2007-07-25

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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1 comment:

  1. Good pointers Brian.

    I take the Archive folder idea one further and create a folder hierarchy by year then month. I often find when having to look at my Archives that I know the general year and month that I received/sent the email, and then can sort on writer/recipient's name. Alternatively by placing all historic emails in one Archive folder, you're going to have to rely more on your email client's search tool which usually brings up a number of false positives.

    At first my folder solution may seem I'm creating a folder nightmare again, but you'll note that unlike creating folder categories, where emails can end up wanting to be in more than 1 category, emails by date can't hit this problem as the date they were sent/received can't be changed.

    It's not ideal, but it does seem to work well.

    CM.

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