Email triage for inactionable items
December 5, 2010 4:27 AM   Subscribe

What's the best way to triage my e-mail and deal with the maybe/someday types of items? My problem is this: I often receive e-mails that are actionable but sometime in the future. Or I receive something that I would like to do perhaps someday in the future but, I just don't have the time for it now. Sometimes, I want to just mull it over for a few days. Then, there are some things that I probably should do and sometimes even have to do by they will have to wait until later. More at the jump...

What's the best way to triage my e-mail and deal with the maybe/someday types of items?

Background: I use Gmail at the moment I set a goal to knock, e-mail by 20 every day until I have zero.
So I've recently watched the inbox zero video and he suggests putting things into five categories. It's the "deferred" and the "do" category that cause the problems of course.

My problem is this:
I often receive e-mails that are actionable but sometime in the future. Or I receive something that I would like to do perhaps someday in the future but, I just don't have the time for it now. Sometimes, I want to just mull it over for a few days. Then, there are some things that I probably should do and
sometimes even have to do by they will have to wait until later.

I've set up some labels and use them in the past with names like:@action, @later, someday/maybe, think about/consider, marketing project, affiliates etc.Obviously, sometimes the line for these things blur. The other problem I sometimes has is that sometimes one particular project might be very active and contain 20 to 50 threads. And in this way this kind of occupies the "marketing project" folder and obfuscates other projects. I thought about having an "open", "pending/WIP" and "closed" label but then that just seems like I would have to duplicate everything.

The other major problem is that there are serious gradations within a someday/maybe folder. Many things are just kind of the wish list. I don't necessarily want to let them go and delete them, but they aren't immediately actionable and stay are relatively less important. Many of these would fall into the category of "ideas". A good example of this is I received a tip from a mentor about a new development or trend in the industry. It's the kind of thing I would like to look into at some point, but don't want to clutter up my plate right now.

I haven't been able to get nested labels to work.

I know there are all kinds of systems and I've tried many of them or at least experimented with them. I'm not very keen on using any grease monkey scripts because when I tried that before they would break anytime there is a new version of Gmail/Firefox.

Does anyone have any advice about how I can quickly get my inbox down to zero without going insane, stressing out or losing track of these things?

I'm looking for whatever has worked for you. Thank you very much!
posted by chinabound to Computers & Internet (10 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
In addition to your tagging system you may also benefit from using a "physical" location change for the mail, I use Follow-up folders:

This week
Next week
This Month
Next Month
This Year

I also use Project folders:
In Progress
Next In Line
Some Day

I spend a little time on Sunday mornings organizing what I want to do this week, what can be put off till next week, what I need to do this month or next, and what needs to be done by the end of the year (or within a year) Basically, Items drop into the This week category or the this year category and THIS WEEK is my focus, but the Sunday review trickles those THIS YEAR items into the current or next month, current or next week. Anytime a to-do pops into my head I email myself or tag it with more specifics. Unless it's urgent I can divvy it out to the folders on Sunday.

Similar deal with the Projects (most of mine are honey-do type things around the house) I scratch the details out on paper and keep a binder (and a folder if it's digital info) but the reminders are in Gmail with the project folders getting a once over every Sunday to see what I need to finish - whats coming up and lots of "Some Day" projects.

It works a treat for me, hope it helps you a little.
posted by emjay at 5:16 AM on December 5, 2010

I've created sort of an email tickler file in Gmail - I have a folder for each day of the week, and each month. Because you can give items multiple labels, you can label one item both @later and january, so on the first day in January, you can open that label and see what is now actionable, etc.

I did have to mess around with my labels a bit to get them to display in the order I wanted them to at the top of my list of labels, though. I added special characters so that the weekdays would appear in weekday order, because otherwise Friday bumps to the top of the list. As a result, monday is something like ___monday.

I also use an exclamation point at the beginning of folders to indicate current projects, so they rise higher up in the list. I remove the exclamation point and hide the labels of projects I'm no longer working on.

This might not help the obfuscation you noted, but it's a low-tech, non-scripting solution.

Good luck!
posted by metarkest at 5:23 AM on December 5, 2010

I was using the GTD approach for the last three years and was still getting overwhelmed. I also read the inbox zero articles out at 43 folders and decided to retune/reimplement my system. I'm using Outlook, so where I say "folder" here, think "label" for your situation. My big takeaway: even with the GTD approach, I was still spending too much time trying to categorize and label my email (in Outlook) and not enough doing. I had way too many "project folders". I ended up slimming down to just three folders: action-required, waiting-for-response, and not-now. Anything that doesn't fit those three buckets or that I'm done with gets deleted or thrown into one giant archive folder and I trust the search function to find it for me if I need it again. I've done away with project folders entirely. I do notice that I now think a lot more carefully when composing email subject lines and also tend to edit other people's subject lines to make the email easier to search for later. To implement, I blocked my calendar one afternoon, closed my door, and flipped my email client to offline mode and did it all at once. I get 300ish emails a day on work days and have been able to keep my in-box zeroed out for six months now and haven't had any problems with deleting things too soon. Good luck getting to zero!
posted by kovacs at 5:29 AM on December 5, 2010

I have two basic techniques:
1 -- Use Gmail's starring system. When I check my Inbox, I do one of four things to every email: reply, forward, archive, star-and-archive. At the beginning of the workday, and when I have to figure out what to do next, I check my Starred folder. I also go through my Sent Mail folder at the end of each day and star things that I'm waiting for people to answer.

2 -- (I don't use this as much anymore, but it was invaluable when I worked off-shift from my main office and had more than 100 emails every morning when I first logged in.) When you get a pile of stuff, sort it into three piles: A for Important things, B for Slightly Important things, and C for Unimportant things. Go through your B pile again, re-sorting it into your A and C piles as appropriate. Then take your C pile and put it in a drawer. Ignore that drawer until it is full, and then empty it into the trash.
posted by Etrigan at 7:08 AM on December 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

I used to use a gmail/browser plug-in called Boomerang which lets you compose a message and click "Send Later" at a specified time.

So as it could apply to your question: For a mail you want to handle, say 5 days from now, forward it to yourself, select "deliver in 5 days," and then archive the email. The email is then not cluttering any folder up, and 5 days from now will re-appear in your Inbox.

You said you don't want a greasemonkey script, and this is something like that, but I've found to be a little more robust since it's a browser plug-in.
posted by losvedir at 7:22 AM on December 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

What actually works for me at the moment is paper-based.

I use Gmail's one single Archive folder and no stars or labels, a paper calendar, and one big list in a notebook. You could use iCal and a text file instead, of course.

— If an email has been dealt with, it goes in the archive.
— If an email refers to something that needs looking at again at some specific point in the future, I make a note of this on the calendar, and the email goes in the archive.
— If an email generates any kind of task that can't be dealt with immediately, whether it's something I have to do, might want to do "someday/maybe", or will need to revisit at some unspecified future point, I make an entry on the one big list, and the email goes in the archive.

This looks inelegant, but the tradeoff is straightforward. No complex series of folders or tags or labels, no elaborate systems, a very fast processing of inbox items... and in return, I have to read all the way through one LONG list several times a day to make sure I'm not forgetting about anything. Works for me.
posted by oliverburkeman at 8:09 AM on December 5, 2010

Seconding oliverburkeman*, but I've got it down to just the one big archive folder and a paper calendar. So any kind of task that is a 'someday/maybe' actually gets put in the calendar – at a random date in the future. If I get to that date and it's not the right time for that task, I simply scribble it out and move it to another date in the future.

So I have just one list in my life: a day-to-day calendar of things to do. This 'minimum number of lists' approach is a simple route to zero stress and that feeling of being on top of things. (Off-topic a bit, I've even scrubbed my Windows desktop of everything – yes, even My Computer and the Recycle Bin – to prevent me from slipping into adding folders/icons to the desktop as more 'things to do'.)

* and hoping that it's Oliver Burkeman from The Guardian
posted by sleepcrime at 10:27 AM on December 5, 2010

I came in here to second Boomerang - you can use the invite code of "lifehacker" to get install the plug-in to Firefox. You can set something to disappear from your inbox, them pop back in a limited number of days later. You can also delay send messages. It's really revolutionized how I deal with e-mail.

I used to be so paranoid that if I read something, and didn't mark it as unread, I'd lose track of it. Now? I can read it, send it to myself to work on later, and be fine.
posted by SNWidget at 3:41 PM on December 5, 2010

If the Inbox Zero approach appeals to you, why not stick with the groupings Mann suggests as your labels? Delete, Archive, Defer, Action, Respond.

Your @later, someday/maybe and thinkabout/consider labels are just subsets of "defer", and it seems like you're not getting much use out of trying to divide them up into clean groups. So why not just jumble them all in together?

Action is stuff you have to do something about, and it doesn't much matter if you have to do it today or next week. You could sort it into projects, but I tend to rely on gMail's fantastic search function to find all the bits I need for anything. This works even better if you take the suggestion above for very specific subject lines - I include project codes/names and action phrases (e.g. Project 1234, Stage 1, ready for you to review).

Archive doesn't have to be a label, just hit the Archive button. It's another place to take advantage of gMail's search function. And just use the star on anything that needs a Response, it's faster than a label. Then you can remove it when you're done and choose one of the other 4 groups for it.

If you use the existing stars and archive and delete buttons, you'll only need two labels: Action and Defer. Too many labels just means you're adding to the decision-making process, not actually getting any work done.

No matter what system you use though, you'll need to regularly review your lists to make sure you're crossing things off as you get them done.
posted by harriet vane at 6:39 AM on December 6, 2010

Oh, and you might find the original Inbox Zero articles answer more questions than the video.
posted by harriet vane at 6:43 AM on December 6, 2010

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