April 29, 2008

9 Ways to Tame Your Inbox

Lady Lion Tamer

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Cory Doctorow offers up some tried and true ways on taming email in How to stop your inbox exploding. I love his idea of sorting by subject when there's a major "event" in your life as well as setting up filters to check for your name in high volume lists that you can't read daily. Great tips!

Here's some other techniques that I have adopted during my 16 years of taming my inbox. They will help you tame your inbox and probably lower your blood pressure. (And yes I do use an RSS reader for lots of stuff to lighten my email load).

  1. Meetings, bloody meetings and the email they generate.

    There's lots of advice out there on managing email and some of it is based on applying Getting Things Done (GTD) techniques to email by creating specific folders for "waiting for", "someday" etc.

    I have adapted bits of GTD for my own purposes in academia and created a "meetings" folder where I file the gazillion messages about upcoming events and meetings after I've added them to my calendar, of course. I keep these messages around in case I have to fish some tidbit out of them. Every few months, I pop into the folder and do a bulk delete of several months worth of messages.

  2. Face the facts.

    Some of the best advice that I ever received about taming my inbox was to face the hard facts. Sit down and unsubscribe from all the mailing lists that you plan on reading and never get to. If you haven't found time to read it in the last 6 months, then next week isn't going to be any different. That was great advice. You feel so much better without hundreds of unread messages hovering around. Not ready to really do this? Try the next tip.

  3. Start fresh.

    If I think I'm serious about keeping up with a mailing list from now on, I purge all unread posts. Start fresh. Test it out. Assess in a few weeks.

  4. Make folders for rainy day mailing lists or items to look at someday.

    I flag the mailing lists that I read "someday". These are ones that you really do read once every few weeks and I set up rules and file those directly into folders.

  5. File everything and don't treat your inbox as your "todo" list.

    I file all pending items as well as finished messages into topic/project/people based folders.

    My inbox used to serve as my "todo" list for many years. That only works if your to do list is short and if the most important things your work on appear in your email. Otherwise, it tends to skew where you put your time. I put all pending action items re: work on my "Next Action" list and pop the emails in appropriate project folders.

  6. Know when to divide and conquer.

    Some project folders just explode, so I have a naming convention where I can create sub topics. For example, I have data.orders, data.staff, data.students, data.instruction, etc.

  7. Prune your folders.

    Every few weeks I prune my folder list. I look for low use folders that I thought would take off but didn't such as the committee that you managed to escape :-) or the project that never got funded. I delete some folders entirely and aggregate others into catchall folders like "misc". This also the time that I pick up folders that are identical but have variant names.

  8. Speed up filing messages.

    Each day, I speed up filing dozens of message into folders by moving my most active folders to the top of the folder list to facilitate a quick drag and drop for Outlook. I preference these active folders with the numeral zero, to sort them at the top of the list. I use the same technique for labels in Gmail.

  9. Do an annual spring clean.

    This is a tough one for me because it takes about 2-3 hours to archive my email folders. I have way more than a hundred folders. I try to rename and archive the most active folders on an annual basis and move them to the email archive area. I also move defunct projects and initiatives and committees this "historical" area. For example, I have archival mail folders for conferences that I have organized going back ten years. I rarely dig into these, but they're close at hand and quick to access when needed.

Do you have some favourite ways of taming your inbox? I know there's lots of approaches. Some power users keep everything in their inbox and use search to find what they need. Others file everything in one big folder. Some people rely on rules and filters.

What works for you and why? Post your ideas in the comments. We're all in this together.

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Sometime in 2000 I set up a procmail rule to copy every incoming email that made it through my list filters into folders named by month. This extra assurance of having a backup allows me to feel more comfortable deleting email from my inbox quicker than I otherwise might have.

I also have rules that scan for my name, company and a few other items in my list filters to make a copy in my inbox as there are many lists I only read once a month or so, but still want to be subscribed to (a trial run using gmail for my non-work lists didn't fit so well with my own habits).

Its also handy to have all these archived folders searchable. A unix systems I use the mairix tool to index all the email, but Mail.app on Mac OS also does a pretty good job if these folders are accessible via IMAP.

I've held off the GMail switch as most of my email is work related, and private company email doesn't belong there.

Great idea to backup incoming mail.
Would have definitely saved me some painful moments. Wish I had thought of that one years ago. I'll have to add this to my procmail rules.

It doesn't happen often that I do occasionally delete something in error. And it's a new message and I can't get it from the backup as it's brand new. Even worse, sometimes I can't be certain "who" emailed it. Nothing like broadcasting your mistakes to your colleagues by writing - hey did anybody send me a message about XYZ?

Great idea!
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