Effortless Email Processing [archive]

Email seems to be an area where quite a few people struggle and easily get overwhelmed. I’ve seen inboxes with tens of thousands of unread messages — How could you possibly trust a system like that? Over the years, I’ve developed a rather effective system for allowing me to process email very quickly with a minimum of hassle. Here, I will do my best to lay it out in excruciating detail, and hopefully give you the tools you need to get on top of this.

Penny Arcade manages to encapsulate my thoughts perfectly.
Penny Arcade manages to encapsulate my thoughts perfectly.

Does this look like your inbox? Is your inbox actually worse? You saving those emails for later, tinkerbell? You and I both know that you’re never going through all of those.

NOTE: This article was originally posted in 2013. I created an update in 2015 that’s available here, and has much more information on setting up effective workflows in Gmail. That said, a fair bit of the content in this article is still useful and is worth reading. Understanding the concepts will help you create a system that works well for your needs in particular.

Separate your accounts

The strongest leverage you’ll get in processing email effectively is to split the incoming stream before the messages ever hit your inbox. Utilizing separate email accounts is by far the easiest way to do this. By segregating your accounts, you drastically reduce the psychological barriers to processing electronic communications effectively. I use the following setup:

me@mydomain.com personal communications only, as in actual living, breathing, people. My parents, roommates, friends, and the like.
robot@mydomain.com automated everything; any and all signup forms, newsletters, discussion groups, ticket confirmations, amazon orders, website logins, etc.
lastname@company.com my work email, which I use strictly to communicate with my clients and co-workers.
Note: if your full name is available as a domain (firstnamelastname.com) — BUY IT. They’re ten dollars a year, look infinitely more professional than any Hotmail or Gmail address, allow you all sorts of flexibility and future options, and will also prevent anyone else from purchasing it.

Account details

The @company.com address is handled via IMAP with Mozilla Thunderbird. Microsoft Outlook behaves in very similar ways, and most of this information should be applicable to both applications.

Each of the @mydomain.com addresses are nothing more than forwarding accounts, sent to two different Gmail inboxes (e.g. personal-stuff@gmail.com and automated-stuff@gmail.com). You can set up forwarding accounts quite easily through whichever company you purchased your domain from. Not only does this provide an extremely capable email interface, but unexpectedly grants an additional level of security against any unauthorized access:

By always using my @mydomain.com addresses and never my @gmail.com addresses, I don’t have to worry about my actual email account being compromised by any third-party security breach. The @mydomain.com address is forwarding-only, which means that no real inbox exists, and there is nowhere to attempt a login. Even if an attacker were to get the email address and password that I used to sign in on any particular site, that information is useless as far as attempting to access my inbox. Be aware that this does nothing against the habit of using the same email address and password combination across multiple sites, so don’t do that. If I were a Bad Guy, accessing your inbox would certainly be useful to me. Accessing your PayPal account would be much more useful.

The last step

To put the finishing touches on this setup, we need to do one final thing. Incoming mail to @mydomain.com gets routed to your @gmail.com account, but for a fully transparent setup, we need to have outgoing mail sent through your chosen @mydomain.com address as well. Gmail offers a way to send outgoing mail through custom SMTP servers, and while this is somewhat complicated, you only need to do it once. For detailed instructions on how to do this (as the process is slightly different depending on which domain registrar you chose), read through Gmail’s help entry on using a custom “From:” address and their guide on using your own SMTP server.

Yes, I know it’s more work than you probably want to do right now. But you know what? Spending 30 minutes to do this once will save you hours and hours in the long run. As I said, get it set up once and you never have to touch it again. Now, let’s go into the details of each account.

Thunderbird Setup

I use Thunderbird for my work email, although Outlook would manage just as well — I’m not using any particularly special features. Chances are, your account is already set up, so implementing this system should be quite easy. The only thing that may be different from your current configuration is instructing your account to automatically copy any sent message back to the inbox. I will explain why this is important in a moment.

First, let me show you a picture:

thunderbird-inbox

Panels

There are three main panels: Folders, the Inbox, and the Message View.

  • The Folders panel is fairly straightforward, and serves primarily as my archive. I have folders created for each year (2013, 2012, 2011, etc), a few specific projects, one called “Password” that contains most of my access codes in one place, automatic pay stubs from my direct deposit, and a Staff inbox. Any email over about 3 months old gets moved from the Inbox to a relevant folder, usually en masse.
  • The Inbox panel is likely very similar to yours, but this is where the system really gets leveraged. From left to right, the column headers are: Star – Tag – Date – Subject – Email From – Email To – Size – Attachment
  • The Message View panel is simply the default view that displays the message content when you select an email from the inbox.

Tagging

Thunderbird includes a rather elegant tagging feature. Cursory research indicates that plugins exist to add this functionality to Outlook. By pressing the number keys (1 through 5 by default; change them in Tools > Options > Display > Tags), you can assign one or more tags to a message. Powerful filters can be set up to take advantage of this, but the only messages I ever have tagged are ones that still require action of some sort. The tags I have set up are as follows:

  • 1 – Active (Red) – Work that needs processed or tasks that I need to complete
  • 2 – Waiting (Grey) – Message that I am waiting on a response from in some way
  • 3 – Info (Blue) – Something including reference material that I will be using for a later task

Message Filters

Filters are a useful way to process expected and repeatable patterns. For example, I have a filter that sends anything addressed to staff@company.com (which is mirrored to everyone’s inbox) to a Staff folder, and another one that pattern matches the format for my direct-deposit pay stub emails to a Pay Stubs folder. Anything you receive with any regularity that can be routed automatically, should be. You should be aware that filters are very easy to set up, and there is no reason not to do so.

Putting it all together

Here is where the magic happens. Throughout the day, I run through my list of currently unread emails, usually bottom to top. Using the up/down keys to navigate between messages, I select one, and then determine if it is 1) an action I need to complete, 2) something I am waiting on from someone else, or 3) information that I will be using later. Plenty of messages are purely informational, and need only be read once and not tagged at all. However, for anything that requires a tag, I simply press the “S” key to give it a star (I believe Outlook has an “Important” flag that serves the same purpose) and press the number on the keyboard corresponding to the tag I need to give it: 1 for Active, 2 for Waiting, and 3 for Info.

Any email that needs a response is marked as Active, and once I’ve written and sent a response, the email gets un-starred and un-tagged (reverse the initial process; “S” and then the number key). However, since I told Thunderbird to copy all sent messages back to the Inbox, I select the message that was just sent, mark it with a star, and tag it with 2 for Waiting. In this way, conversations can easily be managed with a high degree of flexibility. This process can be repeated indefinitely, alternating between something you need to do and awaiting a response.

At this point, all my messages have either no star and no tag (most of them), or both a star and a tag — they are always paired; there are no messages that have a star and no tag, or vice versa. However, the messages are rather scattered throughout the inbox. You can use column header sorting precedence to quickly and easily organize everything: 1) Click the “Date” column header until your messages are sorted in reverse chronological order (newest at the top), and then 2) click the “Star” column header to move all the starred and tagged messages to the top. The date sorting is preserved between sorting, so that all of your starred messages are in order, as are all the messages below it. At this point, you’ve got a list of your next actions, items you’re waiting for, and reference information — all neatly processed, sorted, and ready for action.

Using this setup, I haven’t had an email fall through the cracks in years. There are some considerations you need to take when accessing your account via a mobile interface, but I’m going to leave that up to you to determine the best way. There are too many application variations for me to address that in this post.

So, that takes care of my work account. How about my personal accounts?

Enter Gmail

Each account is set up in a nearly identical fashion. The fundamentals of the processing closely follow what I have written above for Thunderbird. Again, we can start things off with a picture:

robot-inbox

Labels and Custom Stars

I process my accounts in slightly different ways, but fundamentally, they operate the same. My personal account uses custom stars (Settings > General > Stars) to indicate the Tag concepts listed above (Action, Waiting, Info, plus an additional one I have for Priority). My automated account uses the default star and accompanying labels (Newsletters, Orders, Tickets, and Priority).

Filters

Gmail has a really handy feature that lets you create filters from incoming messages. Click the “down” icon in the top right of the message view, then select “Filter messages like this” to open the Create Filter interface. As above, filters provide massive leverage — quit wasting time processing the same things over and over, and create filters to automate the process.

Workflow

The actual inbox processing is remarkably quick in Gmail. Begin, as you might expect, with your first unread email (or last, if you’re like me and prefer to work backward). Once the email has loaded, determine if it’s anything you need to do something with or save for later. If so, press “S” to mark it with a star, press “L” to bring up the Labels menu, type the first few letters of your chosen label, press Enter to save it, and then press “K” to move to the next message. Repeat the process to remove the star and get rid of the label. By traversing your inbox with J and K, you will rapidly be able to move between messages, and this process will feel more and more automatic.

Searches

To the surprise of exactly no-one, Gmail has massively powerful search features built in. Press “/” (slash) to focus on the Search input, and give it your query. Press Enter to retrieve the results. Some examples:

is:unread Display all unread emails
has:attachment Show all emails with attachments
label:priority Retrieve all emails labeled “Priority”
from:jsmith@domain.com Find all emails from John Smith
For a full listing of Gmail’s search capabilities (worth reading through, and you’ll probably want to bookmark it as well), visit their page on Advanced Search.

Google Labs Features

There are lots of hidden “experimental” features built into most Google products, and you can access them wherever you see a link for Labs. In Gmail, they are accessed from Settings > Labs. Here are a few that I find particularly useful:

  • Undo Send – If you don’t have this turned on, go do it now. This adds a ten second delay to the email processing queue, along with an “Undo” button that stays active until the email is actually sent. This will save you a significant amount of embarrassment at some point in your life, guaranteed.
  • Custom Keyboard Shortcuts – Most of the Gmail keyboard shortcuts are quite good, and you can see a full listing of them by pressing Shift+? at your inbox. However, by default, next message and previous message are bound to K and J, which just feels backwards to me. I use this Labs feature to remap them to their proper bindings. J is forward, K is backward. On this note, it is definitely worth it to get familiar with the built-in shortcuts. Moving your hand between the keyboard and mouse only takes a second, but when you multiply it by hundreds of times a day, it starts to add up. Seriously. You will work faster and become more confident with your actions.

Account switching

Google also offers a convenient way to switch between accounts. Click your profile picture in the top right corner, and in the dropdown menu that appears, click “Add Account” — follow the steps to integrate as many Google accounts as you wish.

Mobile leverage

One of the nice advantages of this system is being able to allow notifications on my mobile device and not being overloaded with junk. Since one account is exclusively personal communication, I can link that to my phone and have near-immediate response time with people I actually care about.

Transitioning and Conclusion

The transition process to this system was overall quite easy. There were maybe a dozen sites that I manually updated with my new addresses (PayPal, Amazon, Facebook, etc), and for everything else, I just watch what’s coming in my inbox, look at the to: field, and update/process as needed. Total time investment was maybe 1-2 hours on the first day, then 15 minutes per week after that.

I hope the information in this has helped you in some way. If you have any questions about the process, please feel free to leave a comment below.

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