Fixing My Email Problem

IMG_3252 - 2013-01-12 at 12-53-30

About a year ago, I gave up entirely on “Inbox 0”. I found that I spent so much time trying to get my inbox to zero that I wasn’t spending my time doing things that mattered. So, I just stopped. At first, it was big relief. My new inbox zero was to make sure I didn’t have any unread messages in my inbox. I did alright at it for a while, but it didn’t last. Eventually, things started to get out of hand. I was missing important emails.

I have two primary email addresses. One is my MSU address, which gets the majority of my professional email. The other is my mac.com (me.com?) address (you can email here). This gets a lot of non-professional mail, both from human beings and from institutions. It’s my “sign up for stuff” email address. I use mail.app, so the mail from both of these addresses basically get sent to the same place. They also both get sent to my iPhone and iPad. So, having one messy inbox meant that I actually had three messy inboxes.

The problem has been my low-priority email. This is email that I want to receive, but that isn’t essential to my daily life. What’s nice about this email is I don’t have to really act on it or respond to it. I just have to read it. Low priority email are those items I receive from social media accounts, politicians, organizations, companies, journals, list serves, and so on. It’s the stuff that I want, but that isn’t critical to my daily life. It also comprises the vast majority of the mail I receive each day, and this is the problem: the high priority email gets lost. High priority mail is the stuff that comes from human beings. The things that I need to read and respond to in a timely manner, because someone is counting on me to do something with it.

The end result is that I miss and don’t respond to high priority email about things that matter because it all gets pushed out of view in my inbox. The low priority mail becomes clutter that is just in my way all day, and so I rarely end up reading it, either. The result is an inbox full of unread messages that is more paralyzing than anything else. It is no way to live.

So, I’ve instituted a new email system.

Part 1: VIPs

One of mail.app’s best new features is the VIP section, which lets you highlight certain email address’s as “VIP”. My VIPs include my wife, my parents, my advisor and committee members. I have added co-authors and editors for articles. During tax season, I added my accountant. These are the people who, if I miss an email from, I am in trouble. VIPs show up on the sidebar of mail.app, directly under my inbox, so they’re difficult to miss. I also get notifications on my phone and through Apple’s notification system if I receive an email from them, so I’m even prepared ahead of time to be looking for something from them already.

Part 2: Labels

I have also set a couple of email rules that highlight emails from certain address book groups to be specific colors. Rules are a series of if this then that commands you can set mail.app to perform, and one option is to highlight an email with a certain color. Are you a liaison for the Society for Historical Archaeology Blog? Your emails are salmon colored. Member of the HSMC staff? Green. Disqus letting me know there’s a blog comment? Yellow. Dropbox notification? Blue. TellMeLater notification? Bright Red. These are things that I also can’t miss, but aren’t specific to any one individual. Making them a color highlights them in my inbox so that they are harder to miss.

Part 3: The Email Server and More Rules

This is the part that has really changed everything. I have a very old Mac Mini that I’ve been using as a media server ever since we purchased an Apple TV and cut cable. I was listening to this episode of Mac Power Users on my way home from a research trip, and they were talking about setting up an old computer to serve as a Mail Server: basically, run mail.app on the Mini so that it can filter your email with rules before it gets to your other computers, iPhone, iPad, or what-have-you. I have done this. It is amazing.

Here are the steps:

  1. Set up your old computer and add all your email accounts to mail.app. Ensure that those accounts are set up as IMAP.
  2. Set up a bunch of mail rules on your server that will filter all your low priority mail to go to certain folders. For example, I have a mail rule that sends Social Media updates from various accounts to a “Social Media” folder (make sure these folders are not “on your mac” but are in the cloud).
  3. Set the mail.app account on your server to check mail every minute.
  4. Set your mail.app account on your primary computer to check mail at a period of time longer than every minute.
  5. Let it run.

The result is that the server catches all my low-priority mail and sorts it into folders I’ve set up based on different categories before it gets to my laptop, phone, or tablet. Because everything is set up on IMAP, I can still see these folders on my main machines, they just aren’t in my inbox. I can deal with them at my leisure, while not having them clutter up my work day. Email from people, however, show up front and center.

Part 4: Acting on Email

One of the primary tenants of inbox zero is to act immediately on emails when you receive them. This new setup has allowed me to do this more efficiently. The server allows me to automate actions on emails I already know are of low priority. I don’t have to make an immediate decision about them because my server is doing it for me. This allows me to focus on emails that I have to make decision about immediately. I can either respond immediately, or move the emails into my todo list in OmniFocus to deal with later. For those items that are sitting in my archive folders, I have scheduled time every Sunday morning to plow through them and decide what’s necessary to act on, and what I can toss.

Part 5: Archiving and Deleting

Because I’m able to filter all my low-priority email, I can easily delete them when I’m finished, since there is no reason for me to hold on to a advertisement from a shirt company: the deal will be over in a week. For everything else, I have a rule set up that archives my read mail after 365 days. You could set this to a week or a month, but I find myself searching for old mail relatively often, so leaving it in my inbox doesn’t bother me much. The point is, I can automate archiving and deleting, making it one less thing I have to think about: it just happens.

I’ve been running this system for a couple weeks, and the results are wonderful. I never open up my inbox and feel overwhelmed: it’s amazing how little email I actually receive, which makes it very easy to tackle. I don’t miss emails from humans anymore. Cleaning out my low priority mail is a breeze: I can get through them all in under a half hour, and delete them when I’m done. It has even allowed me to actually look at them, since they aren’t in my way anymore.

How do you deal with your low and high priority mail? What system works for you? Let me know!

ps – special thanks to my good friend Jeremy for helping me to iron out some of the details. Follow him.

  • Bob

    Great post and good suggestions! I’ve also been trying not to send emails as often because of the overwhelming number I get. When I do, I try to be clear as to the purpose of the email and the type of information I need back.

    The emails that make me crazy are the ones that are something like this, “I would really love to get together sometime to talk to you about project X. I’m on campus but 3 days a week. When would you like to get together? What did you think about the lecture on campus last week?” Also, do you have any suggestions on how we could work together on curricular issues?

    Here’s why I hate this type of email. There are too many open ended questions and vexing issues with schedule. Most of these questions could have been handled by a 5 minute phone call. Instead, this type of email will result in probably 4-8 total emails to go back and forth and probably take a few days to settle down–if I even have the time to triage this type of email. While it would be lovely to have an open ended long conversation with someone via email, I don’t have time for this type of conversation and try to not play into this type of email ping pong. Instead, I pick up the phone and try to put an end to it. I can likely deal with all of the issues raised without worrying about taking the time to set up an appointment unless a face to face is needed.

    I like your email organization suggestions!

    • It sounds like a good solution to those emails might be a response that says, “I’d love to talk about this on the phone. How does 4 pm tomorrow work for you?” Then you can get it out of email as soon as possible. If it really isn’t that important, then they won’t bother responding. Also, after a couple of these, they might start to get the picture that you’d rather move the convo outside of email in the first place.

      thanks for reading and for the comment!!

      • T. Tyler Potterfield

        I would like to send you an e-mail, but am unable to find it anywhere.
        If you read this perhaps you would consider sending it to me.
        T. Tyler Potterfield
        Author Nonesuch Place

        • Tyler: brockter @ msu.edu is a good place! Sorry, I need to fix my contact sheet…

  • I had a similar problem. My solution was to give all my students one email address (campus one), to create a “1x daily” folder in gmail that gets checked 1x daily (with a huge filter that sends a lot of non-urgent stuff there), and everything else to my inbox. It has definitely kept the inbox very manageable and it has proven pretty easy to process the 1x daily folder since I go in there with a ruthless mentality knowing that nothing truly critical goes there.

    • that’s a good idea. I could also imagine a system where you require students to use a certain email subject (Like the class #), and a rule sends those directly to a specific folder. Thanks for the comment!