The Core Dump

A strong conviction that something must be done is the parent of many bad measures

[By Nic Lindh on Wednesday, 07 July 2010]

An e-mail management system that works

E-mail is a blessing and a curse. After many years of trying, I believe I’ve found a system that brings sanity back to my inbox.

Ah, e-mail. Such a blessing and such a curse. Like most office drones, I suffer under its crushing weight and have spent years trying to figure out a way to cope.

And so help me, I’ve finally come up with a system that works for me.

Like any sane e-mail system I’ve ever heard of, it’s based on Merlin Mann’s Inbox Zero system, which in its turn is based on David Allen’s Getting Things Done.

If you spend any amount of time at all on the Internet, you’ll find a ton of e-mail management systems. The problem with most of them—at least it’s a problem for me—is that they tend to be designed for people with ADD. Which I don’t have. And they tend to invite endless fiddling and knob-turning. Which makes sense what with the ADD-tendencies that spawned the systems.

Fiddling and knob-turning are death for any system that’s supposed to let you work more efficiently.

So here’s my system in all its simplicity.

The e-mail account gets two folders: Action and Assorted. Two folders—only two.

Any new e-mail that comes in gets the basic GTD treatment: If it’ll take a few minutes or less to deal with, I’ll take care of it and move it to Assorted. This includes meetings: anything with a hard date goes on the calendar and then the e-mail goes into the Assorted black hole.

Assorted could just as well be called CYA.

If it’ll take more than a few minutes to process, the e-mail goes into Action. Yes, Action is effectively a primitive to-do list, which breaks GTD dogma, but it works for me since most of my actionable e-mails are information-dense enough that it would take a lot of time to capture in a “normal” GTD way.

There’s no step three. That’s it. Easy enough that I’ll keep doing it even when things get hectic, which is when the more complicated systems break down.

The end result is a teensy bit of manageable chaos in the Action folder and a wondrously empty inbox. The joy of looking at an empty inbox simply can not be overstated.

You might wonder why there’s only an Assorted folder instead of separate folders for projects/people/dates, etc. The reason is that we can search e-mail now, so there’s no reason to spend the mental overhead organizing the detritus of the past into a folder structure.

Hmmm, is this e-mail from Bob really about Project Neon King or is it about office management?

I also have a few server rules that put e-mails that aren’t time-critical into separate folders to peruse when I have the time. A bonus of this is that those e-mails don’t show up on my iPhone—I have to go into those folders for them to refresh when I’m mobile. Nice bonus.

And there you go. Ridiculously simple, but it works.

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