Email Ninja-ing

Email is all the rage – both Fred Wilson and Brad Feld wrote about the necessity to properly use email as a re-call to action for web service users. I agree, since your email inbox is what your work life often revolves around (yes, this sounds sad). If you have someone’s email address, and you can write a halfway personal text, you’re bound to get a response.

The downside of all the services we are now using is the incredible surge in email volume. Whenever I catch a glance at someone’s inbox and see it overflowing with GroupOn emails and Facebook message alerts, I cringe. Some people wear an overloaded inbox as a badge of honour, but it’s really not practical. So, here’s my short list of how to make email bearable when dealing with craptons of emails (like I unfortunately do).

First – three facts:

Inbox “0”…

…is a nice concept, but not the holy grail. If you try to get that number down to zero and nothing else, you are haunted by a special case of ODD – and it will not make you more productive at all.

Email as todo list…

… is a terrible concept, but unfortunately a fact of (working) life. If you have a boss, investors, or a coworkers, they will give you stuff to do via email. As they also wait for an answer, your inbox essentially becomes your to do list, and sending a reply ticks a task off the list.

Rules and training…

…are necessary to make this work. My system won’t work for you, probably, but at least it contains some nifty ideas on how to avoid overload.

Three easy steps to eliminate crap from the inbox

Separate addresses for ham/spam

Use a separate email address to sign up for stuff like web services, newsletters, and non-essential things. This is the blanket solution to keep annoying stuff out of your inbox.

  • Get a short, anonymous, easy to remember (and spell) gMail address. *
  • Change all your web services to send to that address (takes forever but is worth it – I got mine about 6 years ago, and am now exclusively using that to sign up to stuff).
  • Set it up as a subfolder in your main gMail account (you use gMail, right? You better). Set it up via IMAP so you can also send and reply from within your main account using that address.
  • Make a filter in gMail to skip your inbox and apply a label that you set up in your sidebar.
  • If you get tons of emails from services like Twitter/FB, consider setting them up to be marked as read automatically. You will still see them when you glance through the label folder.

Bam. You probably just eliminated 50% of your inbox volume. Rinse and repeat.

Archive religiously

Archiving will not delete your mails, instead you keep everything in “All Mail”.

  • Add the “archive” button in gMail and use it for everything you get done. Keeps the original inbox light.
  • Use the “send and archive” button (in gMail labs) to skip an extra click. Use keyboard shortcuts for bonus points (“e” archives current, “[” archives and goes to next, “]” to previous email).
  • To archive your current inbox (you kinda have to), go to the last page of emails, ‘select all’, and gMail will ask yuo if you want to select your whole inbox. Do it, and ‘archive’. Your first whiff of inbox zero. Then go and ‘move to inbox’ whatever you still need to work on.

Set up filters and tags

The extra email address is the first filter, but you can get many more working for you. Especially if you are on a few mailing lists you don’t want to miss. I found it worthwhile to use filters and tags:

  • Group / task / job (admin, expenses, travel) – filter to apply tags and color code them. I.e. an automatic expense tag (using a +expenses@ address, see below) is very convenient so i know what to print when i do expenses once a month.
  • In private, use it to set up your different personas – for companies you deal with, your projects, and maybe groups of people you mail to. Makes it much easier to find stuff.
  • Make sure to clean up tags once in a while so they don’t clutter your sidebar.

That’s all you need – you won’t miss stuff and you will be much more efficient in finding things. Priority Inbox does some of it automatically, but setting it up custom made lets you tailor what you want to see or not much more easily.

I usually end up with about 3-5 emails in my inbox at the end of the day, and have a pretty good email response time. You?

* An alternative to a separate email address is a Yourname+Something@gmail setup. gMail allows you to set unlimited +anythingyoulike and will deliver them straight to your inbox. It works, but is much more filtering and still gives out your real email address.

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