Keeping up with email

One of the things that came out of our recent Challenges Survey: many are struggling with a “time pinch.” So I’ve been reading, thinking and writing more in this area lately (see, for example, the Bullet Journal). One of the areas is in the management of email and correspondence. For what it’s worth, this is the system I use to practically keep up with email.
I use a combination of Gmail and Outlook. On most devices and computers, I’ve come to use Outlook as my primary email processor, but the result is the same regardless of whether I use the Gmail web client or Outlook itself.
1. I use a very simple system of folders. Each folder starts with one letter – i.e. N for Newsletters. This gives me a maximum of 26 buckets.
I find the more buckets I have for email, the harder it is to decide which bucket one particular email goes in. I used to have several different newsletter buckets (e.g. missionary newsletters, mission agency newsletters, tech newsletters, etc.) but then some would kind of “bleed over” (for example, a missionary newsletter about tech products used in the field). Better to have just one bucket to search.
I also have 10 slots (numbered, 0-9) which are for short-term projects. (For example, right now I have one for all emails related to the upcoming Ethne conference). Once these are done, the project folder gets archived and hidden in Gmail’s folder system.
Outlook will automatically sync these folders, so I can see the same thing on every device.
2. I religiously use rules to automatically file certain kinds of incoming emails.
Newsletters, notifications, and other similar emails automatically go into their appropriate folders. I don’t want them showing up in my main inbox view. I want to have a dedicated time when I go through them.
3. I have dedicated time slots for email processing.
I spend somewhere between 1 and 3 20-minute time slots per day (usually just 1) processing incoming emails. By this, I mean that I look at all new emails and do one of the following actions:
a) delete it, and if appropriate: mark as spam, or hit “unsubscribe” on a newsletter I don’t want.
b) create a new rule to process the email (if it’s a newsletter, or notification, or the like), so I don’t have to deal with it in the future during processing.
c) decide if there is an action to be undertaken.
With action oriented emails, there are again certain things that can be done:
a) a quick, immediate response to a question, if it can be handled in < 1 minute
b) the email is unclear and more information is needed, so fire back a response requesting this
c) or a further, more detailed response is required: star it (or flag it in Outlook).
This latter is extremely important to this system. Flagging an email in Outlook will “star” it in Gmail, and vice versa. A “starred” email means there is something I’m supposed to do. Those emails get my attention.
4. I have dedicated time slots for acting on starred emails.
This is usually longer. I try to spend as little time as possible in processing emails (=categorization), and then more time on the ‘starred’ emails which need responses.
Once I have resolved a starred email, I flag it as “done” (I have a special folder, !done, which sorts to the top of my list) and remove the star. This gets it off the “starred view” but files it if I ever have to go back to something.
Final notes
Using this system, I keep all of my emails. I tend to go back in one processing sweep and archive any messages older than the current month from the main inbox view, regardless of whether they are done or not (because, until finished, starred messages show up in the starred view). I figure, rightly or wrongly, if something’s out of the current month and I haven’t starred it, it’s because it’s not obvious what to do with it, so nothing’s will be done, and it’s best to leave it behind. (Not all that many messages fall into this category.)
Also, using this system, the number of emails in my inbox is not important. I’ve tried to get to Inbox Zero before, but I rarely do, so I came up with this approach. An email can have 3 states of existence: 1) in a folder (thus categorized), 2) starred, or 3) done. If it’s “in between” (in limbo) then it’s because it was unclear, and I fired off an email to ask for clarification, for which I’m waiting. Thus the number of email isn’t important – it’s the number that are starred (a much smaller number) that is crucial.
The system works for me. Maybe it will work for you.