Published 2010-11-14, originally published at old blog

[This post is originally written on my norwegian blog; I thought it suitable for this blog, so I translated it and reposted it here.]

I’m a student, work part-time as a system developer, and involve myself in student activities and other side projects. Aside from the production level this requires, it amounts to a massive level of mails. I receive between 30 and 50 mails per day, a number that decrease to about 10-20 in the weekends. In the past I wasn’t able to handle this amount, and while reading for my exams for spring 2010, I found myself realizing that enough was enough. I started the tedious process to clear out mail from the inbox, and to establish a system that would enable me to handle the incoming mail (procrastination before exam is a familiar concept).

After talking to Henrik Lied (one of the new students I’ve sponsored during IFI buddy-week [no]) about mail-processing, I thought I should share my approach, as he ruled it sensible. There are, after all, many approaches out there telling how you can become more productive in your work with mail. There are also the more wide-ranging frameworks, such as GTD. But this post is about mail and the efforts I made to make my days easier. I primarily use the service Gmail, and all functions described are from that usage.

Basics

Before I explain the functions, I want to disentangle the thoughts that drives my continuing exploration of helpful tools. If you ain’t that interested, go straight to the methods.

Inbox shall be empty after visit

When finished with my visit to Gmail, there shan’t be any mails left in the inbox. This ensures that all incoming mail have gotten my attention. This doesn’t mean that I’ve closed them, and that they don’t need any of my future attention. It means that I’ve taken a choice as to how I want to attack the content of the mail.

Everything can be categorized

All mail belong to some domain or other. Domains can be generic, like “Work”, or specific, like “CYB – Web” (work group in CYB [no]), and everything in between. The point is to contribute meaning to it for yourself, so that mail can be classified within meaningful domains.

One mail-thread equals one issue

This is more of a rule of how to handle content in mail, and not necessarily how to construct a system supporting it. But given the previous principle, it makes the work easier. One issue doesn’t need to restrict itself to one case, but should concern one overall theme.

I’ll admit, I hate when people answer a request of mine by adding information regarding another issue than what at hand. For example, if I send a mail concerning issue A, and receive a respond asking if I am to join “that party this weekend”, then I refuse to answer that request. I’ll send a new mail concerning the matter, creating a new thread (or rather in that case, I’ll contact the person through IM).

Mail is but one form of communication

I use email for:

  • cases where it’s not precarious that I respond immediately. For that I’ll rather use phone and/or IM/IRC.
  • to enable myself to easily search the information afterwards. If it is of no importance, than I rather use IM (although I log that too).
  • to handle complex matters, where it’s not possible or necessary to meet a person physically. If we can meet, I rather do that, as face-to-face meeting grants a richer conversation than what mail currently offer.
  • to be able to send and receive mass-deployment of information.
    • Mailing-lists are a useful tool if I want a dialogue with multiple persons. But in cases where I only wish to receive information, I rather use RSS.
    • If I want to share something, and it doesn’t need to be directed to certain persons, I rather use Facebook (for friends), twitter (short messages, for all) or blog (rich content, for all).
  • to work with information in a communicative form. For other forms I usually partake in collaboration-tools, such as Google Docs.

How to use Gmail to handle 30-50 mail per day

Let it be said that the methods I describe aren’t written in stone, and that all is work in progress. I do think that these methods can be applied for larger amounts of mail, but I can only justify what I’ve experienced.

Start with the old

I like to apply the principles of FIFO as I feel that contributes respect in a fairer way toward those that sent me the mails.

Judge the mail based on its form and its content

In a matter of seconds after opening it, I’ve decided how to proceed with a given mail, whether I need to spend time with it or not. Mail that doesn’t receive my attention are mostly ads, that I receive perhaps 5-6 of each day. These are quickly removed by unchecking Inbox, quickly followed by proceeding to newer mail.

If the mail:

  • contains content that interests me, I’ll skim through it (or read it thoroughly, if necessary). If no reply is necessary, I’ll uncheck it from the inbox.
  • demands answer from me, I’ll respond immediately (if possible).
  • demands answer from somebody, but not necessarily me, I’ll consider what I can contribute to the matter. If I can provide a certain answer, I’ll reply to all with it. If I’m uncertain of the validity of my answer, I’ll respond to the sender to share my thoughts.
  • may be of interest later on, I’ll add it to my to do-list, by “Add to Tasks” in “More actions”.

If the mail require an answer, and cannot be responded immediately, I’ll star it for later. This can be mail that require a complex answer, where I should check information before I respond. Another classic case is mails that tell me that documents have been shared, and I don’t have the time to divulge my full attention to them.

Labels, labels, labels

To categorize all mail I assign them one or more labels. I never do this manually, unless very unique cases require it. Instead, I prefer to use Filters. Whether or not filters are frequently used are not important, as long as they’re useful. Thusly, it’s not necessary to administrate your filters, to make them more effective or something like that. Currently I have 302 filters, and to administrate them requires more time then I’m willing to spare.

Filter

As mentioned, I create filters quite regularly. A typical approach starts when I receive mail that isn’t automatically labeled. Then I choose “Filter messages like these” from “More actions”. Google is usually quite good with guessing how filters should be applied, and if there are other mail are included by the new setting, then I mark that they also should be included.

A choice of setting I rarely use, is the possibility that the filter mark email as read and skip inbox. The only case where I have this is for the mail I receive automatically from Facebook, and that reflect activity that is of interest to me. I know I can disable this, but I like to have a log outside of Facebook’s domain, and this enables me to have that.

Starred mail

The methods described ensures that my inbox becomes empty, and that all mail is categorized. Mail that require my concentrated focus are siphoned into my starred inbox, and these are taken care off when I’m able to.

It’s no shame in letting mail stay in the starred inbox. Mail that I don’t wish to respond to often lay there for quite some time. But never let the number of starred mail exceed 10. That’s a sign that things are getting out of control.

Tasks

Google Tasks are the latest addition in my methods. It revealed its use for me when my starred inbox exceeded 10 items. Tasks give me a list of to do-items, and combined with reference to specific mail (and events in calendar, but that’s not here to discuss) it’s a powerful tool for me structure my work and remind me of what needs to be done.

I try to comb my to do-lists once a day (I currently have five of them), but some are only visited when needed. For example the list Work, which is addressed only at Thursdays and Fridays, when I’m at work.

Another way to exploit the feature is Google Tasks, an extension for Google Chrome. I’ve only recently started using this, and is in a experimental stage. I haven’t decided whether I like it to enable myself to easily nag what I should do.

Multiple inboxes

To give myself a quick glance in the newer mail in the system, I use Multiple Inboxes. This is activated by visiting Labs in Gmail’s settings. A lot of other good stuff in Labs, but Multiple Inboxes is the only feature that I would assign credit for better productivity.

Conclusion

There you have it, my way to stop cluttering my inbox in Gmail. This system works well for me, and requires me to only check mail once a day. Of course, it’s no problem to give it more days, but I must admit that abstinences take the best of me if disconnected from my mailbox for several days.

Although I’ve activated the use of Prioritized Inbox, I must admit that I haven’t found use for it yet. Using the system described I simply have no use for it. Perhaps if the amount of mail was to increase, it would reveal itself as useful (or if I was on a longer vacation/unable to check my mail).

I’ve assigned myself a standard to quickly reply to mail. I know how much I hate to wait for mail myself, so I won’t assign this frustration upon others. To enable me to do this, I’ve installed a client that checks for mail for me. I usually use Digsby, since it also gives me access to the different IMs I subscribe, but Google Talk is also an excellent tool.

Lastly, I want to urge all of you to set up an automatic response in periods you know you won’t be checking your mail. I’m planning myself to take a longer vacation in February, and will set up a mail to be automatically sent to those requesting my attention. That way people know that I’m available that given period, and I attain my reputation as a quick responder.

Do you have any good advices to managing a large amount of mail?

Written by Arne Hassel