E-mails are my primary means of communication. They have held this position since at least fifteen years, which goes to say I might actually know a thing or two about e-mails that others may find helpful. Whether you are struggling to keep up with your inboxes or you keep stumbling upon e-mails from some two dozen companies whose entire business models are founded upon a scathing criticisms of e-mail, the solution to dealing with e-mail is understanding their simplicity, not rushing to seek alternates.
The reality is, whether we like it or not, the humble e-mail is built atop a platform agnostic and scalable set of communication protocols. That means you ideally own your e-mail. I say ‘ideally’ because often we use e-mails on corporate platforms, like Gmail or ProtonMail or iCloud. These are great but they are examples of commercialisation of the e-mail. By design, it was intended for you to buy your own server and set up your e-mails and DNS. You would own the domain and the name—both parts of the e-mail address flanking the ‘@’ symbol—and you could communicate with anyone else who owned their domain and ran their own server. No platform mattered, no app, no ecosystem, nothing: just a set of universal protocols that allowed you to write letters with multimedia.
Then came the commercialisation. With Gmail (and ProtonMail) you got free (or paid) e-mail addresses while the company owning what is technically your e-mail got hold of your data through your communication (or not) and used it to target ads to you (or not) and profit (definitely).
The solutions peddled to sort this self-induced problem were commercial as well. Plus they did away with the platform-agnostic nature of e-mails and introduced vendor lock-in, all with the common promise of ridding you of your e-mail problems. In reality you simply replaced one problem with another.
If you did have trouble managing and staying on top of your e-mails, as with any good philosophy of life, there was always only one reliable solution: face the problem.
Archive everything now
If your Mail app shows a red badge with the number 6,542 on it, you should start here. Regardless of what the badge shows, if you have more e-mails in your inbox than you can recall, start here. There is no way of getting up to speed with your e-mails without giving yourself a clean slate first.
The word inbox comes from the word in-tray, which back in the late 1910s was coined to indicate a literal tray into which you would pour your incoming mail to stack it until you got around to reading all of them. What we are doing now is effectively dumping them into a sack to be tucked away until later.
Imagine you had such an in-tray and you kept reading new post and throwing the letters and their envelopes back into your in-tray. Before long your in-tray would stack up to the ceiling and you would have lost track of what you have read and what you are yet to read. This is the best case scenario. Reading e-mails in your inbox and leaving them there is something like that.
For a week, re-consider the neccessity of every e-mail shrewdly
This is not so much a one-time activity as a continued task. Now that you have tackled your messy inbox by taking a shortcut to a clean slate, you need to take steps to ensure your incoming mail is actually mail you want to spend your time on. This means the following:
- Unsubscribe from all marketing without exception. You never needed them, and ads have a knack of finding their way to you anyway.
- Re-consider newsletters (including the one I send) and unsubscribe to those you no longer find interesting. Keep others—newsletters are one of the good things still left on the internet.
- Unsubscribe from news in your inbox. Think of it this way: nobody ever tossed a broadsheet into their in-tray. There are a lot of good reasons to keep your news consumption intentional.
- Turn off all social media updates. You do not need to know in your inbox when someone sends you a direct message on Instagram. That is a bit like texting someone and calling immediately after to let them know you just texted them.
Go further This may not apply to you or you may not be aware of how to go about it, but if possible set up rules on your Mail app to file away e-mails on your behalf. A good example of this are terms and conditions updates from websites with whom you hold an account, portfolio updates from mutual fund companies and so on. These are generally of a regulatory nature, and you probably never read them, so set up a rule that marks these as ‘read’ and sends them out of your inbox into a folder or set of folders dedicated to such stuff. If you want to do this but do no know how, look up instructions on setting e-mail filters or inbox rules for your e-mail client.
Define what a flag means to you
Many e-mail clients offer many bloated features like starring, pinning, colouring, hatching dinosaur eggs etc. But there are only two you really need: flags and the snooze button (see below). Flags are good because they have been around for quite some time and are a standard feature across apps so you would not be held hostage by that one app that delivers an outlandish feature under the guise of a USP. Indeed most ‘unique’ features on e-mail apps simply translate into flags on all other e-mail apps.
The other great thing about flags is that they are a just tool with no opinion. You use them as you see fit. Think of a highlighter: some people paint pages with them while others use them incredibly sparingly. Some people similarly flag their e-mails like their life depends on it while others flag e-mails based on conditions they have defined for themselves.
It can seem like a good idea to flag ‘important’ e-mails but that leads to a terrible habit: the use of one’s inbox like a storage service. If something in an e-mail is important, make note of it elsewhere, like on a dedicated password management app or note-taking tool. If it is an attachment, save it onto your local or cloud drive; if it is a reference number, save it into your note-taking app; if it is a number you need to hold on to for life, or something sensitive like bank details, save it into your locally synced password management app. What you should definitely not do is flag an e-mail on your inbox and leave it there.
Personally, I use flags to designate e-mails that are about upcoming events or e-mails that need my attention but that I cannot get to immediately. Most e-mail apps have a dedicated ‘smart’ inbox that pulls together all your flagged e-mails to give you a quick overview. On Apple devices (and in some form on Android too I suppose) flagging gives the added benefit of filtering by flagged emails on widgets adorning your Lock Screen which can be a great way to gain quick access to important e-mails.
Use the snooze feature
Snooze is a newer feature but most e-mail apps offer it. It takes some of the brunt of organisation from flags and most of the organisational nightmares too (like too many flags or forgetting why you flagged something at all e.g. was it time-sensitive or content-sensitive?) Snooze is intended for e-mails that do not need your attention until a later date or time.
Snoozing an e-mail makes it return to your inbox at a designated time in the future as if it was delivered then. This is a purely cosmetic effect in that the e-mail headers are not altered: the e-mail for all intents and purposes was delivered when it was actually delivered; but to the receiver, the e-mail appears when it is most meaningful for them.
To archive or to delete? That is the question
It used to be the case that whenever you got an e-mail you did one of many things with it: you left it in your inbox for later (or forever), you deleted it, you placed it into a designated folder, or you flagged it (all this is besides responding of course). However, it would be considerably more productive to reduce decision fatigue. Keep your options simple: archive or delete. In most e-mail apps this could be a choice between swiping left or right.
Especially if you have rules set up like we discussed in step two, your only use for folders will be to have your e-mail programme automatically run those rules for you. In the age of robust search, e-mail folders are redundant. It is faster to search for an e-mail than to wade through a folder to find it.
Every time an e-mail comes, unless you figure out, right off the bat, that you need it to pop up later, make it a rule to swipe left or right, to archive or delete. If you do not think you can set aside enough time to do this, do not check your inbox yet.
Are folders completely useless? In short, not really. Folders can help especially if you have one-off e-mails to handle. Say you are conducting an event and want to keep invitee responses together, you could manually toss those into folder. Such folders are useful but for a defined time period. Permanent folders that require you to manually sort e-mails into them are definitely outdated. Remember, though, we are talking about e-mail folders here, not operating system folders—those are still incredibly useful.
A quick summary up to this point: first we took a shortcut to clearing out our inbox with mass archival just because there is no way we can make a routine out of good e-mail habits without first rewarding ourselves with a clean slate. Then we began critically analysing the relevance of every e-mail slipping into our inbox, unsubscribing from certain classes of e-mail and select others. Finally we talked about imbibing a three-step organisational procedure:
- Define what flagging means and flag selectively
- Use the snooze button to keep your inbox clean
- When you sit to go over your e-mails, keep your options limited to archive or delete
That sums up how I personally manage my inbox. For the most part doing this even just once or (as I do) twice a day means your inbox ends up cleaned by the end of every sitting. Each sitting will then take no more than a couple of minutes (not accounting for any replies you may need to type) and leave you with either an empty inbox or an inbox with nothing but e-mails relevant to upcoming events or dates. In other words you may not reach ‘inbox zero’ using my method every time. Call it inbox bliss instead.