Do you feel like you need to empty your inbox every day? Or do you keep a decade’s worth of emails in there and just search when needed? Maybe you don’t care if emails pass you by, or maybe you bounce them all back as quickly as possible with two word replies from your smartphone. As part of my Enterprise Attention Management coverage I’m sometimes asked about the best personal approach to dealing with email. I don’t know of a best way, but I have observed ten different approaches, each with their own pros and cons. If you haven’t figured out who you are yet (from an email point of view) now is a great time to pick a personality and try it out. Or create your own blend by combining a few from the list below. I’m a Doctor Geek combo myself. Which type are you?
Strategy: Create a sensible, multi-level hierarchy of folders to store emails. Or, better yet, use tags so that multiple tags can be assigned to each email. May use a methodology like Getting Things Done.
Pros: Inbox stays clean, emails are easily found and accessible. You look super smart when your boss asks you “Oh yeah, give me one time that happened” and you return half a dozen in a few minutes, with dates and times attached. That’s because it’s a cinch to find groups of emails related to a topic that you didn’t remember enough about to search on (such as all emails that illustrated failure of a particular process). Organizers laugh at Hoarders who can’t find emails related to “IT” or people whose name they forgot using full text search.
Cons: Takes time and much of it will never be needed again. Plus, the most elegantly built taxonomies and categories tend to fall apart at some point and you never get around to breaking apart and re-categorizing if needed.
Strategy: Keep everything in one huge inbox and just search for things as needed. Google popularized this philosophy with their large inboxes and capable search in Gmail.
Pros: No categorization time needed on daily basis. Hoarders laugh at Organizers who waste their time categorizing emails that they’ll probably never need again in exchange for maybe being a few milliseconds faster when they have to retrieve something.
Cons: Your IT department may have something to say about exceeding your mailbox quota. You may notice everything getting slower as the mailbox becomes unwieldy. And heaven help you if you can’t think of the keyword to search for or it’s a very common word.
The Zen Master
Strategy: Anguish is caused by striving. Nothingness begins by letting go, realizing that material things are not important. Live in the moment, dealing with emails that are important right now, but recognize your freedom to delete, for only when you achieve emptiness (zero inbox) can you achieve happiness. Be the water, not the rock.
Pros: Isn’t happiness all you ever really wanted?
Cons: That “be the water” stuff gets you hit in the head by a rock – thrown by the client whose email you deleted.
Strategy: Rules for auto-categorization and tagging. Alerting and notification to avoid missing emails from the boss or important client. Color highlighting. Sorting by importance (determined by clever algorithms). Meticulous about whitelists, unsubscribes, and blacklists. Archive files for each year or no longer needed folders. Multiple mailboxes (with viewer for aggregate view) to isolate mail streams. Always turns on/off out of office, maybe even tuned to specific groups or audiences. Sort emails by discussion thread. Lectures anyone who complains about email on how they’re just dumb for not knowing how to use email, then tells them to use discussion groups or RSS instead.
Pros: Minimal upfront effort results in long term efficiencies.
Cons: When rules go wrong, processes blow up. Not invited to office parties.
Strategy: Just read and respond to the top page of emails and don’t worry about ones you haven’t gotten to. If something is important it will get sent again. This type emerged with the “activity stream” UI in social software like following Facebook or Twitter. Like my mother always said if we didn’t pick up a ringing phone in time: “Don’t worry – if it’s important they’ll call back.”
Pro: No stress about having to read every email.
Cons: Believe it or not, sometimes important messages are only sent once.
Strategy: Struggle along as best you can and whenever it piles up too much and you feel too frustrated, declare “email bankruptcy” by hitting “select all” and delete. You’ll be surprised how little that comes back to bite you. And if it does, just apologize.
Pros: Results in a moment of pure relief and joy, like a burden has just been lifted.
Cons: That feeling of joy disappears real quick when you realize you missed a meeting with your boss’s boss, two job interviews, a fun party invite, get an overdraft fee on your checking account from ignoring the low funds warning, and never hear again from that friend who moved to Europe and thought she’d check in to see how you’re doing.
Strategy: Answer emails here and there as best you can and then, when they pile up too much, do a marathon email session to handle a mass number at once. Great activity to feel productive during cancelled training days, plane flights, yak rides, snowed in at a mountain cabin, etc. Note: the opposite is to be a purger (see The Bankrupt).
Pros: It works … for a time.
Cons: Mass email responses tend to cause an echo effect, where one third of them come back to you, then one third of those responses, etc. As with food binging, it can become more frequent and cause dependency without addressing the underlying problem (not enough time or too much email).
The ER Doctor
Strategy: Perform triage frequently and immediately as emails arrive. Take care of the urgent ones stat. The other ones can wait.
Pro: Feel like a person of action and decisiveness. If it’s important, it gets taken care of quickly.
Con: You never get around to the other ones. And even minor wounds can get infected and cause problems if ignored.
Strategy: Keep all balls moving and in the air, never holding on to any one for more than a split second before passing it off to someone else. Often accomplished with mobile devices that respond or forward quick, unpunctuated, 1-3 word replies to any email.
Pros: If time is of the essence, no one can beat you. Everything gets handled quickly. You feel constant, quick hits of accomplishment all day long.
Cons: More emails are required to figure out what the @$@# you meant by “if blossr yess” and to point out you ignored everything in the second paragraph. You may get a reputation for filling up everyone else’s inbox as rapidly as you empty yours. Your quick replies may not be as insightful as you think, resulting in miscommunication and an implication that the sender isn’t worth your time.
Strategy: Check it, or not. Who cares? It’s not a big deal – important stuff comes through on Facebook, Twitter, texting, IM, phone, or face-to-face anyways. If I don’t read your email, that’s your fault for being an old, stodgy, luddite, corporate-type. Email is for grandparents who watched “You’ve Got Mail!” when it came out in theaters, un-ironically.
Pros: Aura of superiority, confirmed through texting by your Bohemian friends.
Cons: The people who send you email may not think emails by nature are unimportant. And they may be right. For some messages, email actually is the best way to send them.