New email processing

I have complained before about how we are so flooded with information these days, that it is virtually impossible to keep up. I send out an email message to friends at work each year, giving an estimate of how much email I actually read versus what I receive. In FY2005, I read just over 1 in 4 email messages I received at work. I simply did not have the time to read the others. I calculated that, if I did read just about every message I received, excluding spam, which is filtered), I would spent three-eighth of my day doing nothing but reading email. Over the course of a work-year, that’s 82 work-days of doing nothing but reading email!

In order to help, I have tried to keep a very simple folder structure to my email. I have always used my “inbox” as my to-do list. I therefore have tried to keep it as pared down as possible. Rather than having an elaborate folder structure, I have depended on the search features in Outlook. I have only two working folders: Inbox and Read. Once I’ve read something, or decided I’m not going to read it, it goes into the Read folder. (I can tell which one’s I’ve actually read by looking at the “Read” status of the message.) But even this is not really working anymore. I need something better.

Friday mornings I spend trying to keep up with all of the tech-blogs that relate to my work. One of those blogs is 43folders, which is based on Dave Allen’s book Getting Things Done, which I read several years back. I dug up some advice today for better email management and I now have a new way for managing my email. Some of it has to do with automation. Other changes are simply common sense. Still others are things that I’ve shied away from doing in the past. Here is how I now manage my email:

  • I still use my Inbox as my To-Do list, but now, “low-priority” email never makes it into my Inbox in the first place. This email is automatically filtered to a folder called “@Low Priority” and I can easily get a count of how many unread messages there are from Outlook. What is “low priority”? I define low priority has follows: my name is ”’not”’ in the To: line AND the message is ”’not”’ from my boss, sent to my team, or marked as “high importance”. This captures quite a bit. Stuff I receive from mailing lists, autotmated system messages, stuff that I’m copied on but not sent directly to me, etc. It really helps keep down the clutter.
  • I have an @Action folder for those things that I need to take action on, a @Deferred folder for those things that I need to think about a bit, and a @Reference folder for those things I need to keep for reference.
  • After 12 years of keeping just about every email message I receive, I am giving up. Anything that isn’t directly relevant to some work-related thing that I must keep, is getting dumped after I read it. This should make searching my messages easier.
  • Everything else ultimately gets into my “Archive” folder, which as the end of each fiscal year gets apportioned to the appropriate FY PST file.

My personal email management style is not changing, but the volume of my personal email is much more manageable (a dozen or two messages a day as opposed to a hundred or more at work).

There is one suggestion that I am hesistant to make, but that I am considering. To minimize interuptions, it is suggested that your email program only check for new email once per hour, rather than once per minutes, which is what most people set it to. I don’t know if I am ready for that yet.