Email tutorial needed.
March 7, 2010 10:01 PM   Subscribe

What are your strategies for staying on top of your email?

Like a lot of other students and workers I get a ton of email every day, much of it pertaining to minor administrative tasks that are my responsibility. I tend to read through things very quickly as they come in. If something requires a bit of thought or a more detailed response, often I don't respond right away. As a result, if it moves too far down the list, sometimes I forget to respond; other times I insist on handling it right away and then it takes me AGES to respond to my email. Sometimes I obsess about wording; sometimes I force myself to just hit 'send' only to realize that there were gross infelicities or typos or errors. I'm a grad student, but I can easily lose hours every day just responding to or procrastinating about email. I've developed some bad anxieties and avoidance tendencies, particularly when it concerns weightier or more time-sensitive email tasks.

So, my questions for you are: how do you maximize your email efficiency? How do you organize email-reading and email-responding, and how do you keep it from colonizing your other work time? How do you keep track of emails that still require responses? (I use gmail, by the way.) How do you avoid avoidance?
posted by ms.codex to Computers & Internet (24 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
(1) Anything that looks like bullshit from the subject line? Delete it without opening it. This has never, ever hurt anyone, anywhere.

(2) This is just David Allen's Getting Things Done 101: If it takes less than two minutes, do it right now -- don't spend a minute and a half starring it or relegating it or moving it back to unread. Just do it. If it might take three minutes, take a chance and kill it off in two minutes instead.

(3) You're 90% done with your motherfucking e-mail.
posted by gum at 10:09 PM on March 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

I find I'm a lot more efficient when I only read email once or twice a day. That way I have long stretches of uninterrupted work, and separate time to devote to actually processing my email. When I check my email more frequently, I tend to put off dealing with it indefinitely, since I'm just "checking" it.

Also check out Inbox Zero.
posted by blue grama at 10:20 PM on March 7, 2010

First thing in the morning I check my email, delete the junk, forward stuff that needs forwarding, write down appointments/dates of events/meetings, print stuff that I need to follow up on, and save attachments/documents if necessary. The goal is to completely empty my inbox each morning before I start my day.
posted by MsKim at 10:23 PM on March 7, 2010

You can "star" an email in gmail as a way to mark it (most email programs have some kind of flag). If you go to the gmail settings there's actually a google labs feature that lets you have a bunch of different types of star flags (different colours, exclamation mark, check mark, etc). I use these to deal with the problems you are describing.

Basically, email comes in. If it looks totally worthless, delete. If it looks border-line worthless but something I miiiight need - mark as read and archive.

Otherwise, I open it and scan it quickly. If it contains something I have to do (reply or otherwise) I star it, or reply right away. If it contains something very important that I need to do, I star it with the exclamation mark icon. If I just want it handy quickly, I'll leave it in my inbox. From this point, your goal is to move unread messages to being either read or read and "starred" and to deal with starred messages and un-star them.

Finally, this is the key for me: If something has been dealt with and I don't need fast access to it, I archive it. I make sure to maintain less than 1 page of emails in my inbox so that nothing ever gets pushed out of view, and I can only do this by archiving things when they're dealt with.
posted by Diplodocus at 10:27 PM on March 7, 2010

The GTDInbox system will completely change the way you use your inbox
posted by shinynewnick at 10:35 PM on March 7, 2010

Two minute rule is huge.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:46 PM on March 7, 2010

I'm the best at inbox zero, but I do tend to have chunks of time devoted to email. And I've found on Friday afternoons, I slog through everything from the week I haven't kept up with, and delete/file/respond to whatever I can deal with right away.

The important thing is to try to delete immediately anything that's delete-able. Or file it if you might need to know it later but it requires no action on your part.
posted by bluedaisy at 10:53 PM on March 7, 2010

- Don't read emails as they come in: email is not a means of communication that requires immediate action. Set one or two times a day to read new emails.

- the two minute rule as mentioned before.

- clear your inbox! If you need to keep an email put in a folder. Don't create too many folders, but be sure you can find an archived mail when you need it. A clean inbox will give you a sense of accomplishment and peace of mind.
posted by charles kaapjes at 10:58 PM on March 7, 2010

I'm a grad student too and had worse problems than you. For about a month in there I was purposely not checking e-mail because it was sucking up hours a day. Our department sysadmin regularly yelled at me for slowing down the mail server by not deleting messages fast enough.

Switching to Gmail for all my school-related mail helped a LOT. (I forwarded my school mail to my Gmail account, and set my Gmail From address to my school's not that hard.) I can run through incoming messages and sort them into groups way faster than I used to in Thunderbird. As of right now I have only about 20 emails in my inbox, all of which are specific tasks that I have to do in the next week or so. Everything else is labeled by project and archived.

When I'm writing e-mails I find it helps to be as terse as possible -- there's less room for misunderstandings and errors that way. Numbered lists are your friend. I only obsess over wording if I'm writing to someone who I'm really trying to impress, like my advisor. Otherwise I just try to get it done fast and move on to real work.
posted by miyabo at 11:06 PM on March 7, 2010

I'm obsessive about checking e-mail. Seconding GMail, you can forward all your accounts there.

The spam filtering is good, so what comes in is usually legit. A quick read, then archive or delete depending on the content. What's left in the inbox are things that still require follow-up. For me, maybe usually 10 e-mails left in the inbox, that I'm awaiting other people to respond to before archiving or deleting.
posted by hungrysquirrels at 11:34 PM on March 7, 2010

Hey all, thanks for the responses so far. I already use gmail, and I know about the star function of course (it doesn't seem to help). I may try a more rigorous archiving system, and setting aside a particular hour each day for email-- thanks to those who have suggested it.

I'd love to hear more, if people are so inclined, about the psychological side of email-management-- specifically how to break habits of email avoidance.
posted by ms.codex at 11:48 PM on March 7, 2010

I know of several people - who tend to be senior - who delete any mail that they get when they've been on holiday. The reason being that if it's important enough the person will contact them again.
posted by MuffinMan at 12:18 AM on March 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

I second the suggestion of checking your email only once or twice a day.

I felt similarly inundated while at uni with multiple jobs/freelance projects. I found that setting up gmail filters to cut down on the bulk of email really helped.

Of course, any newsletters or regular emails from web apps or social networking sites can be labeled and made to bypass the inbox. You can still see when you've got a facebook invite/message from the number next to the label (unless you use the filter to archive it, or enable the "Hide Unread Counts" lab feature, or just hide that particular label), but you won't feel as though you have to deal with it immediately or even delete it. I do the same with work and uni email, but of course I click on those labels more readily. Thanks to filters, the only email that arrives in my inbox are written by friends and specifically addressed to me.

Just in case, a list of gmail filter operators.

You can also use the '+' in the email RFC to help filter your mail. Any email sent to will be delivered to So if you gave every newsletter as your address, your filters will be much shorter. The problem is, many websites with automated registration pages will not accept an email address with a + in it. I find it easier just to set up a filter that goes, from:{ * * ... }

Gmail stars can really work if you enable the superstars lab feature. I use the red bang for urgent tasks, yellow for not so urgent, and reserve the start emails that I just like. Once I tag an email with a red/yellow bang I send it to the inbox so I don't forget.

(I also just found out about Folders4Gmail which lets you hierarchically organize gmail labels. And I can't vouch for it, but this Lifehacker guide might also be of interest.)

Of course, all this will not help if you don't unsubscribe from stuff you don't need, and ignore emails written by busybodies!
posted by carnival of animals at 2:07 AM on March 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Having a good filing system helps me; I like having a place where things live. I'm also big on clean desk Fridays. Fridays, I clean out my inbox, re-do my white board, and tidy my desk. I have a heavy email volume job and a lot of it takes longer to process than a couple of minutes, so I do defer a lot. Also, I'm fairly sure nobody in this country does much of anything on Friday afternoon.

Or maybe it's just me.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 3:05 AM on March 8, 2010

It sounds like your problem really isn't with organization, so an addition of symbols or a new archiving scheme really isn't going to help.

The problem sounds like you're checking your email when you're supposed to be heading out/doing something else. A lot of people do it, but they often remark about the same problems you have; forgetting responses, delaying them and generally feeling like their inbox is out of control.

What time do you get up in the morning? Great, now get up 20 minutes before that. Why? If people don't expect you up at that time, you're going to have around 20 minutes of unadulterated time to pop responses off to around 15-20 emails. If there's an actionable item that requires your attention, start or add it to a to-do list that you carry with you. When you've transferred or responded to an email, archive it immediately. Make it an obsessive thing to clear your inbox at the start of the day.

That, coupled with regular checking for imminent issues during the day, keeps my inbox entirely in hand and, more important, means I keep organized and feel like the day is started with a clean slate. Good luck!
posted by Hiker at 3:32 AM on March 8, 2010

Psychological side of email? Not to be snarky, but just do your f*cking email. Several times throughout the day. Don't hover over it. It is that simple. And that means you just have to START.

You want a good way to start? Go the nuclear option. Blow up all of your email right now. Anything that is important will come back. Use this only in extreme situations.

Now, just stay on top of it and use the two-minute rule. Everything in its place. Personal email. File it in a personal folder. Email regarding your Finance 602 class. File it in FIN602. Rinse, repeat.

Emails that require a lengthy response? Print it or file it in a 'To Do' folder.
posted by jasondigitized at 5:24 AM on March 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Like several other responders, I try to only deal with my e-mail a few times a day, maybe 2 or 3. When I do, I practice the "empty inbox philosophy". Which is to say, I go through everything in my inbox and I either delete it, or I file it in a folder, and that's all I do during this process.

Sometimes I have to make an exception and reply to something that is either extremely urgent or extremely quick to reply to and will allow someone else to carry on working, but I try not to even reply to anything during this process as much as possible.

This ensures the process of emptying out the inbox doesn't become a huge chore that I will want to avoid, because I know I will not spend more than a few seconds per e-mail. It also means once I've started the day like this, if for some reason I am tempted to keep checking my e-mail, I can keep just filing new messages away in folders and it takes minimal time.

Keeping my inbox empty is a huge deal to me, because then I stop thinking about/worrying about things I've already decided to deal with later, since I'm not reminded of them every time I look at my e-mail.

The folders that things get filed into include a "reply needed" folder and a "put on to-do list" folder. Once a day, I go through those folders and reply to the messages/make new entries on my to-do list, as appropriate. I move those messages to other folders (or just delete them) once I've done whatever is needed.

You may have more than just those two folders (I do) as long as you have some recurring entry on your daily, weekly, monthly, etc. to-do list to go back to those folders and deal with those messages. For example you might have an "emergencies" folder that you deal with right after emptying your inbox. Or an "include in monthly status report" folder that you only look at once a month.
posted by FishBike at 5:48 AM on March 8, 2010 [2 favorites]

I don't do empty inbox but I do do things as they come in if they're quick (not strictly speaking a 2 minutes rule, but if I can knock it off fast I do). If they're going to take longer, I read them and then mark them as unread, or sometimes begin a draft reply just so I have made a start on the job.

Right now in my gmail there are 2 drafts and 3 unread, so I know that there are 5 things I need to do which I will pick off when I have a little more time. I expect I could use flags for this too, but I've been doing the "mark unfinished as unread" thing for about 15 years now and it works for me.
posted by handee at 6:23 AM on March 8, 2010

2 minute rule.

Three email boxes:
Action - stuff you have to do.
Reference - things you may need to refer to
Waiting - items you're waiting to hear back on.

Basically it's the 'trusted trio' rule from GTD that's in lifehacker.
posted by filmgeek at 6:33 AM on March 8, 2010 [5 favorites]

You'd probably benefit from looking at Inbox Zero.

Bottom line - everything has a place, and your job is to get it there. If it's something that can be responded to in a few minutes, just do it, then get it the hell out of your inbox. If it's something that requires followup, file it in the followup folder to be dealt with later. If it's something worthless, delete it. Start with a system like that and you'll soon become an email ninja and won't feel so overwhelmed.
posted by chrisamiller at 8:28 AM on March 8, 2010

Gmail. Anything that needs to be 'done' or handled later gets starred or forwarded into a trouble ticket management system.

Unlike most, I read things as they come in because it's important for me to stay on top of events as they happen in my field.
posted by SpecialK at 10:34 AM on March 8, 2010

Seconding filmgeek on the 'trusted trio'. I use GMAIL's tags (w/keyboard commands enabled).

My three tags are

Action - Items that take longer than 2 minutes to complete that I must attend to.
Hold - Items I need to keep in my inbox that require attention from someone other than me.
Archive - Well, I use this basically as I skim my inbox flagging the emails I want to send to archive.
posted by yoyoceramic at 11:02 AM on March 8, 2010

As has been mentioned several times, ARCHIVE. I found relying on labels and stars too messy and time-consuming, and I use only them to supplement the main strategy I use, which is gmail's archive button.

I got this simple tip from a NYT article last year and it's helped me and a friend enormously. The idea is to archive everything you've dealt with so they don't distract you, and only keep the email that you haven't responded to in your inbox where you can see it. The real key is the satisfaction of clicking "archive" and watching the email disappear from the inbox - it's enough of a reward that it's helped me get over some minor email avoidance issues.

1. Select all of the email in your inbox that you've dealt with already (one way to do this is to select for all the emails before a certain date, i.e. by typing "before:2010/02/15" in the search box, then clicking "select all" and then "select all conversations that match this search".

2. Click "archive" and watch your inbox shrink. Fun!

3. Start dealing with emails one by one and hitting the archive button after you send the reply or complete the relevant task or whatever. Enjoy watching the emails go poof.

4. It is rather important to maintain the number of the emails in your inbox below 30 or however many you can fit on a page or your screen.

5. Advanced: combine archiving with stars & labels. Use stars to mark emails you want to go back to sometime in the near future but aren't important, and then archive them so they aren't distractors in the inbox. Use labels to mark emails that you really want to be able to find easily in the far future (but really, with gmail's amazing search capabilities, it's usually unnecessary for me).
posted by nemutdero at 9:50 PM on March 8, 2010 [2 favorites]

I've set up lots of filters in Gmail, whereby the message skips the inbox and goes straight to the folder/label. This in conjunction with the "Hide Read Labels" labs feature pretty much keeps a lot of my mail out of my inbox.
posted by djgh at 1:10 PM on March 9, 2010

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