How to manage your email inbox
"My email's a mess!", my wife told me yesterday. "And I can't find a single thing in there! Where's that email from my brother that had the pictures of his cute little baby son?". I looked at her email on her phone and there were about 2,563 unread emails and 5 times more already-read emails all cluttering her inbox. She had also missed some important emails from her mom and her bank in all the clutter and had no idea how to find anything again.
This is a common story with almost everyone these days. We're all deluged with email. 100s of new emails clog up our already overflowing inbox every single day. My wife's way of going through her email is to skim through the inbox till she sees something interesting, read that, then skim some more. And she's done. I pointed out to her that this isn't a sustainable way to manage email. It's quite obvious what this skimming method is going to do - it's going to result in a very disorganized, overflowing, messy inbox of read, half-read, unread emails, making it very easy to miss an email. And forget about finding it again.
Here's what I've found useful. I use Gmail - and now have switched to using Google's new email manager called Inbox which does a lot of the managing for me - but I'll describe what I do for plain old GMail and this should work even if you use other email services like Yahoo Mail, Hotmail or Outlook.
My primary philosophy with my inbox is that I treat it like I treat the physical mailbox for my apartment. When I pick up my postal mail from my mailbox every evening, I don't pick one envelope out of five to open while leaving the rest back in the mailbox. That would clog up my mailbox very quickly and the mailman won't be able to deliver any more mail after a few days. So it is with your email inbox. Once emails arrive there, I go through them only once and decide what I'm going to do with them. All emails usually fall into the following categories:
- If it's a bill, I usually just pay it right there and then. If I'm on my laptop, I open up a separate browser tab for my bank (or wherever the bill needs to be paid) and pay the bill there. If I'm on my phone, I pay the bill using the bank app or whichever other app allows me to pay the bill online. Then, I archive the email. Archiving in Gmail is a simple button right above the email. All it does is move the email to the Archive label. If you're using Hotmail or Yahoo Mail, you can do the same by creating an 'Archive' folder and then hitting 'Move' on the email and then move it to the 'Archive' folder.
- If it's mail from my family or friends, I read it. Then I either reply to it, forward it or take some action related to it in some way. Right after, I archive it.
- If it's spam (that is, basically an email that's junk or trying to sell me something), I make sure to mark it as 'spam' - again, a button in Gmail - so that in future, Gmail gets smarter about filtering similar emails out. Marking it as 'spam' automatically moves it out of the Inbox and into Gmail's spam folder.
- The tricky thing - and this how users end up with cluttered inboxes - is what to do with emails that you want to read later or need to keep in the inbox because they require some action that you can only take later. With these emails, really ask yourself if this isn't something you'd rather just get done right away and archive the email away. If it absolutely can't be done right now, then you need a system for it to pop back into your inbox again later at a specific time or place so that you can take action on it then. Google's new Inbox service which I'll cover in a later post makes this super simple to do. But when Inbox wasn't around, my method was to either create a calendar event with the email which is easy to do in Gmail - it's an option in the 'More' menu above the email - or move it to a folder called 'Later'. The calendar event is a better option because I can schedule it to remind me at a specific later time.
The benefits of always maintaining an inbox full of fresh email are many. Email becomes as pleasurable as checking the mail in your physical mailbox. I always respond to people on time and never miss anyone's emails. I always pay all my bills on time. I'm never stressed about what I'm missing in the mountain of email sitting in my inbox - everything's taken care of. I only ever have to read an email once and never again - frees up a ton of time. I could go on. My wife is convinced and is going to try this too. We shall see if she can stick with it.