The Organized Writer: The Email Hydra

by Jeff Abbott on January 18, 2009

I once had a thousand emails in my inbox. It’s a weight that can pray on your mind. It makes my brain itch. What on earth, I wonder, is lurking in there that I’m supposed to remember what to do?

One of the precepts of GTD is an empty inbox, and it’s one of the most valuable ones. I try to approach email this way: filter, delete, act, and archive.

Filter: I used to have a large set of rules that would automatically filter my emails into a large set of folders: a folder for my agents, for my editors, for family, for mailing lists and so on. I only use one filter, now, for mailing list emails–they all go to a folder marked LATER. Because usually there is no rush to get to those emails. I look at the folder regularly, and end up deleting quite a few of them. Every other email sits in my inbox until it’s dealt with as follows: delete, act, archive.

Delete: If I don’t need to answer the email, or keep it, I delete it.  There is no point in cluttering your email database with this stuff. I love deleting emails. I suspect if I don’t delete them, they will breed inside the computer and produce yet more emails.

Act: If it requires an action that will take some time or thought, I move the email to a folder called Action. I check it once and day and try to get it empty ASAP. If an email requires a calendar event, I add it to my calendar immediately., I make a note of that and then delete or file in the email.

Archive: If the email is worth keeping, it goes into a Filed folder. At the end of the year, that folder gets renamed to [year] Archive and a new Filed folder is created.

I try to process and empty the whole inbox once a week. If I slip and don’t, this is an easy task to do while watching TV with the kids or over morning coffee.

With the search capabilities in most email clients today, I can quickly and easily find any email I need with this system, while junking those I don’t.

Note: I use Microsoft Entourage 2008 for my email. I used to use Apple Mail (and before that, Eudora, which was a wonderful email program), but it crashed once while sending an email–and erased all every email in my Sent folder, wiping out months of emails. Not acceptable. Microsoft Entourage works fine for me. And my approach should work, no matter what email client you use. 

Also: you don’t need to check email more than twice a day. Really. Most of the emails I get are  do not involve blood being spilled or the house being on fire. While some argue you shouldn’t check email first thing in the morning–I have to. I often hear from my British publishers and so I usually check to see if there’s an email from them. If there is, I read it. If not, I don’t read the other emails (or I try not to). I can set
Entourage to check on any kind of schedule I like. It is set to automatically check at noon and at four pm. I really really really don’t want to deal with email until the day’s writing is done. I can’t always have that, but I can set up my system to insulate forom the interruption of email. Otherwise, to be constantly checking feels like you’re just feeding coins into a slot machine, hoping for a three-cherries hit.

    { 2 comments… read them below or add one }

    JT Ellison January 18, 2009 at 11:49 am

    I started to set up filters, then realized it was going to take more time and effort that it was worth. I use GMail, and with the Remember the Milk add on, I can click on the star and it adds it to my to do list, which is too cool. I’ve realized that psychologically I do need to check the morning email, but I can now subvert the rest of the mail until after I get the writing done.

    Kristan January 18, 2009 at 4:59 pm

    I also use Gmail, and it is more or less built for people who function this way with their email, and that is SO me. I’ve ALWAYS done what you describe, just inherently (minus the filtering). My inbox is essentially a to-do list, and I get antsy if it builds up past 10 emails, really.
    Now as for how OFTEN I check it… :(

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