Illustration: New York Times/Jacqui Oakley
Email is the worst. Between alerts from Facebook, newsletters from Groupon, reply-all email chains, work brainstorming sessions and social co-ordinating, the inbox becomes a daunting pit of quicksand. At a certain point, even the most dogged among us give up.
I certainly did. I began avoiding my inbox, figuring that any important messages would be re-sent until I noticed them, or delivered by a more efficient route, such as a text message or, in the case of something grave or urgent, a call. But obviously that doesn't work. I missed crucial notes from colleagues and an offer of free tickets to see the Brooklyn Nets take on the Chicago Bulls.
Enough was enough. I combed through tech help sites, polled friends and tried to figure out how to make my life more efficient and productive.
There is no quick fix, but set aside a few hours one afternoon, brew a pot of coffee, get a tasty snack, put on your favourite playlist and roll up your sleeves. It's time to tame your inbox.
You don't need to get an email every time someone messages you on Facebook, follows you on Twitter or endorses you on LinkedIn. Go into the settings on these services and turn off email notifications. Then do the same for the daily emails from various news sites, coupon companies, travel deals and concert halls. You're never going to sign up for that tarot reading class, no matter how cheap the offer is on Groupon, and if you do decide you want it, you can Google around and find a bargain.
Filters are your friend
For recurring emails to which you can't unsubscribe – like the ones from annoying relatives – consider setting up filters for them. Regardless of which email client you use, you should be able to set up filters to capture all the emails from one source and file them in a tidy folder until you are ready to deal with them or delete them in one satisfying swoop.
This is ideal for regular, non-urgent, recurring emails from a person or company you don't need to deal with immediately but don't want to delete until you've had time to check. For example, you could funnel all messages from your child's teacher or messages related to a coming group trip into separate folders. The downside of filtering is that it's easy to create too many folders and forget to check them.
The latest version of Apple's mail client has a nifty new feature that lets you designate certain people as VIPs. When messages from those senders arrive, they are flagged so you notice them right away. It's ideal for bosses, significant others, children and best friends.
If you use iCloud, it will automatically update your contact list on your other Apple devices, such as the iPhone and iPad. The VIP feature is ideal for iPhone users because it will deliver a notification to your home screen so you don't miss an important email while you're on the move.
Get in and out
A friend and former Twitter employee told me his rule of thumb for dealing with lots of email: Reply quickly, archive freely. Check email a few times a day, instead of constantly, to avoid getting caught in a whirlpool.
Chuck email altogether
Sometimes, when email is too overwhelming, try corresponding with your friends and colleagues directly via instant message, direct message on Twitter or text message. The format demands brevity and succinctness and is a godsend during busy times.
Now that you have the basics under control, seek out some friendly bots to help manage your messages. There are plenty of programs, either free or cheap, that can sift through your incoming mail.
Sanebox: Sanebox performs triage on your messages as they arrive. It tries to determine which you will want to read immediately and which can wait – and it does a decent job. One criticism is the service occasionally sends you emails (more email!), asking you to skim through some of what has it trapped in its filter, to help sharpen its algorithms about what is and isn't essential. As a treat, however, the app estimates how much time it saves you on an average day.
Mailstrom: This tool tries to help you analyse and make sense of your inbox. The biggest sender of emails, not surprisingly, was my editor. The second biggest? Myself. Google Alerts, set up for certain companies and news, were also cluttering my inbox. The best thing about Mailstrom is it has a dashboard that lets you quickly delete huge swaths of messages from a single sender or company. You can skim emails by content – such as social or shopping – or time period, so you can go through all emails from four years ago and delete them quickly and, if you choose, in one big chunk. One evening I gleefully eliminated about 500 emails from Yelp, Twitter, Instagram and Kickstarter in a series of satisfying clicks.
Mailbox: The shiny new kid on the block for email apps, Mailbox is ideal for people with lower volume who use their email accounts as to-do lists and get a kick out of clearing out their entire inboxes. Mailbox, which is free, has a nifty snooze feature that pushes an email out of your inbox until later, when you are ready to deal with it.
Inbox Pause: This ingenious tool adds a giant "pause" button to your Gmail inbox. One click stops all incoming emails until you click it again. It's a godsend for those times when you need to cut out all distractions.
Retrain yourself and others
Part of the problem with email is that our etiquette on how we use it is flawed. We send notes when a simple text or call would do and bug our friends until we hear from them. Courteous.ly is a free app that determines your level of email traffic. It then provides you with a link you can share or put into your email signature that will let contacts know whether your current load is high, regular or low.
Does it work? After installing, the service told me that my inbox, at 40,000 unread messages, was "normal", so I never used it again. I suspect, however, that its ultimate goal is to condition us to be more considerate about when we send emails.
When in doubt, get out
One kindly reader wrote to tell me that my problems with email could easily be solved by simply getting up from my sad, soulless, windowless cubicle and actually talking to the colleagues who've emailed me. He said I would "get the satisfaction of personal contact which is much less alienating than mashing the keyboard".
New York Times