Wrangling the Email Inbox

Lots of folks address the problem of wrangling email with great efficacy (Merlin Mann, David Sparks, and Mike Vardy to name a few). And while I wonder whether I sound like a scratched-record when I say this, things are slightly unique for the Higher Ed context. Sometimes our email needs run on a full 24-hour cycle. I often get emails from students the night before a major assignment is due with specific questions. I could be Mr. McGruff and refuse to answer those late-night questions, but many of them are good questions from good students. And to be honest, I'm a educator, not a policy-enforcer.

I also think that part of the challenge with email centers upon the bad email-citizenship of others. My step-daughter used to work in admissions. She showed me an email that her boss sent at 3:00 a.m., wanting some information "as soon as possible." There's a possibility that the bad habits of others can condition us (subconsciously?) to adapt to their habits. I often discover that tendency within myself.

One of the biggest problems with email is that the "important" email can potentially get lost among all of the other "cruft" that accumulates in our email. In fact, we might be tempted to hold everything in our inbox, just in case there is a gem that needs attention; We herd all of the cows for fear that we'll lose the one we really want. This temptation is understandable, but not necessarily effective. Here are some tips to get that email inbox sufficiently wrangled...

Use "Archive"

One of the easiest and most effective ways to get that inbox under control is to "select all" and "archive." In gmail, iCould, exchange, and most other email services, there is a folder or label called "Archive." This function saves the email, but gets it out of the inbox. I find that I rarely delete an email - even it seems unimportant at the time, I never know whether it might become important later. Archiving email gives me the security that I still have all the email I received, but gets it out from under my nose. It also makes email applications (like Apple Mail and Airmail) run really fast!

Tip: If you're just getting started, and there are 12,586 emails in your inbox, go ahead and archive everything at once. It's all still there, and waiting for that one day when you're free to read all 12,586 of them ;-) From there, other habits can be added as they are useful to your workflow.

Get tasks out of Email

As I mentioned previously, many task managers have a method for capturing tasks out of email. For me, I forward email that requires action to my OmniFocus secret email address, and then archive the email. That process can even be automated using IFTTT.com or Zapier.com if some tasks have a predictive terms. If a student requests a letter of reference, for example, I almost always see that task in my OmniFocus before I've even read the email.

Tip: If you send an email to someone that includes a promise to do a task, you can "BCC" your special email address so that the task is captured there.

Be "SMART" about Folders

This actually has two meanings: A) use folders sparingly, and B) use smart folders.

A. Use Folders Sparingly - This is in direct reference to a nightmare I once created for myself where I decided to file every email in a specific folder. I had something like 50 folders listed in my mail app, and really never knew how to find what I was looking for. Searching for email by using the search feature of your mail program is SO much faster than browsing through folders. I do use a folder for each course that I am teaching, as I really like being able to browse those emails (I find common questions or common learning opportunities when I browse the emails). If there is value in browsing through a set of emails, folders make sense. Otherwise, ARCHIVE.

B. Smart Folders - Smart folders are really nothing more than "saved searches." For example, I have created a smart folder that searches for email from our Provost's office. The emails themselves are stored in the archive, but the smart folder is a saved search of those archived emails. If there are searches that you do on a regular basis, a smart folder can be a real boost to your efficiency!

Check Email at Scheduled Times

Ok, even as I write this, I have to confess that I am NOT good at it. In fact, this morning I opened my email to look for some information from a vendor, and realized that I had a new message from one of my friends. I spent about 10 minutes drafting a clever response to his email and sent it off before I realized that I had forgotten about the original reason I opened email. A habit of checking email at certain times of day can create a lot of space to get other things accomplished. Here's how I TRY to do that in my own schedule:

  • 8:00 a.m. - Check email for the first time. Process the inbox. In this case, I forward any tasks that need to be sent to my OmniFocus or Evernote, and I archive everything so that my inbox is empty - there's a caveat to this that I'll describe below.
  • 10:00 a.m. - Check email for any new important items, tasks or vital information.
  • 12:00 p.m. - Process the inbox. 
  • 3:00 p.m. - Check email for any new important items, tasks or vital information.
  • 5:00 p.m. - Process the inbox. 
  • 8:00 p.m. - This is SUPPOSED to be my final look at email. If someone sends me an email after 8:00 p.m. that needs immediate attention, they probably should have called. Seriously, I do tend to check later in the evening when I know my students are working on a project and may have last-minute questions.

Tools to Help Wrangling Email

Sanebox - So many people I read and listen to have suggested Sanebox, and I really didn't think that I actually needed it. But when I started receiving a great deal of spam in my personal email account, I decided it would be worth the investment. WOW! Sanebox took care of the spam stuff on my personal email, but it REALLY took over my work email. I wish that I had started using it a long time ago. Sanebox actually creates several folders in your email (I know, but bear with me) where email can eventually be processed automatically.

  • @SaneLater - one of the most commonly used features is the "SaneLater" folder, which will train itself over time to move email that you don't need to see immediately (like newsletters, or advertisements for Harley parts).  More than half of the email that gets sent to my inbox never actually shows up in my inbox - SaneLater has it, and I can read it whenever I feel like I have the time to catch up on new offers from buildabear.com
  • @SaneBlackHole - I mentioned that my personal email had a lot of spam. Things went crazy when, on one occasion, I "unsubscribed" from an illegitimate link. I guess the spammers found a real-live-person, and sent me every unsavory form of spam. @SaneBlackHole unsubscribes from spam by swallowing the email from your inbox without ever communicating with the sender. It's effectively blocking those emails from reaching your inbox. Very nice, although I am a little worried that I haven't heard from the Nigerian Prince in a while - hope he's ok.

Slack - Email within a workgroup is quite possibly the worst use of email, and also the most common. We've started using Slack for all of our interoffice communication, which has also obviated the dated "Group Text." Slack allows the group to create different "channels" which can be arranged in terms of projects or specific areas of concern, sharing messages and files. In fact, we have a channel where "fun" stuff goes - it's a virtual water-cooler of goofy gifs, memes, and inside jokes. More importantly, that stuff is not in my email.

IFTTT - There are some pretty cool "recipe" ideas already shared in IFTTT.com, some of which can really boost one's efforts toward "inbox-zero." 

There's a special kind of peace in knowing that my email inbox has less than 10 messages at a time waiting to be processed. By archiving, processing, and checking email on a consistent basis, I've discovered that I really don't feel the anxiety related to email that I once did. 

Note: To be honest, while I was working on this post, Bonni Stachowiak published a podcast that does a GREAT job of describing a functional process for managing the email inbox (check email at certain times, get tasks into a task manager, etc.) . I highly recommend that you consider giving Episode 56 a listen - it's well worth the 11:00 minutes!

Image Credit: http://bit.ly/1TOnJy4











Posted on July 21, 2015 .