Agreed, it's not e-mail as such, but it't not you (the receiver) either. Unlike obesity, where you can control the intake, e-mail comes from others. The flaw with e-mail is that it does not cost the sender anything to send a message to multiple recipients. Reply to all is easy and costs nothing extra. People don't think about whom they need to send a message to. They would if they had to pay a dollar for each recipient a mesaage was addressed to. But they don't. So the recipient is left with the problem to select the messages he should respond to from the junk he can ignore. The only thing that can solve this problem is people. Think before you send. There are no tools in the world that can do that for you.
It's true that you can't control who sends you email, but there are certainly steps you can take to limit or channel your intake. I totally agree one should think before sending, and if you're on the receiving end of mail form people who don't, be sure to tell them how you feel.
"The world’s obesity problem isn’t the fault of food, and the world’s debt problem isn’t the fault of money."
I just thought it interesting that you didn't postulate that the world's violence problem isn't the fault of weapons or firearms.
I thought the discussion would be controversial enough without opening that can of worms.
There was no need. It isn't. Most of the world's violence involves neither, being limited to good old-fashioned fists. Look at the stats on domestic violence.
The two examples cited are sufficient. Good article.
I think that Joe's examples of his system and Adam's being totally different says it all. I too devised a system for filtering and storing my email starting way back with the first paid version of Eudora. When Apple's Mail came along and Eudora was fading into the sunset, I simply configured Mail to be like Eudora in as many ways as I could manage. Works for me, would probably drive Joe and Adam nuts.
Excellent. Right on and enjoyable read.
My approach to high-volume lists is to filter them at the server into their own mailbox. They never hit my inbox, and I scan them when I feel like it. Bonus: not in my iPhone inbox either.
Excellent suggestion. I do the same thing!
I do the same thing, but you know what, I almost never read the lists that don't appear in my inbox. :-) Once they're out of sight, they're out of mind. I could unsubscribe, but I dip in once in a blue moon, and space for email is essentially infinite.
Joe, excellent article. Guy Kawasaki used to write of his own techniques for handling a daily torrent of e-correspondence and it would be interesting to hear if any of his message has changed in 10 or so years. Perhaps you might interview him please?
A tip for (OS X) Mail.app users: if you're not already using flags productively, rename the first four (red/orange/yellow/green) "Now", "Soon", "Sometime", and "Reference", respectively.
Create a Smart Mailbox that shows only unread messages.
When new mail shows up in Unread, and you don't deal with it on the spot, give it one of those flags. Look at your flag mailboxes (automatic once you flag messages) on some reasonable schedule—daily for Now, at least weekly for Soon, &c.
If messages pile up in Now, you obviously didn't mean it, so demote them as appropriate.
(I also move mail out of Inbox to some appropriate filing place, but I imagine that the system would work without that. My filing system, once rather fine-grained, has become increasingly general (fewer boxes) over the years, as I rely more on search than remembering where the hell I filed it.)
Excellent suggestion. My flags are more specific, but they work well for me: Priority (red), To Process (orange), Orders & Receipts (yellow), Discounts (green), Personal (blue), Business (purple), and To Read (gray).
Yay! I was starting to wonder if I was the only one not complaining about email. I've started thinking lately, that with all the hyper-sharing going on these days if people feel that they must complain about something, anything just to make their voices heard. I'm very happy with email, even if it's not a cool thing to say out loud. Thanks for the very readable, enjoyable article.
“The system I’ve used for years works perfectly — for me. My inbox rarely has more than a handful of messages in it, and it’s usually empty when I go to bed.”
Amen. I spent years developing and tweaking a system that works for me.
I used to routinely deal with 600+ emails a day, but I got tired of fooling with that quantity and have trimmed things down to ~ 100-150 (personal, technical, and various subscriptions).
Like Adam I was an inveterate Eudora user and still desperately miss its power-user features. Unlike Adam I dislike Gmail intensely and just can't use it.
When I finally gave up Eudora I tried everything available on the Mac and didn't like any of the available offerings but adding a few plugins to Apple's Mail.app made it productive if still not ideal.
[Free] MailFollowUp, QuoteFix
[Commercial] MailActOn, MailHub, Meta
Triaging incoming mail with filters and using 28 smart-mailboxes in descending priority keeps my InBox free of all but the most important traffic.
The MailHub plugin in particular makes filing things appropriately a breeze — it intelligently guesses where you want to file a message and will do so with a keystroke, and you can quickly search for other locations.
In conclusion: I agree with Joe that email is *not* broken, but I believe that email clients available on the Mac still leave a lot to be desired.
Good article. I know the problem is that I haven't adapted my systems over time. What used to work no longer does. I may have to declare a bankruptcy at some point, but I know in my heart what I really need to do is unsubscribe. I can read lots of email messages in a day, but I can't read lots of multi-page emails.
Top article. I couldn't agree more. I have my system which works well for me. I use standard apple mail app and several email addresses and think about which one I'm using for what purpose. A bit of an effort to begin with but soon enough a pattern is set. The issue is the 'thinking' part. If you drift along then email clutter catastrophe is inevitable.
My trick is to go through my inbox twice a day to zero, and use Spamsieve which you train over time.Any tasks are sent to omnifocus, calendar entries are added via mails ability to recognise dates.
The key is to never let your mail build up.
I know Joe disagrees with me and I am sure Adam does too, but as we all got different approaches, I might as well add mine. I started using e-mail in 1990 and joined a mailing-list then, but had to print the messages as I had no computer myself. Later I borrowed Macs at the University and saved messages to floppies. But from late 1995 until now I have saved most e-mail of any relevance on my computer.
I am still very conservative about e-mail and do not like filters as Adam also points out that one does not tend to read filtered out messages. So apart from 1-2 filters I sort manually everything. I delete as much as I can, then skim the headers of mailing-list messages and then sort them away. Then flag important messages that needs to be acted upon and answers the ones that could be answered quickly and file yet more away into appropriate mailboxes. I add all sent messages to my Inbox as I have never figured out why anyone would want to have them apart from the incoming related messages (do you save ordinary letters in different boxes depending on Sent/Received?). So my Sent mailbox is always empty for all my accounts.
When I get time I trim down the Inbox, which I just did this Friday going from +2200 messages to 267 in my work e-mail account. Joe has a point in not using the Inbox as a to-do list, but there are items there that are not easily translated into to-do items and even if it would be possible to do so, this act itself is time consuming, so I divide attention to to-do things between the Inbox and Notes (which works very nice with iCloud … (if one is not too quick …)). I tried special programs for to-do administration, but often they add to much "overhead" to me where I need to think of the programs working instead of what I should do. I complement this with noting things of importance in 1Password and FileMaker and documents in Dropbox (+ some on my own MBA). It is not perfect, but I find it hard to circumvent direct checking of everything that comes in to the mailbox (fortunately I do not have too many mailing-lists to follow, but I also unsubscribe if needed).
I do worry a bit for people having over 20000 e-mails in their Inbox (and I have seen a couple of business bosses in situations like that). I cannot appreciate the trend of moving toward webmail - I use Spotlight to find things from previous mails + other things on my computer in the same search - how do you do that with webmail? (It does not come across as a serious alternative to me.)
As much as I'd love to argue particular points (like moving stuff from Sent to Inbox), the important thing is that you have a system that works for you. And if it does, then it's nobody else's business how weird it is :-).
As Joe says, whatever works for you is what's best for you.
I can't speak to other webmail systems, most of which I've been unimpressed with, but Gmail's search is far faster and better than Spotlight's in my experience. It should be - if there's one thing Google knows, it's searching.
Except Gmail only finds full word matches - so if you can't QUITE spell the whole name, or remember if something was mentioned as plural, you won't find it.
The recently released InfoClick from nisus software pretty much solved my search problems in Mail.
That's true, but in years of use, I've never found it to be an actual problem, for two reasons. First, Gmail provides autocomplete guesses as you type in the search field. And second, it's just not the way my brain works - if I can remember anything about a message, I'll remember a full word. I haven't run into problems with plurals ever, but it may be that Gmail is searching for both singular and plural simultaneously - when I search for "kitten" in my email, and then change the search to "kittens", the search results don't seem to change.
I would like to know 1) how often you search for "kittens" in your email, and 2) how often you find "kittens." Please feel free to post photos.
1) Never before. :-)
2) Looks like I have 5 messages in my mailbox with the word "kitten" and a photo attachment of a kitten that a family member just acquired or that a friend is trying to get someone to adopt. (Gmail search on "kitten has:attachment")
Wow, what a revealing search! I just found 20 mentions of "kitten" in mine. Subject lines include "kitten in a hamster ball," "ocelot kitten," and "soldier feeds kitten in Iraq."
I agree here too, how you handle email is what can make the true difference between email chaos and email zen. You just have to find the right email tool that you enjoy using, that feels right and readjust your email habits to manage your inbox efficiently. Perhaps an email app that guides you in the right direction with email management.
Although I sort of like Mailbox (maybe that's not a totally fair judgment, because I don't really use Gmail, but I'd like to see the app when it becomes compatible with Exchange, which is what I'm forced to use at my university), I fully agree with Joe's article.
I am surprised that the discussion hasnt mentioned sanebox which has provided me with an extraordinary insight into intelligent sorting of mail, and helping me (and I would say thousands of others) prioritise my mail.
Its an aid. It doesnt read my mail or reply, but like a good tool, it is intuitive, rarely fails and adapts subtly over time. Strong recommendation from me.
(BTW Mailbox absolutely failed for me too, within 5 minutes of loading it it was deleted.. and I waited and waited!)
Someone mentioned SaneBox to me in an email message this morning, and it was the first time I'd heard of it. It doesn't seem like something I'd use personally; my existing system makes it unnecessary. But, you know, to each his own.
Enthusiastically seconded! I use Sanebox as well and couldn't imagine life without it. The ability to snooze email into the future, and have it presorted intelligently is phenomenal. And it works on any IMAP email platform or device. www.sanebox.com.
I hadn't heard of SaneBox before either, but it looks like a combination of Gmail's Priority Inbox (which does a fabulous job of separating out my most important messages) and the Boomerang extension for Gmail.
Personally I was in email hell until I read
Getting Things Done by David Allen and later,
the Low Information Diet by Tim Ferris (a chapter in 4 Hour Work Week).
- only check twice a day & always process to empty
- discipline to only read each message once
- NO folders, just archive or delete
- a trusted system for actions that I can't perform straight away (for me it's OmniFocus)
- train my friends & colleagues through constant feedback & auto-reply messages
Good to hear that you've figured out a system that works for you!
I read both those books too, and found that David Allen's GTD system - which I tried hard to use for quite some time - required too much moving of things around.
As for Tim Ferris, well, let's just say that the title of his book is intentionally fantastical. He doesn't have anything approaching a normal job, so anything he says should be taken with a mine of salt. :-)
But again, if it works for you, that's all that's important.
In 2008 I switched to Gmail and I stopped filing messages in folders. I delete most emails, but the ones I feel I may need to refer to someday stay in my Inbox. I have 11,733 messages in my Inbox, of which 278 are unread. When I need to look for something the Mail Spotlight can usually find it in a flash. AWESOME. Every 3 months or so (say March 1, 2013) I'll delete the previous year's messages from Jan, Feb, March 2012. It works for me. And I'm glad Joe didn't bring up the "guns don't kill people" argument.
This is akin to what I do, except I use Gmail's Web interface and the only things I ever delete are test messages (since Gmail doesn't ever slow down due to lots of mail). I do have a few labels to separate certain types of messages out of my incoming stream, and to be able to find certain unsearchable messages (order receipts, mostly) after the fact.
I forgot to mention... I don't do Twitter. Or Facebook. Or Linked In. Social networking can really suck you in. If my friends want to communicate with me they know my email address. Also, I used to do RSS news feeds and subscribed to hundreds of feeds. Then I went on a long vacation and when I came back I couldn't face the backlog so I stopped. Glad I did.
This is all very well and good, but on the iPhone I still feel Mail is a disaster. I currently have 158 unread messages on my iPhone. I am NOT willing to sit there and tap 158 times each message I want to delete. If I did this everyday, I'd be spending most of my day just deleting unwanted mail. So I don't use email on my iPhone. Sad, but that's the way it is for me (if there was the equivalent of a "click and drag" so I could select all of them or a group of them at once, it would be a different story)...
In the list of messages, tap "Edit". This puts little circles beside each message. Tap the circle for each message you want to delete (or file), then choose the action you want at the bottom.
While there's a lot to be gained from controlling your email on a personal level there's also the physical aspects to consider.
The larger one's mailboxes are and the more email that's simply accumulated, especially in the inbox, the more "costly" everything will be. That ranges from longer mailbox sync/update times with the mail server, much higher data throughput needs (extremely important for mobile users) through to longer and larger backups (Time Machine or clones).
I find that managing my mail on an annual basis allows for very simple mailbox rotation, exporting and trimming.
You're absolutely right - I've been struggling to move my Mail folder for Apple Mail around on external hard disks because it's over 40 GB in size.
Luckily, this isn't a real problem for me because Mail is only a backup of Gmail for me (and my Eudora archive from years past); having everything in Gmail and using Gmail's Web and mobile clients eliminates all the "physical" issues related to email. And in situations where offline access is necessary, it's not hard to point an IMAP client at it temporarily.
I'm actually surprised you find enough speed and efficiency to go GMail full time over implementing a local mail server to handle the bulk, of not all, of your mail storage needs.
After many years of using Eudora, I found every other local client a bad clone of Eudora. Gmail rethinks how email works, and once I sat down and thought about how I wanted to interact with email, and how I needed to, it became clear that it was far more efficient. No more checking and sending, no more fussing with too-large mailboxes, no more fighting with the one-mailbox-per-message limitations of IMAP, really good single-key keyboard controls, and so on. But I'm sure my system wouldn't work for everyone.
I appreciated this article a lot... Sometimes you don't realize things in life that cause low-level stress until they are fixed. My email is fixed. One comment to your method (and the Inbox Zero method) that I've used to help prune the email is to have a filter/label/folder (whichever you use) called "Keep Temp" that I immediately file all email in that I know I'll never need again after a certain time/date/etc ... A thread about scheduling a phone call for example, a tracking number for an ordered item, a limited time sale that I may or may not act on that will expire soon, etc. I'm actually amazed at how many emails fit into the category "I couldn't imagine any possible reason I'd ever need to keep this." Every once in a while I go in and clean out hundreds of old messages or threads in this category.
I just want to chime in to all that miss Eudora, I have been with Eudora since 1.51 but switched (as I wanted to leave Rosetta) some years back to GyazMail, with some (if not alway to easy) tweaks it becomes VERY close to Eudora (I do miss the ability to change subject, and the mails includes all enclosed files and therefore takes space). But it is fast and extremely reliable.
Another ex-Eudora user with a big thumbs-up for GyazMail. Unlike Apple Mail, it is easy to add accounts and configure. (Am I the only person who uses GMail POP3 accounts?) I demoed myriad plugins for Mail; it is easy to spend $60+ and still not get all the features one wants... GyazMail costs $18.
Like I did during 12+ years using Eudora, I use filters and account/sender-specific mailboxes (folders) so I immediately know where a particular message is from and if it requires immediate attention. As a result my in-boxes are usually empty...
GMail? I only use it minimally for things such as CraigsList communications. My beef with Google: automatically scanning the text of my e-mail so I can receive targeted ads. It's creepy, plain and simple... I don't care if it's a computer doing the scanning. We have to trust that Google isn't doing something else with that scanned text... and I don't trust Google one bit.
Giving up my privacy for a "free" e-mail service is too much for me to pay.