These days, it seems everyone has an opinion about how to deal with information overload, especially when it comes to email management. There are numerous methodologies, best practices, tips, and tutorials available, but are any of them really effective? We'll explore that question as we delve into the top five email management methodologies.
The GTD Method: GTD, or "Getting it Done," methodology arose from David Allen's popular and ground-breaking work-life management system. His techniques can be applied to nearly all aspects of work and life. Specifically, using the GTD method for processing email involves taking action on every piece of email that arrives in your inbox. As you review each item, you should should do one of these 3 items if the item requires action: 1) Do it (if it takes less than two minutes), 2) Delegate it, 3) Defer it. If the item does not require action, either 1) File it, 2) Delete it, or 3) Incubate it for possible action later. By processing mail this way, you'll always have an empty inbox.
Due to GTD's popularity, there are now several software tools to choose from. A list and comparison chart of many of these tools can be found here.
One of the more popular tools, boasting 80,000 users, is the GTDInbox Firefox extension for Gmail. This extension, which recently relaunched with a new version, GTDInbox 2.0, automatically sets up Gmail labels like "Next Action," "Waiting On," "Someday," and "Finished." The extension is smart - as you label items as "Finished," it will automatically remove the label "Next Action." The extension also structures Gmail as a personal database of projects, references, and people, clustering related items together so you can easily find everything related to a project, contact, or file. For example, you could click on a project and email all the associated contacts.
The 4-Hour Workweek Method: Timothy Ferriss also released a popular book which offered the blueprint to how you could eliminate most of your workload and outsource your life in order to regain more personal time ("mini-retirements," as he called it). He recommends managing email through more of an avoidance strategy, calling email "the greatest single interruption in the modern world." To counter the time-wasting aspect of email, Ferris recommends you begin by turning off the audible alert and/or visual notification. Then move to checking your email only twice per day: once at 12:00 noon (or just prior to lunch) and again at 4:00 pm. He advises you to never check email first thing in the morning.
To help implement this process, an auto-response email template can be used, which advises of your new process while also offering a way to reach you in the case of an actual emergency (like a cell #). If you become the master of this method, like Ferriss, you could even move to checking your email once per week. Of course there are other things that need to be adjusted in order for this to work, like removing yourself as an information bottleneck or empowering subordinates or employees to make decisions on their own, but ultimately the goal is to reduce your email inbox from being filled with urgent to-do items.
The "Treat Email As SMS" Policy: Another method to dealing with email involves treating all incoming email as if it were an SMS text message. Only use a set number of sentences to respond. How many sentences is up to you.
A web site called sentenc.es can help you implement this. Begin by updating your email with a signature similar to the following:
Q: Why is this email 5 sentences or less?
The Folders & Rules Method: The classic old-school way of organizing your email into meaningful folders containing similar items. This method arose from a time when desktop email software was the norm and email search was either poorly executed or non-existent. Despite the fact that there are now clearly superior ways to organize mail, many people are still moving email into folders. This process can be automated in desktop software, like Outlook, or in web-software, like Gmail, by using "Rules" (aka "Filters" in Gmail). This process involves having incoming mail identified based on sender, keywords, subject, etc and then categorized and filing appropriately. Gmail also introduced Labels, which allows for mail to exist in multiple "folders," an option that is more like tagging your mail, but ultimately, it is just folders 2.0, leading Gmail users to having multiple labels for mail instead of single folders.
No don't! But if you must, at least make it easier on yourself. Read up on Outlook rules, Thunderbird filters, Gmail filters, or documentation for whatever your mail client of choice is. You can augment your software by using add-ons and extensions, too. For Outlook users, the Clear Context add-in will overhaul your email system and help you manage your inbox better. Apple mail users can use Mail Act-On.
term's origin may have originated from MIT professor, Sherry Turkle's, concept after conducting research on people's relationship with technology. She discovered that some people had fantasies about escaping the burden of their email. However it was author, Lawrence Lessig, who popularized it.The Email Bankruptcy Method: Surprisingly, some people are just giving up on email. The
Take this example from a Washington Post article:
Stanford computer science professor Donald E. Knuth started using e-mail in 1975 and stopped using it 15 years later. Knuth said he prefers to concentrate on writing books rather than be distracted by the steady stream of communication. "I'd get to work and start answering e-mail -- three hours later, I'd say, "Oh, what was I supposed to do today?" Knuth said that he has no regrets. "I have been a happy man since Jan. 1 , 1990."
But, according to the article, dropping out is copping out - "a reactionary and isolationist way of dealing with modern communications."
You shouldn't declare email bankruptcy unless you really have no other choice. If you are going this extreme route, the best way to do so would be to send out a mass email to all of your contacts with an explanation and an apology. Offer them other ways to reach you like phone numbers and snail mail addresses, unless you are committing to becoming a total hermit. Prepare to be ridiculed.
After reviewing the mailbox management methodologies, are there any that really stand out as the best way? The GTD method makes a lot of sense, but it takes time to retrain yourself to change years of behavior you've become accustomed to. Of course, time to train and change is something you often don't have due to the very same burden you're trying to overcome. Besides reading the success stories on the acclaimed authors web sites, how many people have implemented a GTD or alternative email methodology and stuck with it over time? Have you? Share your thoughts in the comments.