The Email Inbox. A place of nightmares and wasted productivity. A black hole where messages come to die. But it doesn't have to be this way!
Any of these sound like you?
- Your inbox has 4K unread messages.
- Your inbox has no unread messages...and you remember none of them.
- Your inbox is empty because you delete everything right away.
- Your inbox is well-managed, because you spend four hours a day organizing it.
As a business owner, I maintain a whopping 18 inboxes, five of them being quite active. I have to have a system to keep all of them organized, without it taking up half my life.
A key to this is having a helpful structure to your mailbox:
Inbox: This should only contain messages that require action, or may be needed within the next week.
Archive: I create subfolders in Archive for each quarter, which allows me to better find and organize old messages.
Sent: Messages you have sent other people. Personally, I tend to leave this alone until my quarterly purges.
Junk: Never underestimate the importance of your spam bin! Most email servers have some form of adaptive spam filtering, so you should keep an eye on this folder. Make sure nothing important gets in there.
Trash: This is for non-spam that you no longer need. Empty it periodically!
Like most people, my email is running constantly in the background when I'm at work. Thus, when a message comes in, I immediately take one of five initial action:
If I do not have time to even skim a message, I mark it unread. However, like most people, seeing that indicator gets under my skin, so I'll give it a once-over pretty quickly.
If the message requires an action - re-reading, reply, attending an upcoming event or meeting, reviewing attached/linked materials, whatever - I will star or flag the message.
If the message does not require an action, but is something I may need to look at again soon (within the next week), I leave it in the inbox as read.
If the message does not require an action, and I don't think I'll need to look at it again soon (or it's more than a week old), I archive it.
If the message is not important at all, and requires no action, I delete it.
Of course, with your Starred messages, be sure to keep on top of them, and unstar them as soon as you've taken the appropriate actions!
Of course, things can naturally become disorganized over several weeks or months. Thus, every quarter, I set aside an hour or so to reorganize my inbox.
I ensure I've taken action on all my starred items (except those still upcoming).
All unstarred inbox messages from the prior quarter are archived.
All sent mail from the prior quarter are archived.
Spam is emptied (unless my mail server has other rules).
Trash is emptied.
"Well, gee, that sounds great, but how do I get there?" you may ask.
It's often as simple as archiving all your old messages, and then going through and deleting anything useless. As you work through this, you'll start to spot patterns - such as the keyword "Notification" in the subject line or a particular sender - which can allow you to find and delete large swaths of messages at once.
The time this takes can be anywhere between a couple of hours and a few days. If sorting your inbox in one session sounds completely impractical, simply create an
UNSORTED folder in your Archives. Then, every time you have a few minutes to spare, go through a few of those messages.
I also keep an eye on any email subscriptions I am regularly deleting without reading. While you sort, take the opportunity to unsubscribe from any newsletter that escapes your interest more than half the time.
I have found it helpful to maintain two personal email addresses, completely separate from my work email.
One, my Gmail, is used for anything that might involve newsletters, mass mailing, common notifications, and spam. If I want to get in email contact with a complete stranger, that's the one I use.
By contrast, I have a personal email address on my own mailserver. This one is considerably more private and secure than Gmail, and I use it for most of my personal correspondence. It's also the email I use for high-security accounts.
If you don't have your own mailserver, you might consider using a secure email service for this inbox. Because the sheer mass of email is considerably lower, you aren't likely to burn through the smaller mailbox size limits very quickly.
If I really suspect spam is going to be involved, and I know for a fact that I won't care about any but an initial message, I make use of a disposable email address service such as Guerrilla Mail.
A Word of Caution: If you are on a Windows computer, do not open spam messages! This is only reasonably safe on a properly secured UNIX machine, and even then, you should not download anything from a suspected spam message unless you are an expert, and know what you're doing.
Perhaps one of the joys of being on Linux is my effective immunity to email malware. I've been known to disassemble trojans, extract the virus download locations, and report the offending domains to the proper authorities. (Deobfuscating a trojan makes for a great programming puzzle!)
That said, I get some of the most entertaining spam imaginable! I'll periodically go through my Junk folder for some free entertainment. I actually get spam in five foreign languages (and counting), and some of the most hilarious wire transfer fraud hooks I've ever seen.
My favorite to date involved a rather complex story involving the alleged author's father dying, her inheriting millions, and her being adopted by her aunt and uncle. Then, she says she overheard her uncle and his cronies conspiring to off her like they had her father. Of course, I didn't respond, but I really wanted to encourage the author to take up writing suspense novels. He/she obviously has a knack for it.
Here's an extract from another hilarious one:
I am Miss Elodine Warlord Ibrahim Coulibaly 24 years old female from the Republic of Ivory Coast,West Africa ,am the Daughter of Late Chief Sgt.Warlord Ibrahim Coulibaly (a.k.a General IB ). My late father was a well known Ivory Coast militia leader . He died on Thursday 28 April 2011 following a fight with the Republican Forces of Ivory Coast(FRCI). I am constrained to contact you because of the maltreatment which I am receiving from my step mother.
She planned to take away all my late father's treasury and properties from me since the unexpected death of my beloved Father. Meanwhile I wanted to travel to Europe, but she hide away my international passport and other valuable documents. Luckily she did not discover where I kept my father's File which contained important documents. Now I am presently staying in the Mission in Burkina Faso.
I've had a few tech friends tell me they're jealous of my spam, as they're only getting Canadian pharmacy and foreign dating site scams. I'm just lucky, I guess.
What techniques do you use to tame your email inbox?