Sunday, February 15, 2015

Be an Inbox Ninja!

   One of the biggest productivity sinks most of us face is email.  From the sheer volume (even after decent spam-filtering), to the necessity of actually checking your spam filter to make sure nothing got stuck in there that you actually need to deal with, to the temptation to waste even more time writing a reply, it sucks up hours of a typical busy professional's day.  How can we deal with it?!

   There are three main ways to deal with pretty much anything with daunting volume:

   First of course you can reduce the volume!  Unsubscribe from any email lists that aren't sufficiently useful, amusing, or whatever other criteria you apply, to make it worth their contribution to the load.  That's so obvious that I'm going to assume you've already done that.  (Or at least heard of it, considered it, and procrastinated about it.)

   Second, you can just suck it up and attack the problem.  If you've chosen that path, good luck!  As you wade through the stupid jokes from your relatives, the latest sale announcements from your favorite stores, and other such dreck, your vital business communications are going unread for too long.

   Third, you can be an inbox ninja!  No, I don't mean leave it unseen, I mean to slice and dice it so you can attack it in the most effective places first.  There are many cuts you can make, but the basic two I like are direct vs. list, and work vs. not-work.  This allows you to separate your email into four "buckets": work-related email sent directly to you, work-related lists, non-work email sent directly to you, and non-work lists.

   How to apply this strategy, depends on what tools are available for the program you use to read email.  I use GMail, and usually directly at their web interface.  Like most email programs, that lets me do a search.  Pretty much any email program lets you do that.  GMail, however, is particularly powerful in that it will let you do the search automagically on incoming mail (they call it a "filter"), and use that to apply any labels to each piece of email.  These let me use a much simpler search later to get that "quadrant" of my email.

   Let's look at an example.  Suppose I'm a veeblefetzer repairman.  Anything mentioning veebelefetzers or repairing is work-related, along with the various popular brands of veeblefetzers, such as Furd and Potrzebie.  Also, anything from veebleworld.com (where people may contact me directly, or post in forums, which will send me an email from the forums subdomain), or from anyone in my company (backbelt.com), or from the Veeblezebie mailing list, or from Melvin Cowznofski.  I also subscribe to the blues-guitar and skeet-shooter lists, but these have nothing to do with work, nor do any of my other frequent correspondents.

   (For the sake of simplicity, let's say all the lists are at Yahoo.  Slightly different filtering techniques may be needed for lists hosted elsewhere, like looking for words from a header, footer, or subject line preface.)

   So, I can set up filters as follows:
  • If something fits the search: veeblefetzers OR repair* OR furd OR potrzebie OR veebleworld OR backbelt.com OR veeblezebie OR from:cowznofski@example.com, then tag it with the label "Work".

  • If something fits the search: from:forums.veebleworld.com OR to:yahoogroups.com, then tag it with the label "list".
   Now suppose I am settling down to my workday, and want to read the highest priority stuff: work-related emails sent directly to me.  I can search on: in:inbox label:work -label:list.  After I'm done with that I can search on in:inbox label:work label:list to get my work lists.  When I get home, I can search on in:inbox -label:list -label:work and in:inbox label:list -label:work.  If I didn't have labels available, I could still achieve the same goal by combining the two searches.  Either way, I could make these searches easier by saving them as URLs; if you don't use the web to read your email, you could save them as canned text strings to paste into the search field.  GMail provides a Quick Links "lab" to make it even easier.

   Alternately, if I were reading my email via a desktop client program such as Thunderbird, I could set up filters to route the mail into folders based on the search results.

   If your raw searches are large enough to be cumbersome, there are also the plus sign trick, and, if you have your own domain, catchall addresses.  These are ways to create unique addresses on the fly.  (If your email host honors the plus-sign standard, as Google does, append a plus sign and any other words you want, to the username part of your GMail address, and it will still get to you.  So, if you're joeshmoe@example.com, and example.com honors this trick, email to joeshmoe+whatever@example.com will also get to you.)  You can use these generated addresses to subscribe to lists that don't have some visible trace you can search on, or to separate out work lists, or even separate lists into ones for ads, announcements, discussions, or even particular topics.  I would sign up for the non-work lists as joeshmoe+lists@example.com, the work lists as joeshmoe+work+lists@example.com, any other work-related sites as joeshmoe+work@example.com, and everything else as joeshmoe@example.com.  Then, I could just search for "work" and "lists" as words in the To line rather than labels on the message.

   (Or you can look for plus-signed tags in order to apply labels.  You can combine all these tricks however you like.)

   In summary:
  • Define searches that pick out segments of your email.
  • Apply these searches in applicable combinations.
  • Save the combinations in some convenient way.
  • Attack your email pile by prioritized chunks!
  • Having accomplished your mission, leave the email castle, fading silently into the night.

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