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Email habits, productivity tips and using GMail like a pro

I tweeted this morning about an article which proposes to help your productivity by urging you not to empty your mailbox or at least not be fussy about emptying it every day.

Does the advice mean that you should procrastinate or as some one sarcastically put on my Facebook wall - "[Don't bother with replying to an email the moment you get it] If they are important enough they will be resent and sent again ...." :-) Such conclusions drawn from the article above only make the message weak.

Organizing the Inbox and emptying it are two different issues. Those who don't use Inbox as a todo list might have other ways of managing to-do. The article above is meant for those who rather than organize emails and prioritize them according to their importance, choose to use the 'arrival time' of an email as a default prioritization order. Those for whom acting on each mail means reading or replying it or deleting i.e. ignoring it. And also accompanied by the syndrome that an email replied and deleted (or archived) is 'ball out of my court' and I need not visit it again until there is a response from the other side.

This strategy of email management is appropriate for someone doing a back-office customer service job where each email acts like a ticket which you need to close. [Such professions are incidentally those which are getting replaced by AI or analytics based bots or programs]. However, in most professions today email is a means of a. collaboration b. information for personal welfare & growth [ex. newsletters] c. intimation of process statuses. Apart from 'c', none of the other two can afford to be consumed on a 'act as it comes' basis because both collaborative work and personal development need thought and focussed attention. And attention should be scheduled when the mind is in a state to do it than done impromptu.

However, there are troves of articles online junking email as an appropriate medium to get these two jobs done. There has been concerted effort to move away from email for both collaboration and personal development. Newsletters have moved to blogs and interactive portals - some are even attempting to convert them into MooC like interfaces. Collaboration itself is evolving with Office Online and Google Docs competing for features and several other special purpose collaboration platforms like Jira and Slack emerging (Slack even offers ways to intimate).

But in spite of this, email continues to serve as an all purpose channel for collaboration and personal development and I guess, like the cockroach, it will survive the current wave of change and stay relevant even decades later as a general purpose communication or messaging platform. So what options do you have as a user - do you continue to live with schedule as they come strategy on email?

Until GMail and filters arrived on the scene - 12 years ago - you had no choice, but it is no longer so. With GMail, we can sort our mail automatically for 75-80% mails properly in folders for later reading and clearing when we have time. This way the time spent in sorting mails, which is what most people do while 'emptying' their inbox, will be saved. I have a very real benchmark of this from my KPMG days. My official mailbox on Outlook which did not have this feature usually took 4 hours per week to keep organized, and yet many times I couldn't find mails when needed because I had made mistakes in sorting them manually.

Using a combination of a well defined labels hierarchy and filters which automatically move mails to these labels, most collaboration and personal development emails can be automatically sorted into proper labels to be attended to at a pre-scheduled time than actioned as they arrive. You are only left with a. intimation mails b. mails from new sources for which filtering has not been set up.

I personally have 140 filters set on my personal GMail mailbox and 20 main and 62 sub-labels (nested under the 20 main ones) - these exclude system labels like inbox, spam and trash. Some of these labels are now graveyard archives, like labels to keep all mails for old projects done in college or early days of my career, but almost 80-90% of these labels are in active use.

I am sure you have heard of Yesterbox technique by Zappos Founder Tony Hsieh; my daily mail habits try to replicate that technique as much as I can apart from using my mailbox as a treasure trove to mine useful data when needed. For ex, I subscribe to some newsletters by graphic design websites which I neither read when they come (they get archived), nor on a periodic basis. But often when I am stuck on some UI issue or a PowerPoint design issue I try to go through those articles for inspiration to come out of that mindblock. Many times while searching or something else, these newsletters pop-up and give you the right direction.

As an endnote though, I think the advice in the article is good for those who can't leverage labels / filters or who's nature of work do not permit them to maintain an organized mailbox.


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