Monday, June 29, 2009

Reduce your email clutter - how to catch up and conquer your inbox!

The below post had been sleeping in my draft folder for half a year. On reading this draft post, I realized how much it would be useful for folks who really need a hold over their emails. Enjoy reading this post. And ahh.. I am not posting about Moblin and ChromeOS as promised.. sorry :)

By the way, I am not a productivity guru. All thoughts expressed below are from my quest to conquer my email client. I hope this will be useful for you too!.

First of all, email overload may not be a problem for everyone. But if it is problem managing your inbox and unread mails, then this post, I hope, should bring you some hope and relief.

If you are what I was many months back, then you must be opening your email inbox everyday with a heavy heart and with doubts on whether you would be able to finish reading all your emails today and with even more doubts on your ability to reduce the number of 2000+ or even more unread mails (staring at you in bold numbers next to the inbox icon).

While you open the inbox with the above mentioned doubts, a separate thread of thought appears to race in your mind on whether there are any important mails from the past that you might have missed reading. Even for the ones you had time to read partially, you must have flagged them for later reading and action. Your mind is worried about clearing those read mails but flagged in hundreds.

What a mess it is.. with your mind already stressed by the thoughts of digital clutter and your inability to catch up with the email overload day after day.. everyday. Things could get worse if your mail client is an unfriendly one such as lotus notes (and/or) you are a manager with a huge team to manage (and/or) your job requires you to interact with many other cross-functional teams (and/or) your a news and information junkie (and/or) many more obvious and unobvious reasons unique to your situation.

Apart from guilt and unproductive use of time, another major problem with not clearing your inbox is that your mind creates this illusion of work overload and that you never have time to spend for yourself/your family/your projects/your colleagues/etc. The email clutter gives you an illusion that you always have a lot to do. But the fact is, at the end of day when you learn to manage your inbox, you will find that whats needed of you from your mails is manageable and that you could complete your work and still have time left to do things that you love. After all remember that email is an enabler at work and is not the sole purpose of why you go to work.

I was in the same state until I decided to take control of the situation rather than going with a day to day flow of work and worrying thoughts in the background about your email clutter and your inability to catch up.

Today I have a clear inbox at the end of day. I am not stressed by the digital clutter. I am able to reply to mails that are important and that need my immediate attention. I am able to spend more time on things that matter, after I have started saving time because of my ability to finish clearing my inbox sooner (time saved is time produced :)). Of course, I am still in a learning phase where I keep trying out new techniques and trying to master the ones that work for me. Refining my skills to manage digital clutter is an ongoing process for me, but a very interesting and fun-filled experience/experiment at the same time.

So here is a list of recommendations that have worked for me and I hope the same should help you rule your mail (phrase that I came up with ;)) and maintain an empty inbox.

Be responsible - Choose to have it or leave it: Choosing to not have a mail id may not be a option for most of us. But, if you choose to have a personal email id and if you are not able to manage the inflow of mails, then decide for yourself if you wish to continue having this email account.

But if you do need to keep your email account, then you also need to take up a personal responsibility to give the care and attention it deserves. You need to make a personal commitment to yourself on not abusing this email account by either spamming others and not abusing yourself by allowing unwanted emails (which you may never read) to keep accumulating day after day.

Make a resolution to make the best use of this modern day tool and use it to your advantage to enable you in you day to day life.

Consolidate your email accounts: Again, it is best for you to consolidate your multiple email accounts - personal and official - into just three email accounts, one of your personal work, the second for your official usage (which most of us should get from the companies we work for) and finally a personal "subscription" email account (will talk about the third one very soon). Remember, your email id is your personal and unique trademark and it is best for you to have just one for your personal use.

And the reason why I recommend having a personal and official one is for obvious reasons. You don't want your personal emails from cluttering your official inbox and prevent you from focusing on what's important at work. There are exceptions to this where you may still want to forward some really important ones from your personal email account to your official email account. Will talk about it below.

Reduce your information inflow: This is one of the first and most important steps you may want to do, before you start decluttering your email inbox.

First of all, go ahead and unsubscribe yourself from all these sites where you have registered your email id to get updates on products and their promos. You may find it hard to do this step because of your fear of losing out on important information. But if you haven't been reading mails from these subscriptions for more than 3 weeks, it is highly unlikely that you will ever read them too (except for once in a while when you see some eye-catchy subject in it).

Don't get disheartened about losing out on information. That's where the third email account - the subscription email account - comes in handy. Go ahead and subscribe yourself again using your third email account (if that's absolutely required, else I still wouldn't recommend subscribing to it if I won't read the mails for more than 3 weeks).

For those of you who cannot/do not want to have a third subscription email account and do not want to unsubscribe from this newsletter, try this simple trick. Create an email rule which marks these subscription mails/newsletters to mark then as unread and then move to a different folder dedicated for this newsletter. For those having Gmail account, you will do the following - mark these emails as read, label them appropriately and then archive it.

Some other ways of reducing information flow is by disabling email notifications from your social networking sites like facebook, linkedin, orkut, twitter, etc. They do add to a lot of email clutter. When you do visit these sites on a daily basis and if you haven't been reading these email notifications, then why have them enabled in the first place!

One other way of reducing information flow (this applies more so for your official email account) is by removing yourself from mailing list/groups. Again, apply the same rule.. if you haven't been reading these mails for more than a week, then you probably do not need to be a part of this group. So go ahead and remove yourself from such groups. As I said before, you still can choose be a part of these groups, but just add your subscription email id to these groups that you feel you need to be part of, no matter what. When it comes to your official email account, the only option left for you, in case you still want to be a part of these mailing lists/groups which you never read mails, is for your to setup rules to move them appropriately to relevant folders. I will talk about rules in a short while.

Last but not the least, be responsible and make sure you do not send out unnecessary emails to bigger groups. Basically, limit your email communication as much as you can (to the most important mails).

Declutter (Cleanup): The best way to clear your inbox is by sender's name and then deleting all those subscription emails/newsletters, email notifications from social networking sites and the mailing lists/groups. This should bring down the size of your inbox by many folds.

The above step will ensure that you do not push all the unwanted emails from getting archived and thereby preventing your archives from getting cluttered.

The next step, once you have cleared your obvious clutter in the inbox, is to archive your inbox to move all your mails older than 2-3 months old into the achieve folder. The achieve file varies depending on the email client. If its Gmail, then you just archive your conversations. If its your Lotus Notes or Outlook, then you move the files from the server to a local archive folder.

One tip here is to have separate archive files for every year.

Rule your mail: Do you really utilize the power of your email client to increase your email productivity. You are not being effective with handling mails if you are not using rules. Also,you are not being effective if you are not using rules in a smart way.

For me personally, this has been one big reason - using rules effectively - for taming my inbox clutter and being effective day in and day.

I was experimenting with rules for quite some time and then one day due to divine inspiration :) (actually its common sense) I struck upon the success formula for the perfect set of rules (these are perfect till I find anything more useful :)).

Important point here is to categorize mails into separate folders/categories while not moving them from the inbox. What!! categorizing into separate folders/categories without moving the mails into separate folders!!! You've heard it right.

Traditionally, rules have been associated with 'moving' mails into different folders. But believe me, that is the most ineffective way of managing mails and a bad way of using rules. In fact, you are better off maintaining all your mails in the inbox without using rules. Well, let me explain

Have you ever realized as to why we like Gmail a lot. Yes, its faster, it uses AJAX and has other new improvements such as keyboard shortcuts (my favorite). But I bet, deep inside your heart, you like it because it lets you categorize your mails using labels (and also using multiple labels). Labels let you categorize your mails while the mails are still in your inbox. You can also see them as separate folders by filtering it with a specific label name.

And I am saying, this is the same strategy that you should also use for any mail account - your office or personal; lotus notes or ms outlook.

Another reason for not moving your mails from your inbox is to let you easily sort your Inbox in a conversation view (which follows a particular mail thread). But if you have moved some mails of that conversation/mail thread to a different folder, then you really don't get the complete picture of the conversation.

For your personal mail account, you anyways achieve the categorization using labels, if you are using Gmail. If you are not using Gmail, I beg you to ditch your existing mail accounts and hop on to Gmail. Apart from labels, its has tons of other good features - keyboard shortcuts, chat integration, docs integration, skins/themes, to name a few.

So if you are already using Gmail, then setup rules for as many mails as possible. Try to label the mails you are using automatically using rules. While you can have specific labels such as "Google", "Citibank", etc. try to label your mails in a more generic way as well. I will talk more about setting up rules in a short while. Let me finish off how you can categorize your mails without moving them in separate folders in Lotus Notes and MS Outlook.

In Lotus Notes, I am not sure how many of you have discovered this, but instead of moving a mail to a specific folder, copying it to a specific folder acts just like labeling in Gmail!!! That's good news isn't it :). So say, I copy an unread mail into a folder. The mail is available in both my Inbox and the folder to which I've moved it. But the best part is, when I do any action on the mail, whether in Inbox or the folder - like reading it, marking it as read, flagging it, or deleting it, the action also reflects in both Inbox and the folder to which you've copied this mail.

Now again, trust me, will explain to you how this feature is helpful, in a short while.

In MS Outlook, I guess, the only way you can achieve categorization (without moving mails to specific folders) is by upgrading to MS Outlook 2007. But if you are already using MS Outlook 2007, then you are in luck.

So in MS Outlook 2007, the categorization feature is called Categories :). They are also called as color categories. This is same as the labeling that you do in Gmail. So needless to say, its very easy and efficient way of categorizing your mails using multiple categories. More than me explaining to you about categories, you can read this article here to know how categories work in MS Outlook 2007.

At this point, I am not aware of how other mail clients or online mail accounts support categorization or labeling (for example, in Mozilla Thunderbird or Yahoo Mail), so I going to stop about categorization here.

Categorization or labeling is just the first of the two requirements towards effectively managing your mails. You have to know "HOW" to categorize/label/filter your mails in order to be effective. So let me explain the "How" of it.

The way you categorize/label your mails is as follows.
  1. Important Mails: Mails from bosses or other important people (not more than 5-6 people), else this category/label gets cluttered easily.
  2. Meeting Invitations: More applicable for your office mail account. You many want to quickly review and accept the meeting invites.
  3. Mails requesting your approvals: Again, more applicable for your office mail account.
  4. Mails in which I am marked in 'TO'
  5. Mails in which I am marked in 'CC'
  6. Mails in which I am marked in 'CC' explicitly, but also a mailing group has been copied in 'TO' or 'CC'
  7. Mails in which I am neither marked in 'TO' or 'CC', but indirectly copied as a part of a mailing group
  8. Least Important Mails: Mails from groups or communities that you have subscribed yourself to. If you have any of these mails, then I recommend subscribing them on your subscription mail account, but you cannot avoid if you have access only to your Office mail account.
In the above rules, you can combine rules 6. and 7. if you want to.

So setup your rules in Gmail, Lotus Notes or Outlook 2007 to categorize the mails you receive in the above way. The 'How to setup rules' in your mail client demands a separate blog post in itself. I am not covering that here and i am assuming that you will be setting up your mail rules to categorize the mails into the above 7 or 8 categories.

By the way, after setting up the rules, you will notice that there are still a very small percentage of mails that don't fall into any of the above categories. That doesn't mean that your rules are not perfect.

Trust me, the ones that don't get categorized into any of the above are usually not that important mails and you can keep them for reading at the last.

Process your filtered mails: The job is only half done by segregating the mails into the above categories.

As I had mentioned earlier, the really important mails that demand your attention is far less that you could imagine (but if that's not the case, then you need a serious lesson in unplugging yourself and prioritizing your work and personal life. No amount of mail management will prove helpful). So everything else in your inbox is a form of digital clutter which just sucks energy out of you by making you take some action on it. In the process of cleaning up the digital clutter, you get so tired that you lose interest and energy in replying to the mails that matter the most. More importantly, clearing your inbox becomes more of a dread.

Now coming back to processing the mails that are categorized like above, you can right away start with the most "Important Mails" and "Mails in which I am marked in 'TO'". This is what matters the most.

For me, personally though, the count of unread mails sitting next to the Inbox icon/folder and staring at me is what causes lot of distraction. So I always start from the bottom - "Least Important Mails".

I quickly mark these mails as read using keyboard shortcuts after glancing through the preview window. The advantage of this is that, you quickly process all the unwanted mails and thus leaving your mails with only the important ones. I don't worry about not having missed anything else.

Trust me.. try the above way of categorizing your mails and processing them and I promise you that you will have a zero inbox and you would have not missed/procrastinated on important mails.

This has worked for me for close to a year now and I am able to maintain my inbox with zero unread mails. This has been a great boost for my workplace productivity and enhanced the way I work.

Don't procrastinate: And more importantly, any amount of rules will not help you if you are going to procrastinate responding to mails. Again, procrastination is a topic in itself. But please make sure you respond to mails as soon as you can. Be aware of your procrastination patterns.

If you think you have been procrastinating replying/responding to mail for quite some time, then it means that there is a bigger problem that needs to be addressed. Your fear and reason for procrastination has to be addressed first.

Limit unnecessary communication, Use IM or Phone: This is the last bit of advice i have for you. The more you limit your email communication, the better you would be able to achieve what you wanted from that communication.

A simple Instant Messaging ping or a phone call will do the job. But again, sometimes you may still want to mail someone for accountability and documentation reasons, which is fine. But don't over stretch your conversation in the mails.

I hope, the lessons I've learnt from my own experimentation to be more productive in managing my mails will help you. Let me know your thoughts.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Getting back to blogging!

I am trying to get back to my blogging. Has been a long time since i have updated my blog. Especially after my recent travel to US, I never had a chance to update anything here.

And I can understand why folks are finding it hard to blog and are moving to other forms of expressions such as facebook and twitter.. its quick and easy and on the fly (doing it from any where). I myself have been at least updating my facebook status weekly. But never had the motivation to come down here and post anything lengthy.

But again I miss this blogging lengthier posts... and i guess i still love blogging as compared to facebook, orkut and twitter :).