This is a guest post by Ethan Waldman, founder of Cloud Coach.
Apparently everybody is trying to get a piece of the ‘email overwhelm’ business these days.
All this renewed focus on email isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though. The companies that make email software are finally getting around to realizing that unless their users are total email ninjas, the email software they’ve written is just plain useless up against today’s typical volume of email.
This increased awareness leads to more competition between email providers, more third party services at better prices, and more awesome ideas floating around the internet on how to deal with email overwhelm.
Handling a large volume of email is no longer a problem that just mid-level corporate managers have to deal with. It’s a problem for everyone, and there are two ways you can deal with it:
The first is to actively try to get less email. There are some fairly obvious ways (unsubscribe from newsletters, stop giving out your email address, etc.) to deal with this and other less obvious ones. I’ll share a resource that I created that addresses this strategy later in this post. Today I’m going to focus on a different strategy:
Use new tactics and/or software to cope with the volume you already have.
The basics: In this technique your goal is to keep your inbox empty at all times. The idea is that your inbox should be what its name says: the place where new email comes and is processed from. If you receive an email that you aren’t going to respond to right away, you still remove it from your inbox into a folder or folders that that you’ll return to later. If you use Gmail, the star is perfect for this function.
I’ve seen many variations of this technique over the last few years, and always find myself drawn to the simplicity.
Here’s where it breaks down: It’s easy to get drawn back into using your inbox as a to-do list. Even more frightening, I found that when I had a lot in my inbox, I forgot about the stuff that I archived to my “todo” folder and just focused on the newest email, even when there was more pressing (or more overdue) stuff in my archive folder.
[note: not sure what the archive is? see this]
As I mentioned in the intro, Dropbox recently bought the Mailbox startup for a lot of money. Why? Because they had a beta version of an amazing App that already had a giant waiting list and rave reviews. And was the hype worth it?
I think so. I’m still using Mailbox on my iPhone alongside the native email client, and I find myself wishing that it was available for my Mac and Windows machines as well.
Mailbox is great because it takes the power of the Archive Everything technique and adds some intelligence. If the Archive everything technique is a meat cleaver, then Mailbox is a scalpel.
Again, the idea is to get to inbox zero by either dealing with messages right away or saving them for later, but Mailbox adds a few nuances. You really have 4 choices with every message in mailbox: You can archive it, delete it, have it come back to your inbox at a later date, or be moved to a list.
This is all accomplished with swipes of the finger.
A quick swipe to the right allows you to defer the message for This evening, Tomorrow, Next Week, etc. A long swipe allows you to file the email into some other action-oriented folders: To Read, To Print, etc.
Where does it break down? Well, it hasn’t yet for me. I do find myself wishing it could also talk to my non-gmail accounts so I could get everything in one place. I’m still using Apple’s Mail app for other email.
Automated Inbox Bliss
At my blog Cloud Coach, I’ve done a bit of writing about inbox automation. Specifically, this is using the filters feature built into Google’s Gmail to create customized rules that help you organize your email before you even read it.
The beauty of this technique is that it works with whatever other programs or methods you happen to be using at the time. Automating your inbox means you don’t have to take time to file message from your mom in the “Mom” folder. Gmail automatically takes care of this based on a rule you set up once and you never have to revisit again.
Another nice thing about automating your inbox, is that you can build a system that works exactly as you want it- you have as much control as you want to make certain messages go to certain places. All it takes is setting up another filter in Gmail. This technique even works outside of gmail because most desktop email software has some kind of Rules feature.
The downside? Well, it takes time to build up a system that accounts for everything. And every time you introduce a new element into your system (like a new newsletter subscription, a new frequently emailed contact, etc.), you’ll need to keep up with it all by creating a new filter.
Which to choose?
Regardless of what system you choose, the most important thing is to be consistent. Starting the Archive Everything technique and then switching to Mailbox will be an awkward transition.
In the comments: What are some questions you have about managing email overwhelm? What are some ways you’ve been able to cope?
About the Author: Ethan Waldman helps people live and work in harmony with technology at the Cloud Coach blog. Right now, many people are using his free Email Ninja Kit to liberate themselves from email hell.