|"Preferred chat system" from xkcd.com. Click through to see the whole comic.|
How do you use it?
- Lots or less? 100 messages a day takes different tools than 10.
- Who sends it to you? Mostly the same people, or lots of different people?
- What kinds of email? Is it a discussion, general information, part of planning a project?
- What do you need to do with it? Emails you need to do something for (tasks) are different than those sent as a quick informational reminder.
- What do you need later? Gmail has great search options, but if you look at particular messages (from a specific person, about a project) you might want a way to find them quickly.
- How critical is email to your work? In some jobs, having email up all the time is important - it's how you get information about what's needed. In others (being a student, teaching), you might find scheduled checks work better for you.
Approaches:Managing email - like a lot of technology questions - is one part choosing how you want to handle it, and one part picking the right tools.
Scheduled checks: If you feel like you never get anything done because you're always answering email, try checking it 3 or 4 set times each day. Reply to anything you need to, create tasks if you need to, and then close your email until the next scheduled time. Some people find they're much more productive if they don't check email first thing in the morning, but wait until they've already done another task or two first. (This doesn't work with my job, but it might with yours.)
Inbox Zero: In 2006, Merlin Mann explained his method of dealing with email overload, Inbox Zero. (His posts about it, and an hour long video talk about it can be found on his website.) In this method, you clear out your email each time you review it, create tasks (in a task management program - see upcoming Things for more) for each task related item, and then archive the email. This makes it much easier to see exactly what you need to deal with.
Filtering: As an approach (how to use them is below), you may find it easier to keep track of email if you filter some of them into separate folders. For example, I filter business offers, and only check them when I'm planning to buy something, and I create filters for searches or groupings of email I want to find often.
Tools:Keyboard controls: From your email inbox, type a ? to bring up the keyboard controls. These let you sort through email very quickly. I use k (advance to the next message), e (archive) and # (delete) all the time, but there are plenty of others.
Filters automatically sort your email into folders or labels based on how you set them up. You can filter based on an email address, a word in the subject line (like an email list name), a word in the contents, whether something has an attachment, and much more. You can create them by trying a test search, then creating a filter when you get it right, and you manage filters from the settings menu.
Labs has some additional features you can add to your email - you can turn them on by going to the settings icon (the gear), then to settings, then clicking on 'Labs'. I use Auto-advance, canned responses, quick links, and right-side chat. (Quick links is a great way to find specific email threads you refer to all the time.) Note that many of these are experimental and may change or disappear over time.
Extensions and apps: There are tons of extensions and apps to help you manage your email - way too many to go into here, though some of the resources below mention them.
Other needs - also too many to go into here, but we'll be talking about phishing and email security in a future Thing, and also about how to track tasks and to-do items.
Further reading:(Some of these posts are several years old, and the specific instructions or features may have changed - you can still use them for inspiration or ideas.)
- A post from Academic PKM has a great overview of some different methods and additional reading, including links to people's personal set-ups and details.
- ProfHacker has a number of posts about email - check their tags for inbox zero, hack your inbox, email, and e-mail.
- 50 tips to turn Gmail into a productivity machine highlights a bunch of tools.
- Lifehacker has a guide to getting the most out of Gmail.
- Alexandra Samuel has a guide to getting to Inbox Zero in 7 days - she includes some great sample filter searches and ideas.
- I've talked a bit about my personal email management on my own blog, for another example.
Give it a try:1) Read some of the linked reading, and pick at least one new tip to learn. (Try a keyboard command: they're quick and easy to learn.) If it works for you, try another one next week.
2) Keep an eye on your email for a week or two. Are there automated emails you never read and could unsubscribe from? The easiest way to keep on top of your email is to reduce the number you get.
3) Pay attention to the places you find email most frustrating. Try some of the tips above, and if that doesn't work, leave a comment here, and we can help you with some other resources.
4) Have you tried getting to Inbox Zero? Does it work for you? Tell us how you did it or why it helps.