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How to lighten the crush of email

Date

Jenna Wortham

Zoom in on this story. Explore all there is to know.

<em>Illustration: New York Times/Jacqui Oakley</em>

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.

Eliminate clutter

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.

VIP status

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.

Outside help

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

10 comments

  • Have been a sanebox user for a few months now, and completely live by it. Intuitive and really useful how it sorts my mail. Inbox is now empty at the end of each day.
    Also recommend Seth Godin's latest blog... He/she who controls your inbox controls your life. paraphrasing I am afraid, but I find myself responding to emails, commencing tasks, etc at someone else's agenda when I let my inbox control my life... Forcing yourself to only go to email at certain times is the key, but gee it's difficult to be so pure...

    Commenter
    Myoung15
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    April 15, 2013, 7:32AM
    • I find that which ever email application is used, time sent exploring it's tutorials and features repays exponentially, The better you know the features, the better you can use existing tools to minimize required daily effort. It can be surprising to find many tools you did not realize you have.

      Cheers
      Piggsie
      .

      Commenter
      Piggs Mayfly
      Location
      Wingham, NSW
      Date and time
      April 15, 2013, 1:38PM
  • Training your Spam filter so more junk gets filtered out helps stopping the in-box getting cluttered. Also not sending email which is not really needed will reduce the number of replies you get. More in my "How to Read and Write E-mail Messages": http://www.tomw.net.au/nt/intrnt.html

    Commenter
    Tom Worthington
    Location
    Canberra
    Date and time
    April 15, 2013, 8:05AM
    • When I know there's nothing important happening, I largely ignore it.Not everyone has that luxury. I have also decided that with friends, i will send a real card as electronic doesnt feel real enough and is devalued amidst all this clutter.

      Commenter
      Noseur
      Location
      Brisbane
      Date and time
      April 15, 2013, 9:07AM
      • Simple. I use gmail. Anything I want to deal with later gets a star. Junk email goes straight to the trash can. Once I have responded to an email it then goes into archive or trash, depending on what is appropriate. This can be done on a daily basis and the starred emails can be replied to at my convenience.

        Commenter
        wotnext
        Date and time
        April 15, 2013, 10:10AM
        • Common sense wins again.

          I can not believe Jenna Wortham is a technology reporter for the NY Times and her first response to her spam filled inbox was to ignore it and hope it sorts itself out? wow...any person with half a brain would probably go straight to the source of those daily facebook or groupon emails and figure out how to disable them, as was detailed in the article. Also a lot of people are now connected to their email through their smartphone so they get emails as they come through, it is just a case of glancing at the email and deleting it straight away as it comes through if it is something you done want.

          It really is not that hard.

          Commenter
          Josh
          Date and time
          April 15, 2013, 12:48PM
          • I get about half-a-dozen emails a day, hardly a problem. The trick is to have a throw-away email address you use where you need to sign up for stuff, like Facebook or smh.com.au. Then you sign in once every couple of months and delete everything.

            Commenter
            MotorMouth
            Location
            Sydney
            Date and time
            April 15, 2013, 2:13PM
            • So... you make a weird comment about courteous.ly. It specifically isn't designed to do what you asked it to do, so I'm not sure why you immediately stopped using it and declared it a failure.

              Here's the explanation from the website:

              "It's relative to you. If you normally have 40,000 unread messages in your inbox, what's 50 more? But if you usually have nothing in your inbox, then 50 unread messages is a big deal. courteous.ly keeps a log of how many messages it sees to get a feel for what's normal for you."

              Commenter
              Frances
              Date and time
              April 15, 2013, 5:32PM
              • In the UK, CIO's and Technology Leaders are turning away from email "email is dead for me" ~ says one UK CTO - the trend towards communicating and gathering useful information is moving to mobile, apps, video and curated content - http://www.spark33.co.uk/research.html here is a Research paper by the UK's leading Mobile Consultants Spark33 who interviewed 20 UK leaders in Tech asking how they like to communicate in 2013.

                Commenter
                spark33
                Date and time
                April 15, 2013, 9:25PM
                • In the UK, CIO's and Technology Leaders are turning away from email "email is dead for me" ~ says one UK CTO - the trend towards communicating and gathering useful information is moving to mobile, apps, video and curated content - http://www.spark33.co.uk/research.html here is a Research paper by the UK's leading Mobile Consultants Spark33 who interviewed 20 UK leaders in Tech asking how they like to communicate in 2013.

                  Commenter
                  spark33
                  Date and time
                  April 15, 2013, 9:27PM
                  Comments are now closed
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