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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