Email Productivity: Smack Down that Email!

I believe I have a somewhat unusual approach to email – at least, unusual in that it doesn’t seem to be discussed much. It works for me, and might just work for you.

I get a ton of emails – mainly because I either a) have notices and warnings and logs coming from systems I manage, or b) subscribe to way too many newsletters, mailing lists, and so forth. At work, I get notices; at home, I get mailing lists…

This is what I do.

Sort everything!

If you can quantify it, put it into a folder. Nothing should be in your inbox except mail you’ve not had a chance to quantify yet – or haven’t seen before.

Create rules to sort things automatically. This is the crux of the system: everything is sorted as it comes into your mailbox. Also, if necessary, force the rules to sort only once: once the rule is triggered, it should quit and stop processing rules. Thunderbird does this automatically; Outlook has to be told.

As you create the rules, most email clients will allow you to create a folder at the same time. Use this capability.

Many clients also have the ability to create a rule from a message – sometimes even to the point of automatically creating a filter on a sender or on a mailing list sender: use it. Both Thunderbird and Outlook will provide much of this capability from a right click on the message to be sorted.

Also remember to apply the rules as you create them to all messages currently in the inbox: that is the whole purpose. Before the rule was created, they couldn’t be sorted – so sort them afterwards.

Here are some examples:

  • Mail from the boss. Move it to a folder with his name.
  • Mail from the system administration mail group. Put into a folder named according the the group’s name.
  • Newsletter from a system manufacturer. Move to a folder named according to the newsletter name or the manufacturer’s name.
  • Automatic log messages sent by mail from a system. If these are “alarm” type messages, separate them. System messages could go into a folder named after the system, or into a folder according to the monitor tool reporting.

The last example brings up the next point:

Use saved searches to sort in different ways.

For example, all automated messages from a system could go into a folder by system name. Then created saved searches that show all messages from a particular monitoring system (such as Nagios or HP’s EMS).

Add alarms for vital mail.

In contrast to what others have said, I believe in message alarms: however, only use them for mail that is truly important. For example, when the boss sends you an email, you’d better look it, yes? Likewise, if you are responding to help desk tickets, you’d better know about it right away.

The general suggestion still holds however: turn off global message alarms!

Change view of inbox to only show unread mail.

This is how I achieve Inbox Zero (I cheat!). I do still create rules as much as possible for everything that comes in – but there are stragglers.

Create a list of favorites.

Lastly, create a list of favorites. Outlook allows you to mark a folder as a favorite; KMail has a similar capability. This provides you with a way to sort everything but only see (directly) what is most important.

3 thoughts on “Email Productivity: Smack Down that Email!”

  1. To me, mail folders are a symptom of a larger problem: email search has been traditionally bad.

    With Outlook 2007, or Outlook 2003 with the LookOut! plug in, search is not only usable, but excellent — the LookOut plug in could find practically anything I wanted within two or three seconds across several hundred megabytes of email storage.

    The epiphany I had on this subject I describe as “Archiving should be about _finding_, not _keeping”.

    Having a proper email search tool makes your sorting function even faster, because your email client now only needs four folders:

    – Inbox: Unprocessed email
    – Not-Inbox: anything you want to keep for any reason
    – Trash: stuff to be deleted
    – Sent: stuff you’ve sent.

    Because I can be aggressive about where things go, I can still process things manually. This means I have to make the decisions about what goes where, but it also means that I don’t have rules quietly tidying emails into corners that I don’t check regularly.

    My system is a bit more complicated than all this, so I’ve written it out at http://wiki.xdroop.com/space/Email+Inbox+Management if you are interested.

  2. Interesting. I check my folders regularly, however – and it is not archiving. The most important (“favorites”) are always visible on the left hand bar in Outlook, and the very most important send audio and visual alarms.

    You might be surprised at two things that caught my eye in particular.

    First, the last section of your article is very much on the mark. Part of organizing is to find what flows easiest for you – what is it that fits easiest into your schedule, your way of things, your life patterns.

    Secondly, if you look for the plugin Lookout! you will find that it has apparently been bought by Microsoft and converted into Windows Search. How about that!

  3. I’ve been very happy with gmail. Search is very fast and their “labels” are superior to folders. An email can have more than one label and “Inbox” is just a special label — when you delete something it’s just removing the Inbox label (other labels remain, will still show up in search, etc.).

    My advice for email is to have a second, separate account for registering for web-sites, buying on-line, and all other non-personal things that end up generating lots of spam and junk mail. You really don’t even need to check it except when you’re expecting a sign-up confirmation or receipt or something. I call that the “spam-bucket” and it’s been a huge time saver for me.

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