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Email Management- Inbox: Meh

A number of different posts and podcasts have been floating around on the topic of email management recently and I thought it would be a good time to explain how I handle it.

Inbox: Meh - A Philosophy

The first main premise of my system is to treat your email with the distain it deserves; most of what clutters your inbox is useless. Similar to your actual postal mail, there are bits and pieces that show up that are important, but most of it is junk. The biggest difference that makes email so much worse is that it takes almost no effort to send email, and you can send it to tens of thousands of people with one click.

The second main premise is for 99.999% of the population email management isn't your actual job; your company is generally paying you for something much more useful/valuable. So please put away your mailbox OCD, stop caring how many messages are in your inbox, and get rid of most of your folder management schemes. If you like sorting mail so much, I'm sure the mailroom or post office has openings.

Delete Early, Delete Often

Considering most of your email is useless, delete it. This should be your only real email triage, especially on mobile devices- delete, delete, delete. The only exception is unsubscribe; if there is an option to reduce your mail volume by unsubscribing to whatever useless vendor newsletter you're getting weekly, do it.
Sadly, most of the mail volume comes from corporate distribution lists and criminal abuse of the CC: line for which unsubscribe can't save you.
With each email ask yourself these two questions:

  • Does it contain information that I may want later, but isn't important enough to keep elsewhere?
  • Is the email directed to me that requires I do something (that I actually plan on doing)?

If the answer is no to both, delete it.

Embrace the Chaos

Email is what is considered unstructured data similar to your document folders on your file server or computer. It's natural to try to bring order to it with complex folder structures, but resist. Think about how Google has changed how people browse the internet- less bookmarks (with their own organizing folders), more searching. How many times have you searched for something and clicked on a purple link?

Advanced search capabilities are available in email as well (Gmail, Outlook). Leave any email you're keeping in your inbox and just leverage your search function.

Exceptions to the rule

Every hard and fast rule need some exceptions, and this no folder rule is no different. I've created two folders: Feedback and Bulk. The first one is used to keep emails that contain any useful feedback (praise or suggestions) that are particularly useful for annual reviews (They're also usually hard to search for anyway as they're generally at the end of some other email thread). The second folder is a pre-trash folder that has a matching mailbox rule- "any email from these addresses are sent directly to this folder" that I add addresses to on occasion. 99% of the mail in there is from internal distribution lists. I delete the contents every few weeks. I may upgrade this rule soon to dump the bulk folder and send the messages directly to the trash.

What About the Important Emails?

Remember those emails that were directed to me that required I do something? These are the only ones we really care about. The others (I call them reference emails) we just need to have so we can search them later if need be.
How you handle your important emails should be managed by whatever larger task/work management system you use. On mobile (since I'm stuck with Exchange and ActiveSync), I use the email flag to bring it to my attention when I get back to my desk. Once there, I happen to like Trello to manage my work in progress, but use whatever system works for you. Heck, you can just use the email followup flags and reminders if you want.

What You'll Begin to Notice

I came up with this system somewhat organically when I had basically given up on my previous inbox-zero email sorting system and just let it all go. As I realized I wasn't really missing anything by not obsessively managing my inbox, I added the few extra things noted above and it's been smooth sailing for a few years since.
When I think back, I still can't believe there was a point in time where I had my phone (BlackBerry at the time) set to buzz at every new email.
My Email now works for me, I don't work for it.