"Mark As Unread" Doesn't Work For Me Anymore
May 11, 2008 11:52 AM   Subscribe

How do you organize your email? How can I better organize my emails and be a better email-user?

I use Gmail (with both a Gmail account and a .edu account both forwarded to it, and Gmail set up to send email as the @gmail and the @.edu account), Apple Mail, and occasionally read emails on my cell phone via Google mobile. My Gmail is setup via IMAP to sync with my Mac, so whatever I do to an email on Gmail or on my phone will show up as a change when I get home and look at Mail on my mac.

Right now, I'm just reading emails and marking as read, and not archiving, tagging, or foldering anything. In a way, this suits me fine -- Gmail and Spotlight searches are effective enough that I can find most old, lost emails pretty readily. More importantly, though, I find myself often missing (more accurately, forgetting about) emails and not getting back to people on stuff. In other words, once something is read, it's read -- I don't have a better system for tracking followup. I get the feeling that I'm not really using email the *right* way -- my inbox is not 0, it's 2338 messages, most of which have been dealt with.

What does everyone else do in this situation? With Spotlight and tags and searching, it seems silly to file emails as they come in, but maybe that's what I should be doing? Or are there simple ways to setup automatic filing and tagging? How does IMAPed Gmail work with Mail with regard to tags?

I realize my question is rather broad and open ended, but I'm pretty clueless about this. Any explanations, tips, tricks, links, etc. help.
posted by rossination to Computers & Internet (10 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I should add that I have Entourage 2004(?) as an option as well, and I'm not opposed to switching if that would make things easier. Other details: G4 iBook, Tiger.
posted by rossination at 12:01 PM on May 11, 2008

I like Merlin Mann's Inbox Zero.
posted by sharkfu at 12:12 PM on May 11, 2008

Sharkfu is right. You should start by getting your inbox to zero emails. Merlin Mann's video, at the bottom of that page he linked is a good intro to the concept.

The gist of it is, that when something comes in, you shouldn't just let it sit there, you should do something about it. This is where a to-do list comes in handy. (try toodledo, remember the milk, or one of many others) If it's an issue that you can take care of in 3 minutes or less, just do it, regardless of what else you're doing at the time. Then archive the email and forget about it.

If it's something that requires a little more followup, label it accordingly. I suggest the use of an "Action" tag where you file stuff that you need to follow up on later. Then, once a day, go back through your action tag, cleaning it out.

You might have other labels too, like "Hold" for things you need to do eventually, in a week or two. Optionally, make tags for projects that you're working on and need to reference often. Lots of these kinds of tips can be found on 43 folders, lifehacker, and other GTD-type blogs.
posted by chrisamiller at 12:27 PM on May 11, 2008

i try to keep my inbox to inbox zero (except that actual zero is too lonely so i always keep one funny or sweet email from a friend in there to pad it out and make me smile).

i also try to use my inbox as a to-do list.
generally, my rule is that if anything is in my inbox, it needs a response from me, asap.

now that i'm used to inbox zero, my inbox is like tetris- the higher it is, the closer i am to drowning & forgetting to do important things. i now feel a bit anxious if my inbox has more than 10-15 things in it, as it means that stuff is "piling up". i think this is a good thing- it keeps me current. because always i try to keep my inbox to under 20 emails, i have to go through my "to-do list" at least every couple days- so i never fall too far behind.

my email procedure is:

read all email a couple times a day. respond asap if possible (GTD's 2-minute rule- if a response takes less than 2 minutes, do it immediately, then archive the email).
immediately archive or delete anything that doesn't require a response.

emails that still need my response (and the response will take more than 2 minutes to write) stay in the inbox (sometimes i'll jot a few notes about my response and then just save as draft, right on the email). it stays in the inbox until my response is sent.

things i've read that are really urgent i'll mark as unread, so they stand out more.

emails that i've responded to- but which aren't closed loops yet (for instance, money i've sent an invoice for but not been paid yet)- these get marked with a star, then get archived.
to me, stars mean "follow up later". once in a while (i have no official schedule on this, i do it maybe every week or so, but you could include it as a GTD sunday night review or something), i'll pull up all starred emails and scroll through them to see which ones still matter.

if they turn out to be important again, i'll mark as unread (which pops them back into the inbox and thus on to the to-do list). others have probably taken care of themselves by the time i review them (a cheque arrived for an invoice, for instance), so i'll just remove the star & re-archive them to get them out of the way.

if i have special time-sensitive tasks to complete, i sometimes send myself blank emails with the thing in the subject line, so my inbox really does become a to-do list: "talk to mj about contract", "call dentist (with phone number right in the subject line, so it's really fast to do)", etc. the next day, as i complete each task, i just delete those emails.

for longer-term stuff, sometimes i use an app called timecave (which i discovered on an askmefi post ages ago, thanks hive). i'll use it to send myself an email with a reminder for a task down the line. this way i can clear it from my inbox, but trust that i'll get a reminder on the appropriate day in case i don't review my "starred" list in time.

that's what i do to manage my weird freelance workload- hope it's helpful!
posted by twistofrhyme at 12:42 PM on May 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

Start archiving. That way you can only keep items in the inbox that still need actioned. It's incredibly simple to do in GMail, so there's no reason not to!
posted by bonaldi at 12:46 PM on May 11, 2008

Getting Things Done using labels within Gmail. But you can use folders if it's some other email program. At the top of your list of folders you have:

You put the @ sign so that they are at the top of your list. To mine, I've added the folders
– RespondLater
– NextActionsLater
– Waiting Later

That, and keeping your inbox to zero (always archiving). It's a very efficient system.
posted by fantasticninety at 1:05 PM on May 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

This is what GTD is best at — reducing the scary piles of stuff surrounding you (virtually and physically) and turning them into simple, actionable items on a to-do list. I would heartily second everything chrisamiller suggests.
posted by electric_counterpoint at 1:09 PM on May 11, 2008

I agree with everything that has been mentioned already. Make use Gmail labels, I find them to be a real time saver. Once you have set up labels, you can apply filters for them so they are automatically applied. Plus when you are in am email it is real easy to remove a label.

Even if you don't want to drink the Get Things Done kook-aid, using the @ symbol when naming labels keeps that item close to the top of the list. When I am working on a project that will generate a lot of email for a short period, I put the @ symbol in front so it is near the top of the drop down list. When the project is over then I just drop the @ symbol from name and it settles lower in the label list.

I have been using the Better Gmail Firefox extension and love it. It combines several greasemonkey scripts into one extension. The main thing is that it allows for faux-folders (through naming) which I love.

Another tip that a friend recently gave me was creating a "waiting for" label in Gmail (again part of the whole GTD ethos). You can create quick on the fly address with Gmail by adding + to your addres and a word (eg yourname+waiting@gmail.com). Create a contact in your Gmail for this address with a short 'name' like WF. Then create a filter based on this name that applies the "waiting for" label and archive it. When you send out an email to someone that you are awaiting a response on, add a bcc: to your WF address and it will apply the label and archive it. This way you can check that folder/label periodically to see what is still waiting on a response.

Sorry if that last part sounds a bit convoluted but once it is set up it runs on autopilot. I work for 2 different organizations and volunteer as well and it really helps keep my inbox pretty much close to emplty.
posted by Razzle Bathbone at 3:56 PM on May 11, 2008

Pretty much what others have said. I tag & archive so that anything actually in my inbox is either unread, needs action, or is some sort of discussion that's waiting for someone else's followup.
posted by juv3nal at 6:07 PM on May 11, 2008

I use thunderbird, so I don't know if gmail has this capability, but I find it to be an easy solution. But my brain works differently- tagging seems like a hassle to me, but this doesn't.

I just create folders inside my inbox. A dozen or so, grouped according to theme and importance. For some things, automatic email rules work great. If an email comes in from someone wanting me to pay a bill, it gets moved into "BILLS". Or emails from work HR that I need for reference later but have no importance now get moved to "HR REFERENCE". A folder for non-immediate urgent things (do today, but not immediately). A folder for daily news stuff and Dilbert cartoons, etc.

As you read things that come in, move them to the appropriate folder. For the "to do" folders, I have a rule that marks the messages unread once they go in there, so in my folder tree I can see instantly what things need doing.

Then, I have a second folder tree of archived stuff. For me, just about everything goes in there when I'm done with it. Except crap like forwards and Dilbert cartoons, which just get deleted when I'm done.

It's the same idea as inbox zero, I guess, but just a different method.
posted by gjc at 7:16 PM on May 11, 2008

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