Thursday, April 06, 2006

Getting to Zero my way

I've been reading the Inbox Zero series over on 43Folders and I feel compelled to finally lay out my way—which is in some important respects far more sensible and feasible. Not that they are full of it. Not that they don't make some important points. They describe some pretty common sense approaches to email overload. I just think the common sense is, in this case, immature. And wrongheaded.

First, let me say that as one old fogey to another, I don't think they are living in the latest version of the modern world. Haven't they heard that email is passé? It is. My email burden has shrunk in recent years (aside from the mountains of goddamned spam). My younger colleagues have turned to IM, and I've gladly embraced it. The single most important key to containing email overload is to get the hell away from email. If you can complete a communication using IM, or the phone, or better yet by getting off your ass and talking to someone face-to-face, then do not use email. Duh. This is doubly true in my programmer world. Coders would much rather tap out an email than walk over to a coleague's desk to talk—especially if they're in QA, or shudder marketing.

But the same advice works for everyone. Keep email in its place. Sure there is a very important and appropriate place for email. It is a non-invasive, always available, effective way reach someone. It is often the best way to reach a group of people. It allows you to compose your thoughts with care. I still love email and use it a lot. But curbing email and culturing proper email use in an organization is at least as important as building better email mulching machines.

OK, so they are assuming we're stuck in the '90s and have a deluge of (presumably non-spam) emails intruding on your psyche every day. Fine. I've certainly been there, done that.

The first mistake they make is target selection. They really want you to keep your inbox empty. Ha! Sorry, that is a hoot. What good does it do for me if my current, active correspondences -- the threads I'm tracking, the fresh contacts I'm making with the people I need to hear from and speak to, is moved out of my inbox. Why? For the zen of it? Even if I had the problem of zillions of unprocessed loose ends in my inbox, how is nuking them all at once and shuffling them into a "DMZ" going t help anything?

My personal variation on this zen is to keep my unread count down to zero. Same placid openness of mind. Same unburdened feeling, free of the nagging loose ends and "open loops". But without requiring that I frag my email world. Everything is there, in chronological order, with nothing tugging at my attention.

And the next big cannon they roll out is... filters? I guess this maps onto the GTD roots of 43Folders. Here I think they actually get it mostly right at 43Folders, even though the GTD book gets it totally wrong. I use filters heavily for many of the same things proposed by 43Folders. List emails, blog traffic emails, and all the other bot-driven impersonal stuff gets filtered and separated into appropriate piles. I do not feel any need to keep the unread count down to zero on these filtered mailboxes. They are info-only resources that I may or may not even open. And if I find that I never open certain types of emails -- like my daily slashdot digest -- I eventually unsubscribe and stop the traffic. Filters remove the obvious clutter from my inbox. Feeds are also solving this problem too, and allowing me to reduce that filterable stream—but that falls into the use-email-wisely-and-less category.

The most important lesson I have learned over the years is this: do not sort the email you want to keep. This is where I part company with the GTD and 43Folders canon. They have you push it out of the inbox into various other boxes. To me this is not only wasted effort, it actually degrades the value of email. And it pollutes your email history. There is only one lasting dimension to my email life, and that is time. For this to work though, it helps to pull a lot of weeds.

One point from "Inbox Zero" that I heartily agree with is the importance of the Del key. Anything you think you might be able to delete should be deleted. If you're wrong, you have a few weeks to retrieve it from the trash. But think for a moment how rarely you've had to rummage through the trash. Never? You need to use Del more. It's actually pretty damned easy to search through the trash. So don't be afraid to delete. Some things you can delete after reading the subject. Other emails are trivial, useless, annoying,... and deletable as soon as you open them up. Delete, delete, delete... and feel better instantly.

For all the other emails that remain after deleting and filtering, just do whatever you have to do to get them marked as read. Read them, or scan the subject and mark them read. Whatever you need to do to process them, acknowledge them, and move on. Do not try and sort them into piles. The key for me is to keep one copy of every retained email, and keep it in one stream (two actually: inbox and sent), and keep them in chronological order.

But not all email is of equal importance. Not all email is handled in the same way. Which is where marking and labelling come in. The particulars vary with your email client. Outlook supports a handful of marking options that I find useful, like follow-up, review, read, etc. I use this feature a lot, mostly for time-limited follow-ups. In the Outlook world, some emails will become notes, or tasks. But the email remains where I can find it in the only order that is guaranteed to make sense for all kinds of email: chronological order.

I'm falling in love with Gmail's label feature. It supports an open-ended approach to classifying emails that does not require copying or relocating the message. Gmail combines labels with views of labels that provides the best of both the chronologically ordered world and the sorted-into-piles world -- and you can have one message in multiple "piles" without creating copies. I look forward to this feature spreading to other clients. It just makes sense.

Another good filter trick that I've used for years is described over on LifeHacker: Highlight messages addressed to you. This really helps me process my inbox by letting me know if I appear on the To: address list. If I'm only on the cc:, or if I'm getting something via an alias I instantly know before I open it that the author was not speaking to me. That is important. There have been times in my work life, when I've been managing a team for instance, when I was deluged with cc:'ed messages. In those days I had another filter that looked for messages sent from my immediate team members -- my management peers and my work team -- and I used that filter to highlight those from:colleagues in the same way I marked the to:me emails. But that has not been a problem recently. My project teams use wikis, blogs, and other info repositories effectively to reduce those annoying cc:-shotgun emails.

Of course, keeping everything in the inbox cannot last forever. Unless we're talking about Gmail. For my non-web hosted email I keep a tree of folders called Archives where old emails go to pasture. Whenever my inbox or sent box grows to about 700 messages, I take the 500 oldest ones and create a new archive mailbox in the Archives folder tree. I name these folders based on the date of the newest message in that folder. So if I'm archiving 500 received emails that span the dates 12/15/05 to 1/28/06, I call it "Inbox-06-01-28", if it is for my sent messages from 9/1/05 through 12/18/05, I call it "Sent-05-12-18". Note that the yy-mm-dd format, along with the zero-padding, make it so the list of archive folders sorts in correct chronological order. A few other qualities to note about this method: the list mail, and other bot-mail has already been removed from the stream, so it will not clutter your archives. Filters take care of it and eventually you can delete it and forget about it. The other thing is that physical back-up is a breeze. You can occasionally run a full back up, but mostly all you need is incremental backups via CD, DVD, or mirroring.

Oh, and one more thing: if you use Outlook, I feel sorry for you. Archiving is harder than just letting Outlook do whatever it does. That leaves you with a huge, monolithic and impenetrable binary blog of email that only Outlook reads. Be sure to export your emails out of Outlook to a format you can archive. Thunderbird knows how to hoover all your email out of Outlook. Other clients can probably do the same. Rescue that old email now, preferably to a near-plain-text format like mbox (what Thunderbird uses) that can be safely archived and easily accessed in the years to come.

The salient beauty of this chronological system of mine is that it is simple, universal, predictable, usable, and easy to maintain and archive. I don't waste any motion trying to classify and organize everything into categories, or themes, or any squishy ill-defined order. Nothing about the system changes as my life changes, as my work changes, or as my correspondences change. Life happens in chronological order. So does my email.

There. Thanks to the 43Folders folks for spurring me to write this. I've watched other people struggle with their emails for years now, smug with the knowledge that I know better. Now I've laid it out, I hope someone reads this and let's me know what they think. It may not work for you. But it sure works for me. And I have nearly 15 years of archives that prove it to me.



John Rutherford said...

Heard of ArcMentor - The IM Archiving and Monitoring Solution?

It's really amazing guys!

The Instant Messages archiving feature, keyword capturing, report generation are the outstanding features of ArcMentor.

And add to that, it archives the instant messages of almost all the corporate and public IM's including AOL, MSN, Yahoo, ICQ, Google Talk, Sun One Java, IBM Lotus Sametime, Jabber MSN Live Communications Server 2003/2005

Well, its really really amazing to say the least!

I feel that all the organisations having hundreds of employees should have this software installed.

Anonymous said...

where can u but it?

John Rutherford said...

visit or email at

Jack C said...

Thanks for your thought provoking article.

Could you say something more about not sorting email? Using standard corporate email (Outlook, Groupwise etc) I need to be able to find (say) all emails relating to the xyz project. They will be under different subject headings and of course random dates. A search engine won't find them all.

If they aren't already sorted into subfolders, what other ways are available to group them?

KC said...

Outlook is a problem in a few respects. But I do give it credit for having very good search capabilities. If you can remember anything about the subject, the timeframe, or the participants then you should be able to find things with Outlook search. If not, it's not clear to me that you would have better luck with sorted folders.

But if you do opt for a project sorted folder, I would only put copies in there. When the project is fully archived, nuke the project folder. Archive the main chronologically ordered archives.

And if you can possibly steer your peers towards gmail or Thunderbird... there are better ways to cross index messages. TBird has saved queries and gmail has labels. Each of these features can get the job done. But I too have to use Outlook for my day job.

Good luck.