How I use e-mail

I have previously explained how I use Wunderlist and iOS. This post tackles a productivity problem that I see all the time. Dear reader: Is your inbox a disaster? Do you open Outlook and look upon a reverse-chronological list of every email you’ve ever received and feel a sense of dread and frustration? Verily: Do you (appropriately for Halloween) shiver with fear when opening… nay, at the very invocation of the dreaded word… E-mail?

You need a system for managing your e-mail. You need it right now—but the problem is so massive and frustrating that you don’t know where to start and you don’t even want to think about it. Dear reader: Have hope.

One of the changes that I made to my life last summer—for reasons explained in my Wunderlist post—was to get serious about the realities of e-mail. It was “do or drown.” I was receiving nearly two hundred e-mails a day (don’t hold me to this, but I think that the specific number when I averaged it over a week was 185) and things were slipping through the cracks. And, yes, I had a spiderweb of creaky ad-hoc mail-processing rules that had built up over the years directing some of the more obvious it to a folder called FILTER, and, yes, I had the mortal remains of various attempts to implement a folder structure, but my inbox was still a disaster. So, one day, I held my breath and deleted all those rules and started from scratch.

To be clear: I wasn’t reckless about it; I didn’t just snap one day. I had given it some thought. I already had the idea of a folder called FILTER as a place to route things like vendor email. Merlin Mann’s “Inbox Zero” concept was useful, but too rigorist to be implemented pat in my situation. The value to derive from Mann’s talk, I think, is its premise: The ideal state for your inbox is empty. Nothing should permanently live there; the only two things that belong there are unread messages and messages that still require some action from you. Everything else should be either deleted or archived.

Also influential on me was the notion of actionability. The e-mails about which I most need to be concerned are those that either require action of me or facilitate action by me. This will sound harsh, but—and I think that if you take the time to look at your own inbox the experience will bear it out—the vast majority of e-mail that is sent to you “FYI” or “CC” is not very useful, and it’s urgent only very rarely. In the mine-run of cases, people use carbon-copying the way drunks use lampposts: For support, not illumination. Much the same goes for internal mailing-lists, and the more recipients on the list, the lower the average value of messages sent. Again, it sounds harsh, but if your organization has an AllStaff list, I’d bet that any given message sent to it is more likely to be about a bake-sale than it is to communicate useful information that you, individually and specifically, need to know and act upon.

With these things in mind, the question that I asked myself before starting again was, “What do I want to see in my inbox?” For me, at that time, the answer was:

  • I want to see things if they are
    • sent directly to me from within the organization,
    • directly to me from outside the organization if they are actionable,
    • sent to the distribution-list for my department by someone within the department, or
    • sent by my boss, her boss, or my immediate colleagues.

To implement that, I created three basic rules: “Internal bulk mail,” “external bulk mail,” and one rule to rule them all, the usually-redundant but almighty “Default rule.”

  • “Internal bulk mail” dumped anything from a sender within the organization that was not sent or carbon-copied directly to me (i.e. I’m getting it because I’m on a distribution list) into the FILTER folder, and tagged it with the blue category, unless it came from specified senders, which allowed me to exempt a few people whose mail I always wanted to hit my inbox. (Don’t worry, beloved former colleague reading this; you were totally on the exemption list. I certainly wanted to get your email about your bake-sale!)
  • “External bulk mail” similarly dumped messages into FILTER, but the matching criteria were a little different. Vendors eventually get your e-mail address and send messages directly to you, and so any time I saw repeat-offenders, I added their e-mail domain to the filter rule. You can’t get rid of one-off drive-bys, but over a few months, you build up a pretty good blocklist that catches most of it.  
  • Lastly, the default rule bridged the gap. Any e-mail not sent directly to me: If I wasn’t at least carbon-copied on it, it goes into FILTER.

These three rules, plus a few more for categorization, fixed e-mail. That is to say a lot in two words, if you think about how broken most people’s inbox so let me say it again: They fixed e-mail. If you are drowning and missing actionable items because of the crush, if your inbox currently has more than, say, a dozen unread messages in it, you should think seriously about implementing something like this system. Your version won’t look precisely like mine, because everyone’s needs and preferences are different, but this is a good place to start.

It does, however, come with a warning. The key to this system is that you have got to look at FILTER. You can’t treat it like a spam folder and ignore it, because these rules are massively over-inclusive. A few times a day, you should glance through FILTER and see what’s going on. But here’s the thing: Now you aren’t panning for gold in your inbox; you can just very quickly glance over a list of messages that probably aren’t actionable—might be interesting, you might read or flag something that catches your eye—and then go back to your inbox. It’s not that I’m never interested in knowing that there’s a bake-sale, it’s just that when that e-mail is aggregated with all the other stuff that is, you have to admit, of lower priority than an email saying “I need help with a presentation that’s taking place in ten minutes,” it lowers the signal-to-noise ratio of my inbox. Information overload is a real problem, so, to avoid missing that which is vital, we have to be clear-eyed and unsentimental about that which isn’t. 

This is where we can pivot and talk briefly about categories and why they’re so useful. When I would look through FILTER, obviously I was much more concerned to be attentive to internal messages, and those stood out because they had the blue category attached to them. Similarly, I had a rule that applied the red category to e-mails from “important” senders, and the teal category to e-mails on which I was merely carbon-copied. When I arrived in the office and opened Outlook, I knew what needed my attention first: Messages that are in my inbox and which don’t have a category. That’s because I have rules dealing with predictable messages—it’s unpredicted messages that are the most likely to be from people within the organization who require action.

The only downside to categories is that, unlike rules, they don’t work on iOS devices attached to your mailbox (even, frustratingly, in the Outlook app—thanks, Microsoft, good job), and as I transitioned to using an iPad as my primary e-mail platform (we can talk about RSI another time), that became more and more of a problem. I don’t yet have a solution to offer, beyond pointing out that the nice thing about Mail is that you can mark people as VIPs, and that can serve the same function as my “red” category—you probably want your immediate colleagues and boss on that list.

Finally, a word about outflow. The main reason that I couldn’t implement Inbox Zero was its focus on emptying your inbox every time you deal with email. That was impractical for me. Sometimes you don’t have time to write a response on the spot; sometimes an email requires action from someone else. And, yes, sure, you could create a folder called “pending” and put those messages in there, but “out of sight, out of mind”—that’s the whole point of FILTER. I think that the more practical solution is to leave e-mail that still requires action in your inbox and conceptualize your inbox as a tasklist: Any message in my inbox is an action-item, either I haven’t yet read it and need to, or it’s waiting for me to do something with it.

But what happens when you have acted on an e-mail, when you’re done with it? I see a lot of people who have complicated folder-structures, and maybe that works for you, maybe it doesn’t. There are sometimes good reasons for that “virtual filing-cabinet” approach. To me, though, it feels obsolete. Think about it (this is Mann, again): When you’re trying to find an email, what do you do? Do you dig around in your folders? Or do you just search? Odds are,  the latter. So for me, the simplest solution is the best: Create one folder called “prearchive,” and drop everything into that when you’re done with it. (I would suggest that, having implemented rules to keep your inbox clear of non-actionable items, it is only rarely that you will delete an e-mail that hit your inbox.)

As with all these productivity posts, my suggestion is: Take from this whatever is useful to you and applicable to your situation, and leave aside what isn’t. There’s value to be mined from systems like Inbox Zero and GTD even if you don’t implement the full system. I hope this gives you some ideas about how to go about taming your inbox.