April 22, 2009
I’ve been meaning to regain control of my email for quite awhile, but for some reason I had just never gotten around it until a few weeks ago. For years, I’ve had at least a half dozen primary email accounts that I need to check daily. I didn’t do any sorting — everything just came into each account’s inbox and stayed there forever. Clearly, this is not ideal.
You can imagine what that looks like when you’re trying to find something — an endless list of messages with no organization at all. I would most often use my mail client’s search function to find something, but that wasn’t always reliable and tended to result in a lot of hits I didn’t want. I often found myself sitting down to complete a project and wanting a series of emails that were spread over the past few weeks with various questions, concerns, and feedback from the client/stakeholder for that project. Finding those messages in an unclassified inbox was a nightmare. In addition, if I had near-term action-required emails (bring something to work from home tomorrow, pay a bill within the next couple days, or anything that required a response), they would get lost in the noise of less important emails. If I didn’t (or for some reason couldn’t) act on those emails right when I read them, I was at risk of forgetting about them.
The core of a solution was some kind of sorting methodology, clearly. But what to do? I needed something flexible, powerful, and mostly automatic — because if I have to manually sort a hundred emails every day, it will never happen. Most importantly: the Inbox is a sacred place. The only time a message should be in the Inbox is if it is unread or if it requires me to take further action.
Put it all in one place
The first thing I decided was that I wanted all my email going to one place so I could more easily parse it — I forwarded it all to my main GMail account, and configured that account to be able to send mail as those other accounts, so I can still send out messages under my various addresses from one place. I also moved from a desktop mail client — Apple Mail — and decided to work solely out of the GMail web interface, because of the way GMail’s labels and archiving work (not to mention that Mail and most other desktop clients I’ve used start falling on their face when you get tens of thousands of messages in them).
Filter it out
Next, I setup a whole bunch of filters — automated rules within GMail that perform various actions based on criteria you specify. They’re very powerful — I have various rules applying labels (GMail’s version of folders) to emails depending on such conditions as who they’re from, what keywords are in the subject or body, which of my various accounts the messages was originally sent to, or any combination thereof. I spent quite awhile setting up my filters and occasionally still add to them, but for the most part I’m happy with my filter setup.
However, having all my mail in one place and applying those great labels still doesn’t solve one big problem — all my messages are still just listed in my GMail inbox. Important messages, despite being labeled, are still going to be surrounded by tons of noise. This does not jive with the Sacred Inbox directive.
One huge feature that most GMail users overlook is the “Archive” command. When you archive a message, it no longer appears in your Inbox — it’s still accessible via “All mail” or by viewing any label with which that message is tagged (or just by searching), it simply doesn’t show up in the Inbox anymore.
So what I’ve started doing is archiving messages when I’m done with them — anything that doesn’t require a response or to which I have already responded gets archived. When reading a message from the Inbox, the Archive button is right up there next to the “Back to Inbox” link…and it also takes you back to your inbox after it archives the email. So it takes no additional clicks, no additional work. I read the email, I respond if necessary, and if I’m done with it, I hit Archive and go to the next message.
I’ve also worked the archive command into some of my filters for emails I don’t need to see immediately. For example, notifications from Twitter get tagged “Notifications” and archived automatically. I like to peruse these emails a couple times a week to see who started following me on Twitter, but I don’t need them cluttering up my Inbox.
Results and observations
I’ve been operating this way (sort of my own version of Inbox Zero) for a few weeks now, and the difference has been amazing. I feel less overwhelmed by my email, it’s easier to find relevant messages when I sit down to accomplish a task, and I don’t forget to take action on messages that require it.
I was hesitant at first about switching from a desktop app to a web interface, but since GMail does a good job with keyboard shortcuts it makes the experience quite a bit more palatable. I also use Fluid to setup a dedicated GMail “application” on my Mac which always runs in its own window, separate from my regular web browser, and has a few niceties like an unread count on the dock icon and additional keyboard shortcuts.
If your inbox is an unorganized disaster and it stresses you out sometimes, consider some of these methods to reach Inbox Zero. It’s made all the difference for me.