How I manage my inbox

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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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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, 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.
  1. mattmc3 says:

    This is fascinating. I know you always ask me to send you an e-mail about something or other, and have watched you e-mail yourself. I never could figure that out, because I strongly dislike e-mail.

    I get 100s of e-mails a day. Other than volume, the trouble I have with e-mail is that search (in Outlook) stinks (s..l..o..w..), and reading messages to filter through someone’s prose just to get action items is tedious. I only want to do it one time and distill the info down to something that can go into my “trusted system” (Paul Allen’s GTD philopophy). Appigo’s TODO iOS app is my current TS.

    My typical method of dealing with e-mail is to do a simple 4-bucket filter – either an e-mail is sent directly to me by someone internal to my company, something is sneeze mailed to me via a distro within my company, something is sent to me by someone external to my company, or I’m cc:ed. From there, the e-mails never leave those 4 “inboxes”. I read and respond to direct e-mails within 24 hours. I usually do not respond to cc:ed e-mails as they are an FYI. External stuff requires some on-the-fly decision making as to how to handle it. And I try to just read the sneeze-mail stuff no more than twice a day. Everything that I guess would take more than 5 minutes goes into TODO (synced with, so I could input there as well). Anything under 5 minutes, I get the ball back out of my court. Any e-mail chain longer than 5 messages requires a meeting, and instead of replying I schedule it right there. I occasionally need to sort/search an e-mail, but not often. Usually it’s to forward something I already sent to prove I sent it to someone less organized. I try to have no more than 10 todos assigned per day. This has cut way down on my e-mail management, as there isn’t any. Filter automatically, and read different buckets with different urgency. Important items get written in a separate system.

    I’m not sure I’d have any success with your method, but I’m glad it works for you. Seems to have stuck with you for a long time, whereas I’ve had to adapt mine again and again, but I think I’ve finally found a working system.

  2. Nathan Arthur says:

    Search in Outlook has been very fast for me – I’m using Outlook 2010, on an SSD. Maybe the SSD makes a big difference? If I didn’t have the search, I probably would have a different approach in Outlook. (Gmail, obviously, rocks the search.)

    I usually avoid “distilling” until I’m ready to actually do the work. Too often, the requirements change by the time I get around to it :) I just keep the latest email in the thread (which is a pain in Outlook, but zero work in Gmail).

    I’ve seen David Allen’s “GTD” stuff before, and I always thought it involved too much active management of work items. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Paul Allen’s GTD stuff before. Is this a reasonable overview of it? If so, it’s almost exactly what I do, just via unread, starred, and folders, instead of via some external tool. Email is the tool I use for managing my to-do list; that’s why I’m constantly emailing to-do items to myself.

    I really don’t like the idea of moving stuff out of email and into some other tool – that’s an extra step you have to take for every to-do.

    Internal, external, or CC – those doesn’t consistently drive meaningful response patterns for me. I don’t think it would do much good for me to separate them out. (I already do separate out email lists.)

    My system has evolved somewhat over time, but the only major difference was that I stopped saving all email, a few years ago.

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