Email Organizing

As a manner of working, I use my email inbox as a to-do list. Around 85% of my clients email me a request if they need something from me, so it works out well. When the odd client calls me to ask me to change this or redo that, it’s not out of the question for me to email myself, to make sure the task is not left out.

I then have an un-elaborate series of folders to which I file the to-do items after they’ve been competed or responded to. Since everything is automatically date-stamped, I can see which items I’ve been “putting off” at a glance.

Occasionally I reach what is affectionately called “inbox zero”. Nothing in my inbox (which would seem to indicate I have nothing left to do, but it’s rarely the case).  We all have systems. This is my system.

Some say that in order to stay on top of the deluge of email a normal, computer-oriented person receives in a day needs to reach inbox-zero at the end of each workday.

Personally, I reach inbox-zero once every two months or so. The past several months, I’ve been disciplined enough to quit working five minutes before leaving and just file all the insignificant messages I’ve received (and also try to clean my desk) and the rewards have been great. Opening my “to-do” list first thing in the morning and seeing immediatley what I had in store for me for the day is a big benefit to productivity.

The primary advantage of this system is that it’s self-generating. It requires less management than anything I’ve ever tried. If someone needs something, they email me. It’s automatically in my to-do list. It requires nothing of me. When the task is completed, or I respond with a question, I file the message in it’s appropriate folder.

Which brings me to filing. Apple has great email client called (rather unimaginatively) Apple Mail which features “Smart Mailboxes”. These are folders which do a certain amount of automatic filing. For instance, one can create a smart box which automatically files all messages from Aunt Gertie into it. In Apple-speak “smart” means “automatic”, I guess.

This has HUGE potential as far as efficiency is concerned, especially considering how much email I receive on a given day.  I’m incredibly interested in the automation, yet incredibly frustrated. The inherent flaw is that you can auto-sort on a variety of criteria, but some criteria simply requires a manual system.

I, as all my co-workers, file on a “client based” system with project folders within client folders. I must say that I’m very dependent on smart folders. I have my “Recently Viewed” folder, my “Recently Sent Folder” and even a few “smart” client folders. But the majority of the folders are the old-fashioned kind.

I still live and die by a simple system with two rules: 1. Have only one calendar. 2. Have only one to-do list. Using my inbox as a to-do list pretty much prevents me from reaching “inbox zero” at the end of each day, which some may argue is a productivity drain, I would argue differently. And I spend probably too much time manually filing away completed “to-dos”, but currently I don’t think the smart-mail boxes feature is robust enough to replace my organization method. So although I would love to rid myself of the tedious task, I simply can’t get around not having project-based folders, and therefore I continue to live in the arcane world of manual filing.

Further Reading:

Inbox Zero

Apple Mail