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Tune Up Your E-Mail Workflow: The First of Four Articles

February 4, 2011

How do you deal with e-mail? Everybody’s got an answer. And nobody’s satisfied with it. Like making the perfect martini, finding the perfect e-mail management strategy is a lifelong pursuit. The truth is, there’s no secret solution to e-mail workflows. Much of it comes down to personal preference. Some people like to work out of their Inbox, using e-mail as a message storage and retrieval system. Others want as little in their e-mail client as possible, constantly processing messages out of mail and into some other sort of file system.

E-mail researchers (yes, there are such people) have tracked the ways in which people interact with e-mail. They’ve observed, interviewed, run experiments and generated a mountain of conclusions in the process. As part of the Postbox design process, the Postbox team dug through this research (and we even met with some of the researchers) and outlined three basic e-mail user types. Over the course of the next few weeks, we’ll be covering each of these e-mail styles and suggesting workflow improvements designed specifically for each style. For now, we’ll describe the three main groups that e-mail users fall into. Which one are you?

1. The Inbox Archivists
Inbox Archivists work out of their Inbox. They see no reason to clean it out. After all, if everything’s in the Inbox, you know exactly where everything is. Finding an old e-mail is as easy as searching, sorting and filtering. It’s a great system if your e-mail client is up to the task. If your client’s search capabilities are limited or slow, it could take forever to find the right message, let alone that one attachment you’re pretty sure somebody (you can’t remember who) sent you six months ago. Or was it more like 18 months?

2. The File-As-You-Goer
File-As-You-Goers are the opposite of Inbox Archivists. The File-As-You-Goer doesn’t trust his e-mail client. He’s been burned too many times by failed attempts to find something he knows is somewhere in his e-mail store. The file-as-you-go solution is to let nothing linger. Actionable e-mails get dealt with ASAP. Anything with a longer life cycle gets ported to a to-do list or saved for reference (in a mail folder or outside the mail client). This system is similar to the “Inbox zero” philosophy of Merlin Mann and shares some of David Allen’s Getting Things Done productivity method. Done right, it can keep you on top of your game. But it requires a lot of discipline and is probably more a reaction to the limitations of e-mail clients than it is a holistic solution to dealing with e-mail.

3. Spring Cleaners
Somewhere in the middle live the Spring Cleaners. Less disciplined than the File-As-You-Goers but not entirely comfortable with an overloaded Inbox, they let things pile up, dealing with some messages quickly and leaving others for later. Messages pile up until an overwhelming feeling of disorganization triggers a clean-up. The backlog of old messages is processed, filed or discarded and the mail store is brought back to a more manageable and less ominous level. Then the cycle starts all over again.

None of these systems are bad ones. Each has its pros and cons. Each one, though, places different demands on the user’s e-mail applications. And each one, like every other system, has room for improvement. Next week, we’ll look at the Inbox Archivist system in more detail and share some tricks for making that system work to its full potential.

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