Mondays are productivity days at SimpleProductivity blog.
I believe that it is human nature to complicate things unconsciously. We tweak, we add, and suddenly we are left with a behemoth that might not be serving us all that well. Such is the case I found with my email a few weeks ago.
In this article, I will show you where I have been, what didn’t work, what inspired the change, and the result.
My Previous Process
My email approach was a conglomeration of various methods touted at various times. I use GMail at the base, and would try out methods as I found them.
One of the best features of GMail is that you can label each email with one or many labels to make it easy to find again.
Through the filters built into GMail, I could assign labels based on who it was from, what address it went to, or keywords in the email itself.
I created filters so that none of my email was unfiled. And as an extension of that, I also had them automatically removed from my inbox. This kept my inbox clean of the noise that came in via newsletters and mailing lists, and kept my email in nice buckets for later processing.
One of the great features of GMail is the ability to use “+ addressing”. This means that you can give your base address and assign a + modifier to it and it will still come to your account.
For example, if your address is X2489s@gmail.com, you could sign up for a Microsoft newsletter using X2489s+Microsoft@gmail.com or X2489semail@example.com, and it would still come to your regular inbox. You could then filter on the modifier and put those items in a place for later reading.
I used this to sort newsletters and mailing lists from general email. I could then filter these items into a folder where I could read them without urgency.
GMail allows you to pop various other email accounts into your GMail. Since I have multiple accounts, I set up pop to get my main home email. I also redirected other accounts, such as the various blog email accounts, to automatically forward to my GMail.
As a result, I have 9 email accounts dumping into GMail. I label most of these so I can tell at a glance where it came from.
What Wasn’t Working
So after adding things on in all the years that I have been using GMail, I found that the system had stopped being useful, and in fact was causing some problems.
Because many of my emails skipped the inbox and went directly to the label folder, I would not see the email unless I drilled down through layers of labels. With the limited space on the screen to show labels, some get hidden unless specifically set to show with unread email. So if I didn’t notice that there was something to be read, I would miss the email.
Some emails also vanished if I mistakenly archived them without labels. This was more of a problem on the iPad, where I use controls to click instead of keyboard actions. But there have been many times I haven’t been able to find what I needed to because it wasn’t labeled properly.
Reference Material Mixed In With Actions
Since most of my email was labeled and then the inbox skipped, I found that many times I would find emails with things to do mixed in with things I needed to save as reference materials.
For example, a newsletter from the pet store tells me I need to get over there to take advantage of a sale on dog biscuits. Yet this is mixed in with newsletters from craft stores, blog affiliates, Microsoft and various charities and courses I have subscribed to.
Having the reference materials mixed in with things I needed to act on caused many things to get lost in the shuffle.
As the result of one suggested process improvement, I had implemented Action labels. When I needed to respond, I would send the email to “_Action/Respond”. All told, under the _Action label, I had the following sub-labels: Action, Respond, Waiting For, File, Read.
What happened, largely due to my unread email piling up all over GMail, was that these folders never got processed. I missed deadlines, got second inquiries on email I hadn’t answered, and even got a concerned phone call from a friend because she hadn’t heard from me in so long.
Useless Information Allowed To Pile Up
Since incoming mail ended up all over the place, and email that needed action was mixed in, it is no wonder that I ended up with a lot of useless information piling up. Newsletters, in particular, sat in the folder and didn’t get read. For months.
By the time I would get around to reading them, I had to wade through many newsletters and out-of-date information to find what I wanted. Often I ended up bulk deleting everything.
The irony of this process is that all of these tweaks were supposed to make email more efficient. I was supposed to see everything and deal with it quickly because it had all been sorted and cataloged.
The first inkling that I needed a better way came when I got my invitation to the iOS application Mailbox. Mailbox shows your inbox, and allows you to do four things: delete, archive, snooze or file it in the limited folders Mailbox accesses.
Since I had so little information hitting my inbox, there was little for me to do in the program. But there was something I realized: I had way more mail than was hitting the inbox, and it was snarling up when it wasn’t in the inbox.
Mailbox Is Not Necessary To Implement A Simplified System
I do want to point out here that it is not necessary to have Mailbox in order to make this work. All it takes is a few initial labels in your email program, and the discipline to file incoming messages in those.
So here is what I ended up with:
Mailbox set these up for me, but they are simply a label. The top level label is called [Mailbox]. The brackets make it float to the top of the label list. Underneath it are:
- Later. For things I want to snooze. Mailbox will automatically bring these items back after a certain amount of time, but you can do this manually.
- Action. For things I need to take action on.
- Enter. For things I need to enter elsewhere, like receipts.
- File. For filing elsewhere in my reference material. This one wouldn’t be necessary if you are using straight GMail, but Mailbox does not allow access to folders outside the [Mailbox] tree.
- Waiting For. For things I am waiting for.
- Respond. This is where correspondence I need to respond to goes. I chose to keep this separate from Actions because Actions can sit once they have been forwarded to Remember The Milk.
The first action I took was to modify all of my filters to remove skipping the inbox. The email is still labeled the same, but it all ends up in my inbox, unarchived.
So with all of my email in my inbox, I process through the inbox and bring it to zero twice a day. I start at the top and decide what I want to do with each one: delete, archive (rarely), see it later or put it in a folder. (Remember, seeing it later, and filing it in one of the Mailbox folders is putting a label on the email).
Once a day I go through the folders underneath the Mailbox and take care of them. Actions are forwarded to my Remember the Milk account. Enter items are saved up until Mondays, which is when I do my data entry at home. I read what I need to read, file what I need to file, and respond to the others.
Side Effect: Purging Incoming Email
One of the side effects of this process is that I am unsubscribing to many, many lists…lists that I didn’t even realize I was on. If I can’t be bothered to read it when it is in the inbox, I unsubscribe right then and there. I have probably unsubscribed to about 30 email lists in the last month.
I am very pleased at the results of redefining the email process. I go through email a lot quicker now, and things get taken care of much sooner. All it took was a little bit of a push to undo the years of “improvements” to GMail which actually resulted in slowing everything down.
Do you simplify your email? How do you do it? Share below.
Photo by RambergMediaImages. Licensed under Creative Commons.