometimes turn out to be exactly what we need.

43 thoughts on “Why I Changed My Email Setup

  1. This confirms and puts language to a lot of what I have been thinking. Thanks for sharing this!

  2. His books have changed my perspective on social media and the impact it has on our lives.
    I started by deleting instagram since, I consider it the most addictive of all. Then I unsubscribed from all my email advertising. I only need Linkedin although it is difficult for me to detach myself because I use it to create professional networks.

  3. Eugenio Perea says:

    Interesting. I’ve spent years doing the opposite, operating under the assumption that a unified inbox helps me to not forget about any message because they’re all there, visible. Your new setup sounds completely logical, but I would need to rely on time-blocks, or I’d forget to check one or two inboxes. I’ll give it a serious try.
    I wish I could do the same with WhatsApp, though.
    Thanks.

    1. Sidhant Goyal says:

      You absolutely can, Use Screen time/digital wellbeing to put a 0 second timer on Whatsapp and then use web.whatsapp.com only in the timeblock it gets

    2. RJ says:

      Hey, I started experimenting with having 2 different whatsapp phones.
      It’s amazing.

      I had some whatsapp groups (for example one with about 40 family members) in which sometimes a date for an event would come up that i would like to visit, but for which the contents would mostly be irrelevant.

      I tried writing a script for extracting dates from whatsapp messages, so that i don’t have to read any messages not related to events, but whatsapp doesnt allow for that kind of stuff as far as i know.

      What i did to not be distracted by the group but still be able to attend events is this.
      I got a prepaid sim card for 5 euros and put it into an old slow phone.
      I created a new whatsapp account on that phone, and made it very clear in the description of that account that it will take a long time to get a reply from it.
      Then i asked group moderators to put that account in the group and left the group with my original phone.
      I keep the phone inside a box inside a closet in my house. I take it out about once a week, and just scan the messages quickly which goes very fast if you do it like that.
      The best part of all is that I dont miss the chatter of those groups anymore, and i feel more of a drive to connect with friends in real life.

      It can also help to archive any whatssapp message that doesnt have anything actionable in it anymore. If a new message from that person comes up it unarchives automatically.
      By archiving messages the benefit is I think that It closes the folder in your brain, like with the zeigarnik effect.

  4. David says:

    Next year I plan to start shuttering my gmail accounts and moving to Hey. The experience is so much better. Dare I say it’s made email almost enjoyable again.

    1. Totally agree. Hey has been an awesome solution and I’ve deleted my other email accounts, except for my original Gmail account. I still use that for messages I archive away.

    2. Joe Greene says:

      Interesting. I’ll have to give that a look. I’ve been using ProtonmMail myself.

  5. And yet the “Want to go deeper?” popup appears just as the reader is getting into the meat of each post.

  6. Bogdan says:

    I have been operating like this in the last 10 years, as I have at any moment at least 5 working contexts. An email client (Outlook is the most suitable) helps a lot since you can choose to see a unified Inbox, or one specific inbox. I find Gmail messy and visually unpleasant, so even the Workspace accounts I operate from Outlook. When I open Outlook – is email time, when I close the Outlook is no longer email time. The Asana integration is great so I can transform emails into tasks.

    A World Without Email is a groundbreaking manifesto.

  7. Andrea Winchester says:

    Good idea. I will try your approach. I simply cannot handle my (gmail) email set up as it is. It fries my brain. I feel pretty desperate about it, actually. I have long considered using my Mac address for anything I really “care about” (people, $ stuff) and let gmail handle the garbage I can ignore.

    1. Pat Barron says:

      I totally agree about the vast ‘overwhelming’ feeling when in Gmail, the huge overload of persistent “junk” emails have taken over & they drown my senses horribly after but a ‘few’ minutes & I wind up refusing to want to go back in to deal with any of it!

  8. Darius Baria says:

    I have focused non-context switching inboxes with one Gmail account.

    An email comes in from a particular client/contact and using Gmail filters, skips the inbox and is archived straight away, is marked as read, is starred (meaning it’s not been processed) and then labelled appropriately.

    And then, during the client dedicated time block, I go to a bookmarked URL which just shows me starred emails for that particular client. This can be done for ‘Finance’, ‘Admin’, ‘Personal’ etc.

  9. Alicia Ellison says:

    Thank you, Cal. I have long subscribed to the notion of segregating different types of email traffic into separate accounts, for the very reasons that you articulate (albeit much better than I ever did). I would welcome, however, more technical detail about how you are able to reply to, say, a colleague or student via your Google account, and still have the replies appear to be coming from your university employee account or your course management system email. In my understanding, if you have emails automatically forwarded to a different account, do replies not show as coming from that account?

    1. Vaida Plankyte says:

      I’m assuming in Cal’s case that what he actually has set up is an IMAP/POP integration– you can easily find documentation on how to set it up for your specific addresses– that not only forwards the emails from one address to the other, but also allows you to act *as* that address (i.e. picking an academic address as the “from” field, or automatically having it set to reply from the address the email was sent to)
      hope this is helpful!

      1. Alicia Ellison says:

        Thank you, Vaida!

    2. Study Hacks says:

      I’m not an expert here, but roughly speaking, there’s a difference between a personal Gmail account, where manage an address with a gmail.com domain, and a Google Workspaces account, which is when a company let’s Google manage their email, and your address is associated with your company’s domain. For example, Georgetown uses Google Workspaces to handle its email, so everyone with a georgetown.edu address is using a Gmail interface to do their email. Similarly, I pay for a professional Google Workspace account for my media company, and that’s how I manage all my calnewport.com addresses, etc.

      1. Alicia Ellison says:

        Thank you, Cal!

  10. I do the same dedicating each email address I own to a specific context and dealing with them at specific times.
    But of course it works because I’ve implemented a process which prevent mails to come in (at work and in my personal life).
    Thus it allows me to deal with these email in an efficient way.

  11. Bryan says:

    As with others, I feel the same exhaustion from other interfaces – email, not so much, but slack? Oh my. You never know what’s next when you browse thru the conversations. And tracking actions? forgetaboutit.

  12. Brian O'Neill says:

    Have you considered hiring an assistant to reply to some of the basic emails?

    Also leave me alone is a good service to bulk unsubscribe from newsletters and mailing lists.

    Lastly every now and again I just nuke my inbox and archive everything.

  13. DangerNorm says:

    Context switching is also expensive for computers, and getting optimal performance on highly cache-dependent modern systems requires designing the program’s control flow and data structures from the ground up so as to maximize temporal and spatial locality of reference (“data-oriented design”).

    So it seems to me that this is one way in which our brains are exactly like computers. It is still true, as you say, that if you treat the brain as a “black box” task processor without attempting to understand the nuances of implementation, you will get massively reduced performance, but this also is exactly the same with computers.

    1. Study Hacks says:

      I wrote some about this in Digital Minimalism. In the early days of personal computing, multi-tasking meant that you could do different tasks on the same machine (e.g,. business accounting and personal video games), which was great because you didn’t have to buy single-purpose machines. But there was no notion that you would want to do these different tasks at the same time. Being able to use one machine for many things is good for people. Being able to do many things at the same time on the same machine has not been so good for people.

  14. Brandon Prendergast says:

    I take this a step further. On my Mac, I create two users. One is called Work and the other is Personal. Simply switching users allows me to focus on one context at a time, but still access a shared calendar, address book, and apps. I like this approach very much. It replicates having a personal and work machine, but without having to pay for, maintain, and keep track of two computers.

    1. Study Hacks says:

      This is very interesting and very smart…from a context shifting perspective this makes a lot of sense.

      1. Michele I. says:

        I do something similar, but I created a Chrome user for each Google Workspace User… instead of a whole mac/pc user.

        This way each Chrome instance also retain its own set of bookmarks and open tabs and it syncs across devices.

    2. Kyle Shepherd says:

      This is what I do. I created a user on my Mac for my day job, and additional users for each of my other roles (whether it’s a side hustle or a hobby). That way I keep one machine, but can split out the contexts as necessary. I use separate email clients for my separate email addresses as well.

  15. Neil Barman says:

    Cal, it’s reassuring and quite serendipitous that you have just done this division of email topics. I have been in a similar situation as you and even before reading your post I had embarked on the same process on a hunch that it might help. From even just a month with this structure in place I have noticed that I feel far less reluctant to view a particular inbox because my mindset is prepared for the type of email I will see in it. In my case I have an address that is exclusively for friends & family, another for the actionable responsibilities and realities of being an adult, and another for newsletters/shopping/online presences and the like. (I have a work email address of course but that is only used during work hours so it has been easy to manage.) Like you, I don’t deal with a huge volume of email but even the small amount of email I receive is easier to handle with these separate destinations. I hope you find the same relief that I have.

  16. James says:

    I’ve found the opposite to be true. As I move from a “doer” role in the company to a manager role the difference between personal and professional is reduced. An email from the boss saying that I need to set up a conference call with subcontractors and an email from the spouse saying I need to be home on a particular weekend two months from now result in broadly similar actions–I update a calendar and a schedule. And since I’m planning work more than doing work I have the capacity to treat major family events as equal in importance to work. To give an example, I have a yearly task that I schedule the week before a yearly family vacation. The vacation has work implications–it’s the trigger for when this yearly task occurs–so it’s not a cognitive switch, just data coming in from a different direction.

    The downside is that many conversations with my spouse have taken on the character of a business negotiation. But on the plus side, by treating family obligations as equal to work obligations I am able to be with my family more than I have been in the past. Life is full of trade-offs.

  17. Daniel Dickson says:

    This sentence is awesome: “Once we realize, however, that our brain is not a computer, and that it functions in an idiosyncratic, messy manner,…..” – very wise words Cal. Thank you.

  18. Abhijat Singhal says:

    Great Post Cal. Any thoughts on how to manage emails within work stream. For eg. in my 30 mins email check block, i may encounter 50 different mails from 20 stakeholders.

    One way is to segregate by name, but stil you would have to switch between different names.

  19. Ed Herdman says:

    Encouraging and good advice! Although the closing is a bugaboo of mine: “Our brain is not a computer.” Au contraire, of course it is! Recently, I deleted an old email from the mid 2000s in a certain large email system. The interface uncharacteristically halted without even sending up a notification while the server waited for the file in deep storage, possibly pulling an old tape out of a rack. Computers also face context-switching costs in everything they do. Most computers are designed to be content-agnostic, but the harder the workload, the more likely you’ll see benefits to tailored algorithms or even hardware. AI is also substantially about reversing this design decision.

  20. Christina Blackmon says:

    Well… duh. Why on earth would you schedule a block into your day to answer email? This makes no sense at all. When you are at home you work on home things, when you are at work you work on work things. Checking different emails at the appropriate times is like pooping while in the bathroom or showering while in the shower. The fact that this article exists or that you even wrote a book telling people to do something differently is… pardon my french… retarded.

  21. You have more complexity than I. But then I am retired. My email contexts revolves around only two domains, one for my art and one for my person. This issue is less about context switching and more about handling stress in different ways. Each communication response leads to different stress. Organize your email and check your email only when your mind is ready to handle the context appropriate stress.

    I would like to say that this works. But then I am old. Nothing works properly any more.

  22. Uncreated says:

    It does make a difference for sure. Good way to silence the noise in your inbox is by archiving less important messages according to sender. Archiving bypasses your inbox and creates something of a separate inbox. For instance, all my Youtube replies are funneled into its own folder. It does make things a lot less chaotic-seeming.

  23. nackereia says:

    A better question: Why are we using email to collaborate in 2021?! It’s not an instantaneous medium and shouldn’t be used that way.

    Either collaboration should be done using some form of office tool designed for that purpose (Google Docs, Microsoft Office, Confluence, etc) that lets everyone edit, or it needs to be a meeting. With a tool designed for collaboration, the information on what is needed next is right there, you don’t have to dig through for the inevitable 5 separate threads about the same topic (because someone always decides just one thread was not sufficient enough).

    Email is for “information/action within the current business day,” chat is “action within the next couple of hours,” phone calls are “action now,” and meetings are “action together.” To clarify: for email/phone calls, depending on what the issue is, action now could just as easily look like arrange for when action will happen and set expectations on what each medium is supposed to be for.

  24. Dan Granj says:

    I bought a domain that comes with personalized email service. I setup multiple email addresses within that domains such as health@, banking@, and afakename@. All of them forward to my main account. Then I setup my email filters to assign incoming email into folders based on what target address was used. I use afakename@ for sites that require an email address but are low priority and might receive ongoing spam. I change the “From:” sending address on my outgoing emails to the address I want to appear to the sender. This arrangement is quite copacetic to what you describe in your very appreciated article and has helped me out tremendously. Not perfect, but better. Your point is well taken that this is not a solution if your email remains the trigger and the switchboard for your collaboration activities.

  25. Marija Arbanas says:

    It is great news for all. The end of Gmail and the few and i am not an expert but i wondered is there another email such as yahoo.com,outlook.com etc but i quess no until …thanks

  26. Bibek Mishra says:

    That’s right. When we switch context between multiple varied topics, our minds get tired soon.

  27. Neil Barnett says:

    I have ended-up doing this, but more by accident than design.
    My “main” email address is the one that is known to companies, friends and the doctor and hospital
    My “second” is mostly publicity from various sources, holiday & cruise companies, charities, newspapers.
    My gmail address is reserved for work, since I am freelance, and it is on my phone, so I can see ann opportunity immediately.
    Of course, it’s never as clear-cut as all that, but I can ignore the “second” for a few days, touch base with the “main” daily, and hear about the gmail almost the moment that a message comes in. The way this all pans out as “now”, “soon” and “later” just suits me.

  28. David Sperber says:

    Great article Cal. I am a longtime reader, and firsttime commenter. This really captures some of the frustrations I’ve been having with email, and only recently realizing. I’ve come to the conclusion my inbox is driving me crazy largely for these reasons – everything comes through to the same place. Separate email accounts, or at the very least, filtering/rules for new messages seem to be the answer!

    I am in the process of making changes, and considering separate email addresses (or aliases) vs filtering to labels/folders. One issue I have, and I’d imagine you experience with your setup, is differentiating ‘priority’ (specifically sent to you and generally more important) from ‘mass’ emails (e.g. newsletters, sales from companies, etc.) For a hypothetical setup, when I receive the Study Hacks newsletter, it can be auto filtered into a ‘Newsletters’ label with other mass emails, and that label processed by me when in the context of going through newsletters. (Or instead of the label, a separate email account would be analogous). If I were to reply to the Study Hacks email and then want to elevate the conversation to the ‘important’ inbox, is there a way to configure this setup so the thread goes to the priority inbox? If these were separate email accounts, I imagine this would mean a rule so that the reply gets directed to the priority inbox. A similar example would be promotional emails from sites and specific orders/customer service emails – going based on email address or filtering on domain would not capture the distinction of priority and non-priority emails received.

    Do you, or other readers, have any thoughts on this sort of setup and how to go about it? Anyway, really appreciate the input and again, great article!

  29. One of my most useful e-mail settings is that everything with the word “important” or “urgent” in the subject goes straight into the bin.

  30. Using inbox rules to shuffle emails into high, medium, and low priority has been a game changer. My lab team is now doing most of our project work on Trello. It has been great for our program.

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