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Summary:

A primary source of information overload is our email inboxes. While I’ve previously mentioned a few strategies for dealing with email overload, I think it’s a good time for a post with comprehensive rundown of my tips for managing email.

Too Much Email

Information overload is the bane of the web worker, and a primary source of that overload is our email inboxes. While I’ve previously mentioned a few strategies for dealing with email overload, I think it’s a good time for a post with comprehensive rundown of my tips for managing email.

  1. Unsubscribe. Be brutally honest with yourself about which information you really have time to read, and get rid of subscriptions to anything you rarely, or never, read.
  2. Turn off or filter the bacn. Bacn refers to email like messages from retailers  and social network notifications. It’s not exactly spam, because you’ve signed up to receive it, but not necessarily useful either. While notifications from various services (Twitter, Facebook, etc.) can sometimes be useful, you should think about whether you actually read them and how much time it can take to delete these emails. Anything you can live without seeing is a candidate for unsubscribing or automatically filtering and dumping into a folder where it can be reviewed periodically. If you use Gmail, you can use its Smart Labels feature to automatically filter out bacn emails.
  3. Use RSS. If you can get the information you need via an RSS feed, you should consider moving subscriptions out of your inbox and into your RSS reader.
  4. Aggressively archive into folders. Look for anything in your inbox more than two weeks old. If you haven’t responded already, are you ever really going to respond, and is a response even still needed by the sender? Consider dumping these into an archived folder where you can find the information later if you need it and get them out of the inbox.
  5. Use filters and rules. For anything I probably don’t need to read immediately, but may need to search for later in a pinch, I have set up automated rules that route those emails directly to folders and have them bypass my inbox. Mailing lists, emails from certain PR agencies and newsletters are often good candidates for automated filtering.
  6. Color-code. Using colors gives you a quick way to scan your inbox and read the important mail before you tackle everything else and makes it much more likely you won’t miss critical email. For example, I currently have emails from my boss, my employees and several other key people in orange; emails from two important community mailing lists in blue and spam reports for blogs / forums in red. All of those catch my eye and allow me to respond quickly to several crucial types of email before I get through everything else.
  7. Consider inbox zero. Inbox zero is more of an ideal than a reality for me most of the time, but it’s something I strive to achieve, since I can be so much more productive when I’m not losing track of critical emails languishing unnoticed in my inbox. Even if you can’t maintain inbox zero, getting there even occasionally can be a big productivity booster.
  8. Get tasks onto a to-do list. Even if you don’t aspire to inbox zero, getting tasks out of your inbox and into a to-do list can help you get organized and better manage email. Once you move an item to your to-do list, you can archive the email off into a folder where you can read it again later if you need to.
  9. Batch process. I try to process my email a few times a day rather than getting caught up in it constantly. My color coding means that I can still glance at my inbox to catch critical items, while letting everything else languish for a couple of hours until I have time to process it all in one big batch.
  10. Turn off new email notifications. If you’re getting pop-ups or other invasive notifications of new email, turn those off now! They can be a constant distraction that only increases your feeling of overload, and it detracts from the idea of batch processing email. It can be very hard to be productive and get real work done with constant notifications of new email, especially since the vast majority of email isn’t so time sensitive it can’t wait for a couple of hours until you have time to deal with it.
  11. Send less. The more email you send, the more you will receive in return; sending email encourages other people to reply. Before you email someone, think about whether you could use another method. Sometimes a quick IM conversation or phone call can quickly resolve an issue and reduce the amount of email going back and forth discussing an issue.

Still feeling overloaded? Check out my post from last week, where I outlined various hacks to reduce information overload using a combination of RSS, Yahoo Pipes, web APIs and services like PostRank.

Image courtesy Flickr user Jeff Turner.

  1. To borrow the parlance of the week, +1 to #1. Simply unsubscribing from the clutter can let email be email.

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  2. I tend to let email pile up so I use a gmail filter label (“D”)to denote things that I’ll want to delete later. For example, Plancast event notices…I want to see them, but don’t need to be saved. Every few weeks I’ll just click the “D” label and delete them all with one swift karate chop rather than having to look through them individually.

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  3. I read this in google adwords, and for my surprise, I’m already doing all the points :)

    Only a comment: I have a separated email acount for facebook and twitter, and I almost never open that account

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  4. ClearContext is an add-in for Outlook that filters bacn and spam into folders out of the inbox, and also scores your email by priority based on analyzing your email traffic with various recipients, so that high priority emails are identified and color coded in red, less important ones are green, and unimportant ones are black. Does a great job organizing your inbox. We spoke to ClearContext’s Brad Meador in 2007 on the CompuSchmooze podcast, which you can hear at http://www.lubetkin.net/2007/01/23/compuschmooze-podcast-19-digital-downloading-behavior-and-a-new-add-in-for-outlook-1232007/

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  5. Regarding item 8 – Get tasks onto a to-do list, one should consider using a tool which allows to send your e-mails to the task list seamlessly.
    Checkvist and Todoist are known to have such integration.

    Good article!

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  6. One of the better lists of this kind in a while; every tip worth its weight in Time (much more precious than gold…)

    As to dumping email into folders – this gets even better if one makes sure to have and use a powerful local search tool (e.g. Google Desktop, or – if you want to get what you pay for – X1 Search), so that it doesn’t even matter what the folder system is, you can always find the one email you need later.

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  7. Excellent points, most of them pretty drastic, but without advise like this, there is no way to stop the flood.
    ‘Aggressively archiving into folders’, is something I fully subscribe to and for which we have built an automated solution that goes beyond rules: Tagwolf (http://www.tagwolf.com). It’s an add-in for Microsoft Outlook that predicts the most likely folder for each email and suggests it to the user. The user confirms the folder and files the email with a simple mouse click. This represents an important time saving compared to manually dragging the email to a specific folder within a complex folder structure.

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  8. Check out http://www.mermailer.com for a great, simple way to reduce the number of subscriptions hitting your primary inbox. The free service combines and organizes promotional and social networking email you want to receive into a single “summary” email that is delivered to you at your specified frequency. So you get one email instead of ten, twenty, etc. Plus by using the mermailer address the service gives you, you protect your primary email address from disclosure.

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