Coping with e-mail?
April 25, 2005 11:51 AM   Subscribe

What practices/ tools do you use to ensure you reply to important e-mails within a respectable amount of time, while still having a life?

I receive hundreds of e-mails every day - most of them not spam - and though I'm getting better at checking sparingly, so as not to waste time, I'm increasingly concerned that I'm failing to reply to some important messages.

I've pored through the AskMe threads and came across one useful question about e-mail productivity. But it doesn't seem to deal with my issue, which is that I keep failing to respond to important messages, and end up leaving a few un-answered. I worry that it can be offensive or seem flaky.

Currently I use Entourage on a Mac combined with a webmail and cellphone e-mail app. This will sound a bit ambitious, but I wonder if some sort of ticket tracking system, a la tech support, might be what I'm seeking. What practices or software do you recommend?
posted by skylar to Computers & Internet (18 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
(Eudora) -- I keep a folder called "to do" open in my main window arrangement. Anything important that I can't respond to right away with the appropriate amount of detail goes in there.
posted by omnidrew at 12:09 PM on April 25, 2005

Wow, a ticket tracking system. That sounds elaborate.

I have three e-mail accounts, one which has to do with my research, one for personal/other stuff, and a Gmail account as a general commercial spamtrap. Any mailing lists are sorted through server-side filtering, procmail (which sucks) for one, Sieve (which is totally awesome) for the other. That leaves only the e-mails sent directly to me, which are far more likely to be action items.

Clearing out my in-box is a very high priority item on my master to-do list and repeats every day. When I do that, I can only do one of three things for each e-mail:
  1. File it
  2. Take action immediately and then file
  3. Or add action to my to-do list and then file
You just have to be methodical.
posted by grouse at 12:14 PM on April 25, 2005

I use Mail on OSX. Any email I come across that I know needs further reading and/or a reply I simply double-click and open in its own window and then continue doing other things.

My job then during the day is to get rid of all those open windows. If I need to close Mail, it will re-open all open windows on startup. Not super-elegant but it works for me.
posted by vacapinta at 12:16 PM on April 25, 2005

Gmail's star toggle. I 'star' emails I need to reply to, and I leave a Firefox window of my starred email open in the background at all times. Eventually, get all get done.
posted by Jairus at 12:25 PM on April 25, 2005

yeah, googling "gmail email tips" will bring up something good, and the website/wiki has a ton of good info as well.
posted by craniac at 12:31 PM on April 25, 2005

i'd agree that a ticket-tracking system might be overkill, but if you do want to go that route, pay some money, and have a web server, FogBugz might be just what you need:

"Once I started reading I was immediately intrigued by the way that FogBugz ties right into your mail server and treats each incoming email as a case within the system. You simply point it to any POP3 mailbox and when an email comes into that account it goes right into the system and you can assign a due date. You can reply directly to the message within the system and FogBugz keeps track of the entire thing. If the user that sent the message replies back, then that message is tracked in the original case as a threaded discussion."

following the GTD methodology, I try to do what grouse recommends, but I also find that simply flagging a message as Jairus suggests is helpful as well. A key point is to try to get your Inbox cleaned out as quick as possible...sometimes I leave flagged messages in there if I know I'll get to them in a day or two but try to get the non-action emails outa there pronto.
posted by jacobsee at 12:39 PM on April 25, 2005

I do something I cobbled together from various ideas posted on 43 Folders, so it may be tangentially related to GTD. This is related to work email only, and uses Outlook 2003. I created a menu bar with the 5 flag colors on it, and I named them Urgent, To Do, Follow Up, Waiting For, Information, and Interesting. The Inbox is only for email that needs to be currently in my sight - everything else gets placed into folders. As soon as an email comes in, I either address it, flag it, or folder it. The result is that everything I have to do is right in front of my eyes and is color-coded as to what I have to do about it. As soon as I finish doing something, I either delete it or folder it.
posted by matildaben at 12:45 PM on April 25, 2005

I didn't even realize you could flag for follow up in Outlook - I'm excited about the possible uses. I can't seem to figure out how to change the follow-up categories, though - I assume it must work like the appointment categories, but where? (Aside: when will "help" in Microsoft products become helpful? Searching for flag tells me how to flag and unflag things, but now how to edit the flags!)
posted by dpx.mfx at 1:07 PM on April 25, 2005

How long does it really take you to reply to one of these important emails? If it's less than ten minutes -- and be honest, it probably is -- just do it.

I know I'm guilty of leaving replies for ages, because I think I'll need to spend ages on them to 'do it right'. But actually I spend more time filing them and worrying about them, when I could do a reply in ten minutes or less that is at least 90% of the 'quality' that I would achieve if I filed it away for a month and spent an hour agonising over it.
posted by chrismear at 1:22 PM on April 25, 2005 [1 favorite]

I use Thunderbird for Email and it has a "flag" feature (flagged or unflagged) as well as a "label" feature with 5 different colors, customizable to mean what you want them to. I only use the on/off flag thing though. I use seperate folders for waiting for, reference, and my various action lists.
posted by jacobsee at 1:22 PM on April 25, 2005

highlighting the stars in gmail, and then at the end of the day I just take a half hour and sit down and do it. (That's my personal mail).

Work email (outlook express) I just reply that very minute -- even if its going to take me ten minutes to craft a meaningful reply. I just do it right then. Its easier than having it build up and take an hour all at one shot.
posted by anastasiav at 1:25 PM on April 25, 2005

chris makes a good point, but realistically 100 emails x 10 minutes per response is almost 17 hours. I think it makes sense to have a system to file things away for later when you just don't have the time "right now", but I'd agree that responding right away is usually more efficient, especially when the response takes less than 1 minute.
posted by jacobsee at 1:25 PM on April 25, 2005

My take is a bit different and much less technical--I seriously wonder why you are getting 100 e-mails a day unless you job is to answer e-mails--If that is not your job there simple can not be that much to say and be said--I have 300 plus employees (they all have my e-mail) and only get 10-25 per day. I let people know that I will not read e-mails of more than one paragraph (3-4 sentences), will not open e-mails that are forwarded (unless clearly work related), and respond as I am reading them--if it requires a more thoughtful response I reply promptly and tell them when I will respond--I then mark these e-mail as "unread"--I really think a significant part of your problem is non technical--on the other hand I am the boss and that has its advantages in terms of managing work flow
posted by rmhsinc at 1:46 PM on April 25, 2005

Response by poster: Thanks for all this valuable feedback, everyone. I don't have 300 employees, so I'm not delegating roles to other people. Perhaps this increases the amount of mail I get. Or maybe I just know too many people who are profligate with their mail sending!

But of course, not all of these are work related. Many are social, but these are the kind of people that deserve a reply most. And fun though the idea sounds, I simply cannot reply to every message the moment I get it. It would mean I spend a good portion of my day answering e-mail rather than doing more precious things.

FogBugz may indeed be overkill but looks extremely intriguing!
posted by skylar at 2:37 PM on April 25, 2005

It would mean I spend a good portion of my day answering e-mail rather than doing more precious things.
This seems an odd thing to say, given that your goal is to reply to all of these emails. Obviously, other things will take priority sometimes, but you're going to have to spend time writing emails at some point or another.

It sounds like you need to set aside a particular time where all you will do is reply to emails. Make it weekly or twice-weekly, depending on what you think a 'respectable amount of time is'. Find a time when you won't feel 'guilty' that you should be doing other work or whatever.

Whenever you get an email that can't be replied to immediately, but needs a reply, put it in a special folder. Mine is called "@Reply". Then, work through that folder during your email-replying time, and clean it out completely.
posted by chrismear at 3:06 PM on April 25, 2005

Probably not applicable to most of you, but for anyone using the Thunderbird email program, there is an absolutely killer extension to help you file emails into different folders.

QuickFile let's you file the current message(s) in just a few keyboard-only steps:
- hit Alt-Q
- type a few letters to auto-find the mail directory
- hit Enter

it's brilliant...i'm now wishing that it had a way to let you jump to that folder at the same time but alas.
posted by jacobsee at 4:40 PM on April 25, 2005

Merlin has a new article about this stuff. Check it out.
posted by jacobsee at 8:39 PM on April 26, 2005 [1 favorite]

This may not help at all, but if you find yourself typing out some of the same stuff into these replies, you might look into Riccardo Ettore's TypeIt4Me. It lets you assign quick abbreviations to big chunks of text.

For instance, you set it up so when you type "byee" it types out

"Blah blah blah...
Thanks for writing.

your pal, Skylar"

I used to use this forever ago when I did customer service/tech support and it was such a help answering the same questions over and over (and over). I could type three or four keys and have TypeIt4Me fill in the paragraphs of a some multi-step trouble-shooting walkthrough.
posted by blueberry at 1:16 AM on April 27, 2005 [1 favorite]

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