Like it or loathe it, email is a fundamental part of most people’s lives. Managing your email account can be time draining battling and I’ve flirted with a variety of strategies to get to where I am today which is, for me, a practical way to keep on top of my email inboxes.
I have two email accounts. One for work. One for personal use. The latter includes different types of emails for different purposes; emails about websites I maintain, personal emails from family and friends, notifications from online accounts and everything else that tends to fall into most email inboxes every day.
How I use email
The ability to receive email on multiple devices is seen as a boon of the modern age. I’ve turned off email on my iPad to trying and change my usage pattern and that seems to have worked. I use my iPad for leisure activities almost exclusively these days so I’m keeping it, mostly, clean of anything even remotely related to “productivity”.
I only have two email accounts to make it easier for me to manage and I use a similar approach for both accounts; I read everything I need to read, action what I need to immediately and everything else goes to Todoist. The only differences between work and personal accounts are driven by the functionality available. For work I have one big long inbox in Outlook which emails stay in after triage, for personal use (which I prefer) I move anything I’ve actioned to the Google’s All Mail folder, which keeps my inbox also empty, but never quite zero.
For me the biggest change to how I used to handle email was to make decisions on each email. Either reply or action it immediately, store it away if it’s worth storing, set a reminder/task to look at it later, or delete it.
Yes, delete. Or at the very least mark it as read and move on. I’m a firm believer that if something is important it will bubble up again.
The slightly anal tidy freak in me loves this idea. A nice clean empty inbox at the end of every working session, that sense of achievement, that everything is cleaned away. Oh yes, Inbox Zero sounds great.
In reality I’m quite happy to use my inbox as a pseudo-task list. It might not hold the actual task but will hold relevant information that I need to action. That means at any given time there are a few emails in my inbox. It’s also a nice visual way to push me to take action on things that may have hovered around for a while; when my inbox gets to 10 or more it’s time to clear out down as much as I can.
When that time comes I’ll archive what I might need later, and delete the rest. I’ve always had grand plans of going through my GMail archive and moving information I want to keep to Evernote but, as yet, it’s not been pressing enough for me to do.
Email on iOS
Treating email as tasks, or at best reminders, is something I’ve been doing for a while, so when new email apps started to appear for iOS that were more focussed on that way of working I was keen to try them. The first one I tried, and the one that stuck for a long time, was Mailbox.
I love the idea of Mailbox, being able to triage my Gmail inbox, move emails to folders and have other emails ‘reappear’ when I want to action them was a useful way of keeping my inbox manageable. However, over time it became more of an overhead having two places that were acting as reminder services. ToDoist has richer functionality and as I started to adopt that more and more, ultimately Mailbox became just a separate app on my phone that I was using to access my personal email (it only connects to GMail).
For my work email I was using the default Mail app which did the job required perfectly well. However, with my use of Mailbox changing it soon became apparent that what I really needed was one email app on my phone that would let me manage both accounts.
I looked around at some other mail apps and ended up with CloudMagic purely because it allows me to view both my GMail and my work email in one place, and, unlike the default Mail app, the emails are easily distinguishable with a simple coloured sidebar denoting which account an email is from.
Controlling my email
Outside of the apps there is one more thing I’ve been trying recently, specifically during my working day. I’ve adapted some advice I read and I’m only checking my emails three times a day. Once when I get into the office in the morning when I triage anything that’s come in over night (working with teams in California and Indonesia means a lot of overnight emails), once just before lunch in case there is anything urgent needing dealt with, and once before I leave the office (or finish my working day if I’m at home).
For personal email, I try and use the same time slots but I’m a little more relaxed about those.
I don’t think there is a clean answer for dealing with email. By it’s very nature incoming email is not focused so the triage step is what works for me, and sticking with that gives me confidence I’m doing the right thing for any given email at any given time.
It only occurs to me now as I write this post that I’ve spent more time trying to figure out how to manage my email than any other part of my working, connected, life. I will continue to tweak things but a lot of my working habits haven’t changed in years… and you know what they say, if ain’t broke, don’t fix it!