More on email inbox bliss

So far my attempt to maintain an empty inbox is working out pretty well.

One of the most effective things that worked was to get rid of folders. Previously, I was a folder freak: my email was "organized" into a bewildering, ever changing, hierarchy of folders. Rather than making it easier to find stuff, it was actually much harder. Before I could find something quickly, I had to try to figure out which folder I had decided to put it into.

I draw a comparison between this and usage of, say, Google Search vs. a directory service like dmoz. Directory services categorize the web into a wonderful hierarchy. But in practice, it's almost always more effective to just search the conceptual single folder containing the whole web via google search.

I now have a small number of folders. Apart from the inbox, trash, and sent folder, the remaining folders can be categorized as:

  • A single @Respond folder. Messages that I need to respond to, but can't do so immediately because they require some investigation go here. I treat this like a todo list, and review it several times a day.
  • A single Archive folder. Anything that I don't need to keep track of actively, but might be interesting for future reference goes here. This is where the vast majority of email that I don't delete ends up.
  • Important short term projects for which it's convenient to collocate all the messages. I currently have a single folder that falls into this category, for tracking correspondence related to my green card application. Although I have several other important short term projects, none of them really need a separate folders.
  • High-volume, low value mailing lists auto filters. For instance, I have a folder called Bugs into which gets automatically filtered all notification emails from our bug database system. I rarely have to act immediately on such emails, but it's useful to review them once or twice a day. I usually mass delete the contents of these folders on a daily basis, since they're basically copies of information available elsewhere.

As a result of this, I now have roughly 5 folders (not including inbox, trash and sent). This works well for me. It speeds up the rate at which I can process incoming email, since there are fewer choices about which action to take for each incoming message.

Merlin Mann's 43 Folders site talks about this a lot. His recent tech talk on Inbox Zero summarizes a lot of the useful content related to email management posted on the site.

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Google Code Project Hosting Gets Upgrades

The folks over at Google Code have been doing some sterling work in the last few weeks fixing various issues with its project hosting support. Here are some of my favorite fixes:

Issue 250: Issue summaries are unnecessary abbreviated. In the issue list, the summaries would be truncated arbitrarily. This was pesky on a large display, since there was plenty of space to see the whole summary.

Issue 138: projectname.googlecode.com should redirect to project page. So now you can go to jd-ant.googlecode.com as well as code.google.com/p/jd-ant.

Issue 306: IssueTracker: Provide a means of displaying more than 25 issues at a time. Now you see 100 issues at a time, which makes for less paging about in large issue lists.

Glad to see these improvements. Google's project hosting is straightforward, fast, and very useful.

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Asserting Control over the INBOX

Sometimes I'm a bit disorganized. Last week, after purging my INBOX of some 15,000 messages (discovering quite a few that I had read but not replied to in the process), I decided that it's finally time to assert control over my INBOX.

It's not the first time I've tried this. The lofty goal of maintaining an empty INBOX is very appealing in theory, but it's easy to get lazy. Before you know it, you end up with thousands of disorganized messages again.

The first step in this was turning down my "autocheck" frequency. I think a big part of the reason that I'm a bit disorganized is that email messages arrive in a constant stream throughout my day, and so I'm always processing them while doing other tasks.

My approach now is to set aside 5-10 minute periods every hour or so specifically for triaging email. Any email I can respond to, or action, within that period, I do so immediately. Anything else, I add to my TODO list on the excellent Remember the Milk service, and then archive the message to a folder.

The second part of this is making it easy (and I mean really easy) to archive messages. For any message I read in my INBOX, I must do one of the following immediately:

  • Delete it if it's spam, or automated email that I don't care about
  • Reply to it if it can be actioned within the 5-10 minute email period, then archive it to a folder or delete it.
  • Add a TODO item, then archive it to a folder.

I've pared down my list of folders to a minimum (3 main folders, with some extras for server side filtered automated email) so that it's easier to figure out the destination for any given message. Thunderbird makes it really easy to search for messages within a folder, so I realized that having a gazillion hierarchical folders was actually making it harder to find old messages.

To make it really easy to quickly move messages into a folder, I'm using the excellent keyconfig extension for Thunderbird to map a single keystroke to moving messages to a folder. For example, I can now hit Ctrl+J on a message to immediately move it to my "JDeveloper" folder. I can't overstate how useful this is. It's probably the single most effective thing I've done to make it easier to control my INBOX.

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