filed under: effectiveness, geek
4 August 2012
It turns out that other people don’t use email the same way I do. And it turns out that some people think my email use patterns might have some useful ideas. It also happens to be the case that I’m well-known for being good at keeping track of things, and my inbox is basically the way I do that, so maybe explaining my inbox will help people get better at keeping track of things. So here it is :)
First rule: the only things in the inbox are things that are still underway, in real life. Once something is done, the email gets deleted, archived, or filed in a folder.
Second rule: only have a single inbox that receives messages that might result in a to-do for you. Mail rules that filter email lists and such into folders is fine – as long as that email list is passive-only. (And in the rare case where something from the list generates a to-do, move that email to the inbox.)
Third rule: the inbox has three statuses:
- New / unread – the things that you haven’t seen yet, or that you need to deal with in the short term (today or tomorrow, ideally). Example: an email from your mother with a question about her TV.
- Flagged / starred – the things that you need to deal with in the longer term (3 days – a few weeks). Example: an email reminding you to blog about your inbox usage rules.
- Read / not-flagged – things where someone else is responsible for taking the next step, but which you want to keep tracking. Example: a shipping notice from Amazon.com, for an item that hasn’t arrived yet.
Fourth rule: everything that I have to keep track of (i.e. my to-do list) goes into my inbox. I am constantly sending myself little one-line emails, because that’s how I manage my to-do list.
Some secondary rules:
- If something sits in the “flagged / starred” category long enough, give up and archive/delete/file it.
- Periodically review the entire inbox, cleaning out things that aren’t going to get done, and following up on things that have stalled.
- The entire inbox (all three categories) should always be relatively short. I can gauge how overworked I am by whether my inbox has 5 things in it (ideal!) or 50 (WAY too many). I typically run at about 20. Looking at my (personal) inbox now, I have 6 unread, 8 starred, and 4 read.
Some notes about how this works in Outlook / corporate email:
- I use flags for the long-term to-do items, and unread for the “new” status. I’ve tried setting flag reminder dates, or using different-color flags, and neither adds much value (for me) compared to the time spent managing them.
- I delete most email once it’s handled, but I don’t have Outlook remove things from the Deleted folder until it’s a month old.
- I keep all my sent mail. (Have it be locally archived if your company restricts mailbox size on the server.)
- I keep a few key folders for explicitly filing things – but not many. It’s easier to search than it is to manually file and then try to guess where I filed something. It’s also very freeing to just accept that deleting email is OK.
- I usually have a few project-specific folders under my Inbox, where I stash things I might need to reference later for a specific project. Once the project is done, I delete the folder.
- I also keep a single “Save” folder that catches most things I think I might want to get back to someday, and then usually I have a few sub-folders for specific topics (like “sales” or “people”) – but I keep it to just a few folders.
Some notes about how this works in Gmail:
- I use Gmail’s priority inbox because it is designed for me. It effectively (automatically) splits the “new” category into “email I need to see soon” and “everything else”, and then gives me a split view of my three categories, so the most urgent stuff is at the top, and the least urgent at the bottom. It’s perfect.
- I archive every email, no matter how unimportant, once I’m done with it. No sorting or (manual) tagging – search is the answer here. And by archiving everything, I don’t have to pause and make a decision about whether to archive or delete. Sometimes I’ll forward an email to myself just to add keywords to it, so I can find it more easily later, but that’s it.
- I do make use of Gmail’s automatic filters, to automatically tag emails. Most of that’s for shopping stuff (like Amazon) so I can spot it easily and mark it read (until the item arrives, when I archive it). Sometimes I’ll make a manual tag for temporary topic management (like “holiday planning”), but that’s rare.