A few people have asked me recently how I manage my inbox. For me, there are a two inboxes, primarily (1) email (which I use Gmail exclusively for, both personal and corporate) and (2) anything related to my phone (which I manage via Google Voice) such as texts, missed calls, voicemails, etc…. It’s a true skill to be good at managing your inbox(es), and personally I think it is very important to do it well (and I hope I do). How quickly you respond to an email or return a call reflects on your level of responsibility and productiveness. I do think it is unfortunate, however, that people (myself included) feel a sense of expectation that someone should respond to your email, however weak your connection to said person may be. For me it’s very structured now in terms of my process.
Generally, my strategy is to archive anything that does not need immediate attention so that every item in my inbox represents something that I need to do. This departs from some people’s strategy of using read vs. unread to denote items needing attention. I personally like to keep things clean and as such use the Archive function for inbox management frequently (I’d go crazy if I saw 4,300 messages in my Inbox like most people keep). I don’t like unintended uses for features like that where you mark emails unread even though you’ve read them, because for example I may re-read an email but not respond multiple times and don’t want to have to keep marking something as unread. For email, threading is great for this, as I can quick reply to someone’s message knowing I’ll need to reply more deeply later but can keep the entire thread in my inbox, and Read vs. Unread means what it means. Here’s the breakdown of what I do for email, which translates to Google Voice too:
- Anything that doesn’t require any attention, Archive the thread. I do this having full confidence in being able to find things later via Search. Anything requiring long-term attention, I’ll Star it (more on this later). My email inbox becomes a relatively short list of items that require near-term action such as a thoughtful reply, follow-up, some other event (such as sending out a calendar invite post-scheduling, or calling someone back). My Google Voice inbox becomes the same, any calls I need to return, voicemails that I need to remember to listen to and/or act on, texts to reply to, etc…
- I’m not a big fan of typing on a tiny mobile device, as I like to reference other things (ex. other emails, the browser, calendar, etc…) while doing so, so I mainly use my phone as a means of scanning emails and Archiving threads quickly. This is great so that when I sit down in front of a computer, my Inbox is pretty well organized and ready to go. For example, I get a bucket of emails during the night like most people. Every morning, I take 2-3 minutes on my mobile phone to quickly go through and archive things that don’t need my attention. Same goes for getting out of a meeting, I’ll spend a minute or two in the elevator or cab afterwards quickly organized it. I sometimes leave things in my inbox that I need to use my PC for mainly due to lack of feature support on mobile or a bigger screen making it easier, such as setting up a new filter for that particular type of email.
- On any email I’m sending that I need a response for, I utilize Boomerang religiously to remind me if someone doesn’t reply in X days. This is great to use when, for example, scheduling something time sensitive. Boomerang automatically Stars the thread and moves it to your inbox when the deadline passes.
- I use the Labs feature in Gmail for “Send and Archive”, so that when I send any email I also Archive it simultaneously.
- Any item that doesn’t require immediate attention but I may need to do something in the future or reference it, I Star the thread and also Archive it so as not to clutter my inbox. The Starred folder then becomes a folder of threads that I need to keep track of for some future reason. Examples here may be needing to send someone a check after you receive something you’re expecting from them, or a legal template that you know you’ll need to use in a few weeks. There’s some redundancy built in here too, whereby I may Star something even if it’s in my Inbox still that I know is super-important not to forget.
- Every so often, I make a point to go to my Starred folder and clean it up. I probably average once a week for this. I’ll Unstar threads that have became obsolete, or realize I need to follow-up with folks again to threads I’m tracking, etc…
- Another critical piece to my inbox management is that it is an absolute requirement that any device I use syncs seamlessly with any other device. In other words, the status of my inbox is synced effortlessly regardless of device. This is why I exclusively now use Gmail via the browser (I used to be an Outlook guy and can’t believe I ever was). Since I’m addicted to Google products such as Gmail and Google Voice, I’m also an Android guy, both for mobile phone and tablet. This is great for me since both look and feel, syncing, and features are the same on every device I use from PC to phone to tablet.
- I haven’t perfected this yet, but I utilize Labels in Gmail setup with filters. For instance, I have all of my Amazon order confirmation emails tagged as “Receipts”, or any email from American Airlines tagged as “Travel.” I have occasionally found it easier to locate a thread being able to check these Label folders. However, the main purpose is for items that don’t require immediate attention every time but I still want to receive and occasionally read. Examples here may be corporate updates or newsletters I subscribe to that are non-critical that I still want the ability to read from time to time, so I auto-Archive them and auto-Label them and can every so often go check that folder and read those emails.
- I’ve played around with Priority Inbox, as I’ve found it useful to be able to prioritize emails based on who it is, but frankly I haven’t perfected it yet. I just know in my head who I respond to all the time and quickly vs. those that I don’t (and do so naturally) . For instance, any email from my family or co-founder I know what to do with, or someone I know and trust third. I don’t get absolutely inundated by random strangers who want a reply in terms of emails, but when I do get one of those emails I do my best to reply with my honest quick opinion (if asked) or go/no-go of being able to find a time to talk. Unfortunately it’s most often a “Please get an intro from someone I trust” response, as if I took 30 minutes to chat with everyone who emailed I’d be underwater time-wise which is a different issue.
- Like most people, most of my work now is via the Browser. So for me, I always have two tabs pinned, one for each of my email inboxes (corporate and personal), and the auto-updated favico’s of Gmail that show # of unread messages is great. Second, my next tab open is permanently my calendar, so I can quickly cross-reference with email and vice-versa.
Anyways, that’s most of the note-worthy strategies and tactics I use to manage my inbox. I’ve been told many times that I’m unusually quick at responding and considered good at email, which I’m proud of. I’m sure I can do a lot of things better, and personally think that being “quick” at email responses isn’t as important as being “good” at responding, so there’s that to keep in mind in terms of balance. But either way, it’s important to me that my inboxes are managed and I think constant upkeep and monitoring and quick archiving is the way to do it.
Lastly, I’m always looking to improve, so if anyone has any suggestions for how I can manage my inboxes better that what I’ve laid out, I’m all ears.