Just last week, I finally figured out some really simple techniques for taming email. I've been testing it to see if it really works... and it does! Here's what I'm doing:
I travel with work, and do a lot of design charrettes, so it's easy to go a few days without looking at email. I get over 200 emails most days that make it past my spam filter, so my inbox stacks up really fast. Recently, I had thousands of unread emails in my inbox, and that's so demoralizing I never wanted to deal with it because I knew it was a job I could never finish at any one sitting. So here's what I did:
First, I made a folder called Archives, then sub-folders for each year beginning in 2000, and separated email into those folders. Beginning in 2012, I made subfolders for quarters (Q1, Q2, Q3, Q4). I was going to just mark them all "read," but then realized that most of the unread ones probably weren't ones I wanted to keep. And so I've been going through each quarter's folder when I have spare time and getting rid of them. And the cool thing is that the psychology is entirely different. For example, 2013's Q1 folder has 151 unread emails. Unlike my previous inbox where the unread emails kept growing, that Q1 folder will forever have only 151 unread emails... until I sort through them and get rid of whatever I don't want to keep. So that's not an impossible task... that's actually a fairly easy task I can do in a few minutes someday soon.
The other great thing is that my inbox only has 78 unread emails right now because everything else before July 1 is now archived. And I have confidence I can respond to 78 emails, whereas responding to thousands was completely hopeless. I'll let you know when I get it down to zero. And when it is zero, it'll be much easier to sort through today's email, even if I have to do it late at night or early in the morning.
I participate in a number of email listserv discussions, so the next folder below Archives is my Listservs folder, with subfolders for each listserv. I use Mac Mail, so I have "rules" set up that automatically put all listserv emails in the appropriate folders.
The last big folder is my Sorted folder. In the early days of email many moons ago, I tried to sort all my email into various folders and subfolders before finally giving up when it just became too much. But I have a few subfolders in the Sorted folder that I still use. For example, there's one where all my Google Alerts automatically go. The most important one, however, is the Jobs folder... because of what I did to it last week:
First, I made an Active and and Archive subfolder under Jobs so I could get all the clutter of old jobs out of the way. For every job in the Active folder, I made rules that automatically send email either to or from a client to that folder. I add anyone who works only on that job to the rule as well so that all conversation goes there. In the old days (before last week) I would regularly miss client emails because they came in during those days I wasn't able to check email, and I never responded. Now, I'm quickly responding to every one.
Here's a cool thing about Mac Mail: When I close those three folders (Archives, Listservs, and Sorted) Mail shows how many unread emails are in each. So right now, I know there are 14 in Sorted. When I open it, I can see that there are 2 in Jobs and the rest are Google alerts. So it makes it really easy to quickly see what needs attention and take care of that in a timely fashion... which I have NEVER done until now.