Taking Back Email

This article first appeared in the November Issue of ScreencastsOnline Monthly Magazine. ScreenCastsOnline monthly magazine is packed with hints, tips, articles and links to streamable versions of ScreenCastsOnline tutorials and delivered monthly via Newsstand on the iPad. You can find out more at http://www.screencastsonline.com/magazine/

Email is a chronic problem. I try to subscribe to the “inbox zero” philosophy of keeping my inbox tidy and not using it as a storage bucket or a to do list but lately I've been overwhelmed. My inbox was overflowing and I found that I was either ignoring email or not appropriately responding and forgetting to come back to things that needed further attention. Something had to give. Thanks in part to Mountain Lion, iOS 6 and some new email workflows, I'm finally starting to feel like I have a handle on things again. Here’s a look at how I started to take back control.

What’s really important?

I had to come to the realization that the great majority of the messages in my inbox were not urgent and did not need immediate replies or warrant an interruption to my day. For years David Sparks has been encouraging us to turn off all our email badges and notifications so we could stop having Pavlovian responses each time we hear the familiar ding and instinctively reach for our iPhones. One of the biggest problems is that in my office we tend to use email like instant message so you’re expected to see and respond to certain messages within a matter of minutes. I hate that philosophy but it’s not one I'm going to change overnight.

Mountain Lion introduced the concept of VIPs and it wasn’t until the introduction of iOS 6 that I really felt this was a feature I could use. I designated my law partners, my immediate family and a few close friends as VIPs. I then went into the settings for each of my computers iOS devices and changed the notification settings so I would only receive notifications when receiving email from a VIP. This cuts down on several dozen disruptions to my day and with the exception of when a truly important email comes in, means I check email on my schedule rather than when the phone dings.

Less is More

One of the most important steps to taming the inbox was just to reduce the overall volume of email. I use Google Apps for my public email and found their spam filtering does an excellent job on its own. For my other email accounts, some spam still slips through and SpamSieve has been my weapon of choice for years. Between the combination of Google filtering and SpamSieve running locally on my Mac I find very little spam finds its way into my inbox. (Pro tip: if you have the luxury of having a Mac that you can leave on regularly and use IMAP, install SpamSieve on that Mac and the filtering will happen and filter down to all your other devices.)

There’s a whole other category of email that isn’t truly spam, but it’s not really wanted either. Newsletters and updates from services that you have some affiliation with but have no desire to hear from regularly in your inbox. When I know I'm dealing with a legitimate company, I've been very aggressive about unsubscribing from as many email newsletters, updates and blasts as possible, keeping only those that are absolutely necessary. I prefer to use RSS to keep up to date on deals, news and events.

Finally, there are those people who just think it’s imperative they forward to you and everyone else in their address book jokes, political commentary or other unwanted information. Usually I start by sending a polite email asking the offender to remove me from the distribution list. That works some of the time. When it doesn’t, they get banned by a email rule. There are a couple of ways you can craft the rule depending on how the person usually sends the message. One way is to automatically send all messages from a certain person that begin with “FW:” or “FWD:” to the trash. But my preferred method is if you find that person always sends their junk messages to the same distribution group, find someone in that group you never correspond with and create an email rule that says if the message comes from a certain person and one of the recipients is the random person, then move the message to trash. This way you’re less likely to filter legitimate messages from the sender.

The Non-Priority Inbox

After you’ve done all the above, you’re still going to find some low priority email ends up in your inbox. This is still email you probably want to keep and possibly review and respond to, but not something you want to act on right away or that needs to clutter your inbox. Google has the concept of a priority inbox where it tries to determine what emails are really important and highlight them for your attention. I sought out to see if I could create my own “low priority inbox” using an aggressive set of email rules. Things that would fall into this category might include receipts, backup status reports, statement notifications, blog comments, Web site feedback, etc.

Your list will vary but the idea is to find things that you still want to keep and possibly review but don’t need to see in your inbox. My list is changing all the time so I've setup email filters designed to take these messages and depending on what they are, either auto-archive them (skipping my review process completely but still being saved to be searched later) or moving them to a mailbox called “Review.” (Again, if you use IMAP and have a Mac that you can leave on, setup the rules on this machine and they’ll filter across to all your devices.) Because I have a couple of different email accounts I end up with a few different “Review” mailboxes so I've created one smart mailbox that combines the contents of all the “Review” mailboxes into one and I make a point to go through that every day or two. While I was initially concerned that I would neglect my Review inbox, I'm actually finding that because I'm not in such a rush to get these items out of my inbox, I'm able to actually give them the attention they deserve and when warranted, provide better responses.

These solutions aren’t perfect, but in the last few months since I’ve implemented them my inbox and I seem to be getting along better.