Archive for the ‘E-mail’ Category

My E-mail Management Strategy

Obviously, there are all kinds of methods people employ to stay on top of their e-mail. I’ve tried using context-based folders and a sort of three-folder system, but that didn’t work for me. Here’s what I’ve wound up doing.

Inbox Zero

As a practictioner of GTD I stick pretty closely to the “inbox zero” concept, keeping my inbox as close to empty as possible. Somehow, it’s easier to do at work, since the messages I get there are more immediately actionable than the ones I get in my personal e-mail. And once you see your inbox get to zero and stay there, you wonder how you ever managed otherwise. After getting used to a clean inbox, I honestly cringe when I see other people’s e-mail inboxes full of months (if not years) of messages. It fills me with a combination of anxiety and pity when I see an inbox with more than a dozen messages.

On rare occasions, I’ll mark messages as unread so I can go back to them later if I can’t deal with them now, but I usually don’t go longer than a day or two before acting on them. I know, this practice of putting things back in the inbox is not strict GTD, but it works for me.

One Huge Honkin’ Folder

Image: My Folders in Entourage at Work I tend to take the “searcher” approach, dumping everything into one huge folder named “Processed.” This folder contains everything I’ve dealt with. Once I read an actionable e-mail in Entourage at work, I act on it, categorize it according to the client the e-mail is associated with (even our own company), and put it in the “Processed” folder in case I need to find it again later. This way, my inbox contains only new messages. And when I need to refer to something from last week or last month or even last year, I’ll enter the client’s name into the search box, and poof! all messages related to that client appear. It sure beats drilling down through various folders, especially when a message can apply to multiple categories. (For example, I might have an e-mail containing FTP information, which would go in the “Info” category since it’s general info, but it may also apply to a specific client, which would go under a category that has that client’s name.)

The Google Made Me Do It

Image: The Gmail Labels I Use for Tagging Messages This one-folder system didn’t happen overnight. In fact, it wasn’t until I began using Google’s Gmail a few years ago that I discovered how liberating the one-folder concept could be. Since Gmail doesn’t use folders, it encourages you to label everything and then archive it when you’re done. I transferred this technique to my Entourage e-mail setup at work, assigning Categories to incoming messages before putting them into the “*Processed” folder in the way I stated above. Once I read and tag messages on Gmail, they get Archived. This helps me keep my inbox fairly empty, nice and tidy.

Automation

One of the things I love about computers is being able to automate stuff, making them do little routine tasks so I don’t have to. In whatever e-mail program/service I’m using, I apply rules and filters to a number of subjects and addresses:

  • Mail from the contact form on my website gets tagged according to the category selected by the user. If, for example the user selects “Purchasing Artwork” for the category of the message they want to send me, the incoming message is assigned a specific tag in Gmail, which expedites my response. This filter is based on strings in the subject lines.
  • Mail from my wife gets tagged with its own tag, filtered by her e-mail address.
  • Industry newsletters get sorted and tagged based on their domain.

That’s pretty much it! The only really tedious part about it is creating the categories at the beginning, and it took a while to form the habit of assigning categories when I send and receive new messages. But I think it has paid off in the end by letting my messages be easily searched and found. Plus, my inbox always tells me what’s important, because the messages in it aren’t competing with 15,000 other messages. It’s not for everybody, but it’s my system, and I like it.

Strategies for Managing Your E-mail

I know I’m not the first person to say this, but e-mail has gotten out of hand for a lot of us. E-mail is here to stay, and it’s not going away anytime soon. It can be great, but it can be annoying. It’s easy to become overwhelmed by it, since a lot of people get too much of it too quickly. There are many people who get hundreds of real e-mail messages a day, not counting spam or junk mail.

So what to do about this onslaught of mail? Well, the number one key is to empty the Inbox as often as possible, dealing with everything appropriately. Avoid leaving loose ends. Don’t leave anything in your inbox that you’ve already touched — you only want to touch it once. That will make you efficient, productive, and confident. It can be a little scary at first, but it’s well worth it.

Several Strategies to Choose From

There are a number of strategies available, depending on your style of working. You might be an organizer with an elaborate system of folders within folders, or you might be a searcher with everything all in one big searchable folder. Here are some of the strategies I’ve come across.

File everything immediately into designated folders, categorized by project or sender

Some people like to use a folder for everything. You can automate this with Rules or Filters, depending on what your mail service/software calls it. (Same thing, different name.)

  • Set filters to check subject lines for certain words or phrases, and put those messages in a specific folder
  • Filter by sender, whether by specific address or domain (everything after the @ symbol) and file accordingly

Flag items for follow-up at a future date using the Flag feature

This is a feature I haven’t really used before since I usually act on e-mail right away (or otherwise file it for reference) but I can see how it would be useful to remind yourself to follow up on something.

Keep everything in one huge, honkin’ folder

Some people like to dump everything into one enormous folder, applying tags or categories to everything. These categories can be color coded. If you’re disciplined and specific with your tags/categories, messages can be easy to find, since you don’t have to go through five different folders to find that one e-mail. The no-folders approach is the one that Gmail has had from the start, and it takes some getting used to at first.

The GTD “Three-Mailbox System”

Use three folders (“Mailboxes” if you’re using Apple’s Mail.app) to sort things into one of three broad but concise categories:

  • Act On Contains e-mails that require action, but you can’t act on them immediately. (The ones that required immediate action were acted upon as soon as you got the e-mails, right?)
  • Waiting For This folder contains e-mails that you can’t act on without some sort of additional information
  • Read & Review For lower-priority messages that aren’t necessarily actionable or that you can read when time permits — perfect for newsletters and the like

Gina Trapani has discussed a similar system at great length on Lifehacker in her post Empty Your Inbox with the Trusted Trio.

What’s Your Strategy?

So how do you cope with e-mail overload? Feel free to share your own strategy for dealing with e-mail in the comments.

Taking a break from the Inbox

A few weeks ago I came across an article by Marc Brownstein on the Advertising Age Small Agency Diary that talks about how stepping away from the inbox can actually boost your productivity and allow you to get more work done. It’s quite refreshing to see a website outside the normal productivity blog circle talk about how e-mail can be a massive time-waste and a distraction mechanism. I’m not as obsessed with it as Merlin Mann is in his Inbox Zero series, but I think there’s a lot of truth in this.

The AdAge article leads me to wonder how many entrepreneurs, small business/agency owners, and solo freelancers can let go of their fear of staying disconnected from their e-mail long enough to truly get some important things done. I understand that this fear comes from a desire to catch each great opportunity as it arises. (Personally I think the best opportunities will allow you time to react, but you may disagree.) Given that anxiety, it can be a challenge to clear your mind of all the tiny little tasks of checking and responding to e-mail that deteriorate your attention.

Here are some excerpts from the AdAge article that resonated with me:

I believe e-mail is diverting our best waking hours from thinking, conceptualizing and dreaming big ideas.

  • Set aside 30 minutes at the beginning of your day, 30 minutes in the middle, and 30 minutes at the end of your day (at home, after my kids are in bed for me!), to go through your e-mail.
  • Let people know that you won’t respond immediately to their e-mails. If you respond immediately, you are only training senders to expect that kind of response every time.
  • Don’t look at your computer screen when someone is talking to you. It speaks volumes about where your priorities are.

Whether you’re a small business boss, a freelancer, or a studio artist, I think the most important take-away here is that it’s important to first identify which interruptions can be avoided, and secondly to develop strategies for avoiding those interruptions, especially when it comes to e-mail. As Jason Echols of Black Belt Productivity put it, It’s OK to disconnect. Find a way to distance yourself from all those little distractions, and you’ll end up being more productive, having banished incremental distractions.

What kind of strategies have you developed for dealing with distractions such as e-mail?