A Few Days Away, a Fresh Look at Email

On my office PC, I have a complex, tuned mechanism for processing email: many filters, many folders, etc. I check email at least a couple times per hour (sometimes every few minutes) and tend to send many short replies to message threads.

When I travel, my email processing is much simpler: check email a few times per day (or much less, depend on whether it’s business or pleasure travel). All incoming messages land in the Inbox. I read, I delete anything I won’t need, then file each remaining messages in to one of two folders: “Stuff to file when I get home”, “Stuff to act on when I get home”. (The idea of filing everything in one folder has a lot of merit, which I’ll explore someday when I find a local email client which handles that model as well as Gmail.)

During my trip last week, following the process above, an important aspects of my “email life” became much more obvious: I receive an enormous number of messages that only peripherally relate to me – mailing lists, automatic notifications, etc.; and dealing with those messages takes too much time. This fact, so obvious when it all lands in the Inbox a few times per day, had been hidden by my filing system and rules, and by spending a few minutes time all through the day and evening on email.

So I trimmed, radically: I unsubscribed from lists, I turned off automatic email notification systems, etc. I now aim to let several messages build up about a topic, them write one well-considered reply instead of multiple fast replies, seeking quality over quantity.

On a related note, I also let the many RSS feeds in my reader (FeedDemon – a great product) build up while away, so that when I return, I have N days worth, rather than reading every day. In the past I’ve slowly caught up over several days. This time, I used the large buildup as an opportunity to more clearly see which feeds have the most value to me… and unsubscribed from many others.

I wrote the above in the first person, but I think it is good advice in general: guard your inputs, periodically take stock of overall incoming quality and quantity in to your inboxes. What enormous time sinks are hiding in your email rules/filters/folder system?

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