2012-04-27

Letterboxes -- How to organize your email (Part 2)


In part 1 of this series, we studied our own behaviour for dealing with paper mail that arrives in our letterbox and we developed a key insight. Treat your email inbox like you treat your letterbox – as a collection centre, not a processing centre. It's now time to act on that insight.

So what can we do to return our email inbox to a collection centre?

I suggest you can do very well with 5 folders:

  • # Action
  • # Someday
  • # Waiting
  • Reference
  • Trash
I've included Reference and Trash here for completeness; you already have a Trash or Deleted Items folder provided by the email program you're using and you've probably already setup numerous reference folders.
By naming the Action, Someday, and Waiting folders with a special symbol, like '#' at the beginning (choose whatever special suits you), they will end up at or near the top of your folder list. You want them "in your face".

So go ahead and create those folders

Outlook users: if you don't know how to copy or move an email from one folder to another, please see the section at the end of this post titled "For Outlook Users".
Gmail users: substitute "label" where you see the term "folders" in this text. Please see the section at the end of this post titled "For Gmail Users" for more info.

Now process your inbox

In most cases, the Subject line or who it's from will be sufficient to do this initial processing; in some cases, you'll need to open the email and give it no more than a quick glance.

So decide:

  • Is it something you have to do? ("Lightning will strike you" if you don't do it)
    • Move it into your Action folder.
    • For example, the bill or fine you must pay.
  • Is it something you'd like to do? (as opposed to have to do)
    • Move it into the Someday folder.
    • For your own sake, be ruthless distinguishing between have to do and like to do.
    • For example, the daily financial services newsletter that you subscribe to; or, an article about the life and times of the boxer Muhammad Ali that you'd like to read.
  • Is it something for someone else?
    • Send it off to them.
    • If you need to follow up on this, copy it into the Waiting folder.
  • Does the item have some sort of value as reference material?
    • Move it into an appropriate Reference folder.
    • You can organize and have as many reference folders as you like. You probably already do.
    • For example, a receipt that you must keep for tax purposes, or a joke someone sent you (you've already read it but it's a good joke).
  • Otherwise
    • It's Trash!
    • Go on, delete it.

By doing this processing, you've achieved the following:

  • Your Inbox is empty (for now, hopefully).
  • Your Action folder contains all the items you have to do.
  • Your Waiting folder contains all the items that others are doing and that you care about.
  • Your Someday folder contains the items that, when you get time, you'd like to do.
  • You've filed the items that are important for future Reference.
  • And Trashed everything else.

And the benefits of doing this are:

  • You'll be happy to look at our Inbox. You won't feel overwhelmed. You'll feel organized.
  • You can easily renegotiate the agreement you've made with yourself about each item.
  • You can "light a fire" for something you're Waiting for from somebody else.
  • You can move things about between Action and Someday as their status changes.
  • And so on.

Your Sent Items folder and email that you send

When you send an email to someone, a copy of what you sent is placed in a Sent or Sent Items folder. Decide there and then: Are you expecting a response to the email you sent? If so, then make a copy of it and place it in your Waiting folder. Are there any other emails in your Sent Items folder that you're waiting for a response to? Make a copy of those into your Waiting folder as well.

But have you actually done anything?

Well, yes and no. Maybe you were inspired and acted upon some items there and then. You've placed items in the Action folder but you haven't actually done them. There will be many that you can't do because you've got to block off quite a bit of time to actually do them. And we haven't defined at a finer level "what" you've actually got to do.
But this initial sort will make it easier to look at one folder, Action, and decide at that moment if you're going to do anything about any of the items in it. And you know that they're the ones you must do, now, today, by weeks end, or whenever.
Your Waiting folder contains all the things that others are doing that you care about. You haven't defined "when" you're going to "light the fire" for the items in it; however, because they're all grouped together, you can negotiate that "when", as you like.

But I can search for anything with my email program! I don't need this extra layer of complexity.

You certainly can search your reference material and your email program can do it very well. So long as you craft your search query well, you can find it all.
However, your email program cannot distinguish the things you have to do and that you're waiting for, from reference material, things you'd like to do and things to trash. Only you can make those judgement calls; and only you can renegotiate the value of those items.
As we saw in part 1 of this series, we already have this added layer of supposed complexity in our handling of paper mail. It can't be that complex!

Summary

Treat your email inbox like you treat your letterbox – as a collection centre, not a processing centre.
Create the Action, Someday, Waiting and Reference folders. Then:
  • Move into Action all the emails which you have to do something.
  • Move into Someday all the emails which you'd like to do something.
  • Move into Waiting (and Copy from Sent Items) all the emails which are being handled by someone else and that you care about.
  • Move into (one of) your Reference folder(s) anything you want to (or have to) keep for future reference.
  • Trash the rest.

Further Reading

There are any number of books and articles to help you. One of my favourites is the book by David Allen, GTD (Getting Things Done). This tackles "getting organized" in general, not just email. For web articles, see Merlin Mann's 43 Folders site.

For Outlook users

  • How to Copy an email in your Sent Items folder to your # Waiting folder.
    • Open the email (double click it).
    • Choose File > Copy to Folder > # Waiting.
  • How to Move an email from one folder to another.
    • Open the email (double click it).
    • Choose File > Move to Folder > (the folder it's to be moved to).

For Gmail users

# Action, # Someday and # Waiting are labels. Reference can be as simple as the system supplied "All Mail" folder and the archive button; it's up to you.
Wherever in this post it's been stated "copy the email" or "move the email", you just need to label it (apply the label).