The thing that makes email worthwhile is also the reason it’s a royal pain to deal with: it’s universal. If you’re on the Internet, you have some sort of email. It may be the account that comes with your home internet subscription. Or one of a hundred other sources, work, phone, online free mail, or a provider attached to an owned domain name. My point is that everyone has at least one email account. Most importantly, it just works. You don’t have to sign up for some startup powered webapp just to send a message.
This makes email incredibly useful. It also makes it ripe for abuse. Email abuse spans the range from the person who insists upon using “reply-all” in the office, to the worst of the porno-spammers. One thing everyone agrees on is that we get too much of it. The way I deal with it is a simple three-step process that keeps my inbox clean and mostly empty.
The goal is to keep email from building up. Because if the messages reach a certain point, it’s easy to just ignore them. To keep an inbox under control requires a little attention mixed in with a process for handling each email.
The steps I use are: delete, process, and archive. Each step is a filter for the next one. Very few make it to the archive step. The goal is to work through each of the steps before moving onto the next piece of email. Done right, I’m only touching each email once, and it ends up deleted or archived.
I start with the attitude that every email I receive is going to be deleted. It must convince me that it deserves to live. To survive this step the email must have some content that directly benefits me. This could be a coupon that’s useful, or other information that needs acting on.
For me, things that get deleted without further action are:
- Most product emails. I always look at these because the companies sometimes send important messages along with the usually marketing crap. Examples: Starbucks and Timbuk2, both send coupons that I want, but mostly I delete their messages after a quick glance.
- Update emails that are a backup for another notification channel. These are worth a glance, but if my phone has already beeped, it’s a goner.
Email that didn’t get deleted after a glance is now processed. This is also the step with the most variability. Some start a multiple step follow up, some are just read.
Things that I do to process my email:
- Read it: Sometimes an email just needs to be read, with no other action.
- Reply: If it’s a short question, I’ll answer it right then.
- Follow links: These are the summary emails I get, that require visiting a web page for the article. I’ll click, but let the browser open behind. Once I’m done with email, I’ll have several tabs open that I then read.
- Schedule: If the email is about an upcoming event, I’ll add it to my calendar before moving on.
- ToDo: The same for any tasks that come up, they go into my GTD system.
- Flag: I’ll flag/favorite/star an email if I know I’ll be referring back to it soon. This is easy to over-do. It should only happen when there’s no other place the information fits. As rule of thumb, I figure I’ll get one of these per week.
- Leave it: Some emails are worth keeping in the inbox for a few days. These are the ones that I want to write a reply to, but need to do some research before replying.
- Unsubscribe: Some emails make it past the delete step, just because I want to stop receiving it.
- Print/PDF: I like to print a PDF of receipts so I can file it for tax purposes.
Now that an item is processed, I have to decide if it’s something that I want to keep. If it is, I’ll archive it. Otherwise it’s deleted.
Things that I archive:
- Replied to: If I replied to it, it’s worth keeping.
- Printed: This becomes an off-site backup for me.
- Flagged: I flagged it to be able to find it easily. Archiving gets it out of my inbox.
Almost everything else is deleted at this point. The mailbox trash hold them for 30 days before permanently deleting them. So I can always dig out an old message, if needed.
You might ask, “But what about folders?”
My answer: Screw them. You don’t need them, and they’re a waste of time. Archiving is enough. It’s easier to search for something in the big archive pile than it is to try and dig through folders. Sure, the search can find things in folders, but why bother in the first place?
My goal is to have as few steps as possible. Deciding on a folder structure for saved email is more thought than I want to put into email.
If you look at your inbox and despair at the sight of months (or years!) of neglect, not all is lost. It’s time to start from scratch. One way is to delete everything, but the best way is to create a folder called “old-inbox” and move everything to it. Now your main inbox is clean. You’ll keep it updated and process new mails as they come in. Nothing new will go into the old-inbox. It’s there to let you catch your breath, and start over.
The old-inbox can be sorted through when you have time. If it sits for too long and you don’t touch it, just delete the whole thing. The major step is realizing the “save-this-just-in-case” mentality is what’s holding you back.
If there’s truly things in that old email backlog that are important, you’ll find them. Things like deductible receipts or conversations that might lead to paying work are important. The other stuff is just noise acting as a security blanket.
That’s how I keep my email on a leash. I hope this helps get you motivated to do the same.