I’ve used email since the beginning of the early days of the Internet’s explosion in the mid-80s. It’s gone through quite an evolution as have my methods of managing what is probably a massive flood of incoming information. Since my methods work pretty well for me, I really wouldn’t know.
Lately I hear people either discussing how they fight their huge battle with email, sometimes winning and sometimes losing, and I’m struck by how often they seem to miss some techniques I’ve taken for granted for years now.
In my current job I spend about 20 minutes reading email in the morning. After that, all of the email labels (basically folders if that’s the paradigm you use) are read, I’m at what is sometimes called “inbox zero.” Throughout the rest of the day, I watch for occasional emails from my team and the chain of people I report to. That’s basically it. I never see an email message that I wouldn’t want to.
Here are the main techniques that I’ve found success in using.
I’ve used Gmail since it came out in 2004, both for personal and work email. In all that time, I’ve never deleted an email message. That was an original idea of Gmail, you were never expected to. Google’s email service effectively deals with spam so that’s immediately out of the equation. I’ve barely given a thought to spam in that many years. I don’t check my spam folder. There were maybe two times when I seemed to be missing a message and I found a false positive in there, but that’s it.
Some people seem to be mystified by or simply don’t like the conversation view. I can’t imagine why this is. It’s the most effective and logical to view an exchange of messages. The list of “messages” (actually conversations) in a mailbox is immediately shorter, you can see how many are unread by conversation, and the snippets show you a bit of context.
I’ve used or taken a careful look at most of the email programs, interfaces and services over it’s history, particularly in roles of providing user support and also being a system administrator of email servers. Please take my word for this, conversations in Gmail is the best way to read email.
Use Filters and Labels
I use lots of filters. The filters themselves aren’t terribly complicated. Usually they either filter by who the email is from (one of my bosses), who it’s to, typically an email list, e.g., my team, and sometimes the subject line.
The filter usually skips the inbox which means the message won’t appear there. (Gmail tip: There is no inbox. There’s nothing but a gigantic barrel of all of your email, but you typically view it by labels on the email. “Inbox” is just another label. So is “Spam”. Etc.) They usually go into a custom label and may be marked as read or not.
When naming labels, I give them names so they are properly sorted in the left hand column. Important filters start with the letter A, e.g., “A Bosses”, “A Team”, “A Project XYZ.” The filters for those labels won’t be marked as read so I can see how many unread messages there are from a boss, my team, on the project.
After that come some less important labels like “B Some Other Project”, “B Meeting X”, etc. Those might be unread or they might actually be marked as read. They don’t show up as bold with an unread count, but I can go look at that “pile” if I ever need to see what’s been going on there. Similarly, there are a few labels starting with “C” that are even farther down on the list.
Below those, and probably off the screen, are labels without a special sorting letter in their name. Usually all of those are marked as read (by the filter when the email arrives) and chances are I’ll never look at them. This is where things go like chatty notification services which is effectively noise. There maybe tens of thousands of messages in these. If there were some particular kinds of messages in there I needed so see, lost in that noise, then that means writing a more specific filter to put those messages in a more important label and leaving them unread.
Finally, you can set each label to be shown or not. If you mark it as not shown, then it won’t even be in the left-hand list when you scroll down. At the end of the list it says “More” with a little arrow. You click that to extend the list with the rest of the not-shown labels. If there are labels of mail I don’t even care to remember the existence of, I don’t need to be reminded they are there, I put them in that list. It’s like the closet, or maybe even the trash heap.
After all of the filtering is done, all that remains in my inbox is the general, uncategorized email, that I need to ready on a daily basis. That’s reduced down to the 20 or so messages I read each day.
Now I can look at my labels in the morning and see what messages are there. There are maybe 10 labels I read each morning but I don’t go through each label reading messages one by one.
I read the reporting chain label, team mail, and then typically the inbox next. Note that I’ve been a GTD advocate and user for some six years, so, of course, I don’t spend more than a couple of minutes on a message. If a message is a long read, or requires something to be done, I add an item to my Next Actions list, or some appropriate list. I usually put a link back to the message in the action.
(Gmail tip: You can refer back to any particular conversation/message by copying the link from the browser. That link will always work for that message. I typically just add a word “[Email]” and link the “Email” part to the message so I can just click on it.)
So I might have one or two new actions.
(Gmail tip: You can search using the search term “label:
For some chains, I just flip through the messages quickly to see what their content is. If there’s not a need to read it then or maybe ever, I don’t. This is different from just marking it as read. I still open and look at each message to be sure I know what it’s about.
For some labels, I don’t even do that. I just open the label and look at the conversation subjects and snippets. Often that’s enough, because this label already represents reduced importance. Then I just check all of the boxes by checking the one box up at the top of the list, go to the “More” menu button and select “Mark all as read.” Done for that label.
For the rest of the day I keep my team’s label selected and ignore most of the other labels, and the inbox, even though they accumulate new, unread messages through the day. They’ll be dealt with next morning.
So, the basic idea is to tune the incoming email so I only see what I need to see, and only read what’s important. I’ve found that most of this tuning can be done in four to six weeks of a new job, then there is a decreasing number of tweaks through out six months to a year. Beyond that, I only tweak a filter or add a label every three to six months probably.
Some readers here may note that Gmail will automatically prioritize your messages and even sort it into major categories to help you read it. I’ve heard that these seem to work quite well. I actually turn all of those features off since my email handling is already finely tuned.
Note what I don’t worry about: mail quotas, deciding what messages to delete, organizing folders, spam. Those are problems more than 10 years in my past. I’m amazed people still have to battle them on a daily basis.