Discussion: What’s your email workflow?

For someone that dreams about, debugs and discusses email all day, I'm a total dunce when it comes to keeping my inbox tidy.

Postbox in action (click to enlarge) As it turns out, I'm not the only one - it seems like pretty much has a problem with their inbox workflow. As a result, a slew of email clients and services have turned up on the scene in an effort to better integrate email with our day-to-day work. For example, .Mail promises to help prioritize 'action items' and handle attachments, while cool customers Postbox are focused on conversation management (pictured), clever searching and integrating with social media. Then there's Facebook Messages which suggested that we free ourselves of email as we know it by converging all messages in one place.

The issue is, how each of us deals with email is as unique as the clients above. Personally, I use my inbox (Apple Mail, if you're curious) as a running 'to-do' list, with each email representing a task to tick off the list. Only after something is done, is it deleted or filed. While everyone gets a reply within a day, emails relating to a future event are often kept like a post-it note on the fridge, until said event happens.

In comparison, Harvard Business Review suggests a more disciplined approach, with scheduled 'email sessions' throughout the day. Each session consists of 5 steps, in which email is dealt with and the inbox is left empty every time. It's not that different from the famous 'Inbox Zero' approach which made the moniker famous.

Now, it's over to you. What's your email workflow? Do you have a tip for avoiding inbox bloat? Let us know in the comments below.

Posted by Ros Hodgekiss

5 Comments

  • Mathias Maul
    22nd August

    Inbox-Zeroer here. I use the GMail web interface exclusively. There is one label for each day of the week, plus one label “waiting-for,” see this screenshot: http://cl.ly/IPXU

    I check e-mail twice daily … not. Well, on busy days it works, but on most days I check the Inbox about four or five times. When a new e-mail arrives, I assign it a day label and move it out of the inbox. (Each e-mail can only have one day label.) That way I see messages I have to deal with only on the day they’re assigned to.

    If an email contains a single task but doesn’t need to be dealt with otherwise (i. e. doesn’t need to be replied to), the task goes into the relevant task thingy (OmniFocus for private tasks and internal business tasks, Pivotal Tracker for ongoing dev projects, Basecamp for external client projects). This helps keeping the inbox empty at all times.

    When I send out an e-mail and expect a reply, I add the “waiting-for” label. For example, when I send you an e-mail asking about a recipe for, say, waffles, on Monday but know that I won’t need it until the next week-end, I’ll tag it with waiting-for and Friday (which will be the day when I’d need to check back with you at the latest).

    Have been using this for about a year now (or two?) and it works like a charm. I think that Inbox Zero is much more hard to achieve if you make it sound hard, it’s actually quite easy: If something comes in, first find a place, then put it there. :)

  • Chris G
    23rd August

    I used to keep everything, thinking of how great it would be to be able to refer back to it when I needed or to have that information ready at some mystical future date.

    Now, my inbox is empty, except for the few things that are awaiting an action (response, materials, etc.).

    The first time I view an email, I decide 1. Can I respond quickly and be done 2. If not, is this something that can be done today 3. if not, it’s moved to an appropriate folder, and I make a note on a notepad I’ve kept for years and add it to a growing to do list. Anything else is deleted or archived.

    I try to never look at an email more than twice. Once to decide what to do with it, and the second time to make that decision. Anything more and it just seems to waste time.

  • Ted Goas
    6th September

    I don’t keep my inbox at absolute zero, but I come pretty close. I usually have about 10 messages in my inbox serving as a short to-do list. I rarely have any unread messages.

    When I fire up my email, I address new messages and move redundant / superfluous ones to the trash (I can always get an email from the trash on the outside chance I need it after all).

    I am careful about what I sign up for, so the marketing emails and app notifications are kept to a minimum. Outside of a few custom tweaks to my spam filter, I have no rules that auto-redirect messages. Everything comes to my inbox.

    This system (if you can call it that) has served me well for years. It even proved successful while I worked in a Fortune 500 company whose employees used ‘Reply All’ as a project management tool and I got 100+ emails a day.

    I think what .Mail and other apps are doing is great, but as long as I stay disciplined, any email client will do.

  • Milton Gan
    6th September

    I’ve done a complete about-turn!

    When I was working in advertising my inbox always had around 2,000 emails despite implementing rules and dozens of folders. I’m a really tidy person but the prospect of ever clearing my inbox was mission impossible.

    However it was completely different story at home where I run my wedding photography business from. My inbox is always empty and I am fanatical about keeping it that way. Client emails are responded to asap and then filed, and to avoid distractions everything else is automatically diverted into folders using rules and read at set times of the day i.e. when it’s convenient for me.

    And somewhat ironically, I consciously increase my workload by subscribing to a lot of email newsletters. Must be something to do with starting my own using CM! :P

  • Ben Duncan
    6th September

    It’s nice to see discussions lately about the future of email, as much as some companies have been promoting the death of email, we are far from it!

    Here at Atmail we have been working on some interfaces for the future of email - We see a massive transition at the moment from people fed up with their Inbox, overloaded with mail, and struggling with the information overflow!

    It’s great to see more email startups in this space.

    For all those interested, http://inboxlove2012.eventbrite.com/ Oct 24th in Mountain View, is a great email conference from leading startups defining the new inbox. See you there? :)

    ^^

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