(This is the text of my weekly Loose Wire Service column, written mostly for newcomers to personal technology, and syndicated to newspapers like The Jakarta Post. Editors interested in carrying the service please feel free to email me.)
I’m always horrified when I see people’s e-mail inboxes.
They are always so full — brimming with messages that should have been answered, or should have been deleted, or should never have arrived in the first place.
It’s not the way to work, since you’re bound to lose stuff that way and, if you’re anything like me, you’ll get steadily more and more depressed about all the stuff sitting there you won’t, after a while, even bother opening your inbox until after a stiff drink.
It needn’t be like that. Here’s my two-step recipe for e-mail order. Follow it and stay sober:
Keep all your e-mail in one place
In other words, make sure all your accounts are accessible from one location. It means that no e-mail will go missing, you’ll know exactly what you’ve got, and when you’re on the road you’ll have only one place to go to check.
Nowadays this is possible to do for nothing. This is how I do it, and how I think you should too:
- Set up an account with Gmail. (More on why Gmail is best for this later.)
- If you have other accounts, set them up so they land in Gmail. (For the complete instructions for this, go here). It’s a tad fiddly, but when it’s done you’ll be glad: Basically, Gmail will go off and fetch your e-mail from other accounts — and, most important, let you send e-mail from your Gmail account as if it is from those accounts.
(In other words, if you want to, you can continue to use Gmail as your main sorting office, while still using your old e-mail account, or accounts without having to add another e-mail address.)
Why is Gmail better? Well, it’s free, for one thing, and it loads quickly on slow machines. And it has a great — though not perfect — interface. Yes, it scans your e-mails to better target you with ads. For some people this is a showstopper.
But the advantages, for me, outweigh the disadvantages. (One point I should mention is that you can’t forward Yahoo! e-mail to Gmail, unless you have a paid account with Yahoo!.)
An inbox should be just that. A place where you pick things up. They shouldn’t stay there. A bloated inbox is like reading your physical mail and then putting it back in the mailbox at the end of your drive/in the lobby/on the door of your home.
It doesn’t make sense. So the cardinal rule of good e-mail management is to move anything you’ve read out of your inbox as soon as you can. That means having somewhere to move it and, in the past, that meant folders and subfolders. No more.
Gmail doesn’t use folders, it uses labels, which makes it possible to organize your e-mails in a logical way — since you can apply any number of labels to an e-mail, you’re not forced to agonize over which folder to put an e-mail in.
So one e-mail I receive could have the label “PR stuff” but also be labeled “USB devices” as well as “gadgets to check out”. (Not very inspired labels, I admit, but they work for me.)
Labels can be applied manually, or they can be automated via filters, which will do the labeling for you when the e-mail arrives.
Labeling in itself doesn’t solve the bloated inbox problem. Gmail has one more feature for this called Archive. One of your e-mails is either in the inbox (what you see when you open your account) or the Archive.
You can ask the filters to move incoming stuff straight into the archive, or you can select one, some or all the messages in your inbox and archive them with one button.
You’ll still be able to find them by doing a search, or, if they have a label attached to them, by clicking on one of the label links on the left. Archiving something merely moves it from your inbox.
Which is what you should do. Create lots of labels as you work — you can have as many as you like, but it makes sense to give them some thought. Assign incoming e-mails to labels manually or automatically as you read them.
Then, at the end of your working day, when you feel you’ve done everything you can with the e-mails in your inbox, select them all and archive them. You’ll then have an empty inbox, and — trust me — you’ll feel good.
Now you may not be able to get everything done before you go home. If necessary, you can create a special folder (mine’s called !Tickler — the ! ensures it’s at the top of my label list) which I put stuff in I still need to deal with.
Gmail offers its own solution: a star you can assign to an e-mail that will make it stand out. Either way, you have a way to ensure important stuff doesn’t get lost. (Of course, you then have to monitor your special label and make sure it doesn’t just become a siding for your inbox inefficiencies.)
One other tip: Gmail is great with spam. It will do a near-perfect job of getting rid of all the stuff you don’t want. But you still have to monitor your spam box and weed out the few good e-mails that land there.
Get into the habit of emptying the spam box every day, too, otherwise you might find you lose the occasional e-mail that got buried there.
In the future I’ll offer more tips on managing e-mail but this should get you started. Let me know how it works for you, or if you have other tips that work better for you.