The Way I Work With Emails

In my series of posts about the way I work, the topic of emails is one that likely receives the most updates and the most disagreement. Like any productivity system, if you place 5 people into a room and ask them about how they work on projects and tasks, you'll receive 5 different answers. With emails and the same 5 people, you'll likely receive 10 different responses. There's something about emails. It's an industry that witnesses a new player every three weeks with a newly released application. And they advertise themselves as the new way to deal with emails. Although a lot companies and teams are migrating to Slack these days, emails are not going away anytime soon. So it makes sense for you to get on board with a system that suits you.

This series is purely meant as a platform for me to highlight and portray the way I work with different areas of productivity. As you can imagine, email productivity is an area I have put a lot of effort into and is what has a big impact on my projects and tasks.

Grab a cup of coffee. There's no way for this to be a short post. While setting up this site 3 weeks ago, this topic has been something I've worked on everyday.

Accounts

Before getting into how I manage the ever-flowing email problem, let's look at the accounts I use. I have 4 email addresses that I use on a daily basis, starting with a gmail account that's been active for 7 years. All of my subscriptions are there, including access to beta testing of applications (something I do frequently), banking information and anything else I have ever signed up to. The second is an iCloud account which just gives me notifications like signing out of and disabling Find My Phone, so it's not active very much. The third is my application development company: Appsolute Pixels which falls under a Google Apps for Business account. This is the email I use for feedback from within my apps and when you contact me through this site. Finally, I have my corporate account which is powered by Office 365, representing my full-time 9-5 job.

Getting to the bottom of my email problem required a number of well-planned steps. Similar to the physical clutter in our lives, I have been building email clutter over a number of years and it took a well planned effort to overcome the digital clutter. Here is an overview of my workflow:

  1. Separate Inboxes
  2. Unsubscribe
  3. Delete Old Emails
  4. Filter Incoming Emails
  5. Unified Inbox, Zero & Unified, Inbox Zero
  6. Practising Inbox Zero
  7. The Perfect Application(s)

It took me weeks to get to a stage of email management and it's a step I took two years ago. My old approach for my corporate account involved a heavy use of sub folders, for each project, client, year and reference point. I did the same with my personal account as well with sub folders for every different service and company receipt. It just became a nightmare to actually manage this.

1. Separate Inboxes

I have four accounts that I wanted to manage. In order to begin even thinking about managing my emails, I had to filter out the accounts, making sure to access them individually and separately. Most applications offer the unified inbox approach, but I made an active choice to not use this at the start. I wanted to tame each mailbox individually. If I decided to tackle each mailbox together, I may not have made it much further because each account had its own magnitude of emails. Some accounts will have more than others and I wanted different results for each account.

2. Unsubscribe

I started off with my personal account which happened to be the most bloated. I signed up to unroll.me to begin the journey of cleaning up my mailbox. This was an extremely helpful tool for me along the way.

Unroll.me is a service for filtering out your emails, allowing you to quickly unsubscribe to an email or to keep what you require. I firstly moved every single email from the sub folders back to the inbox and deleted those sub folders, or labels as they're called in Gmail. Through the browser (though there is a newly released app available too to help triage in a quicker fashion), I could quickly go through every subscription that I had signed up to, deciding on which subscriptions to keep or which to get rid off. I ended up removing 44 subscriptions and only keeping 4. I removed subscriptions from applications that I was interested in because I receive information about the updates through Twitter and RSS feeds. I don't need an extra email with the same information. I removed subscriptions from apps I was no longer interested in and promotional offers from restaurants or sites with daily deals.

This service was only going to be useful for my personal account. I am not subscribed to anything on the other accounts I use (business, iCloud and corporate). A solution to an overflowing email problem is like any other solution; get to the root of the problem. It's not going to be useful achieving a solution to the email problem by moving emails to a sub folder and having your inbox fill up with 200 emails again, the next day.

3. Delete Old Emails

Having an extensive list of unsubscribed newsletters available within my login to the Unroll.me website helped me with the next step. It was very quick to search through my inbox for emails from the same company and delete them straight away. At the end of this exercise alone, I was left with a very light inbox of a few hundred emails instead of a few thousand. For the remaining emails, I archived what I still required. The last time it felt this way was probably 3 months after opening this account, 7 years ago.

4. Filter Incoming Emails

If you've followed the steps so far, you'll see that at this point, I was down to a smaller inbox, keeping only the subscriptions I required. I made my way to the root of the problem, but what about the new incoming emails?

For my personal account, the second service I signed up to was SaneBox. This service comes with the idea of helping filter your emails to different channels to keep you, well, Sane, before it even reaches your inbox. When you activate your SaneBox subscription (which does come with a free trial), you will see a @SaneLater sub folder in your mailbox. This is the default implementation. The idea of SaneBox is to help you focus on what's important. I understand a lot of tools promise that same pot of gold, but I am talking from experience when I say SaneBox actually does that. Rather than every incoming email making its way to your inbox, with SaneBox activated, the emails will come to a @SaneLater sub folder. The real power of SaneBox comes when you use some of the other default folders, including @SaneNews, @SaneBulk and @SaneBlackHole.

The @ symbol allows these sub folders to be at the top of your list of sub folders. The algorithm is fast and clever to learn from your emails. For example, the newsletters you are subscribed to will go to the @SaneNews folder and receipts will go to the @SaneBulk folder. Any other email will go to the @SaneLater folder. Finally, you can quickly unsubscribe from an email by moving it to the @SaneBlackHole folder. The learning mechanism is the true gem behind SaneBox. If a newsletter makes its way to the SaneLater folder accidentally, simply move that to the SaneNews folder and that won't happen again. In my time of using it, SaneBox only made about 3 mistakes which never occurred again once I sent the email to the right folder. For very important emails, you can have them sent to the Inbox instead of any of the @Sane folders.

With my personal account, I began experiencing Inbox Zero almost instantly and at the end of the day, I could just go through the @Sane folders using any application. I could read newsletters, process receipts and see any of the other emails that came through, quickly and efficiently.

I noticed however that keeping SaneBox around after 2 months wasn't a requirement anymore. For my personal account, I had amassed a very manageable system and didn't really require a process of checking 3 sub folders daily. After 2 months of using SaneBox, my incoming email count (including all of the Sane sub folders) was between 10 and 17 and that was very manageable. I could easily check that from the inbox. For this reason and because almost every email application opens in the inbox by default, it made sense to cancel my subscription to SaneBox after it had performed a majestic job of helping me manage emails for 2 months.

Just like with Unroll.me, I chose not to use the same service for any of the 3 other accounts. I receive only a few emails a week to my business and iCloud accounts and I need to read every incoming email to my corporate account.

Business and Corporate Accounts

Before continuing, I will take a little side note here and talk about my business and corporate email accounts. For a variety of reasons cited above, these accounts were not subscribed to either Unroll.me or SaneBox.

The frequency of the incoming emails to my @appsolutepixels account is about 2 per week which is extremely manageable. Perhaps that's a sign of things just not having kicked off, or people not needing as much support yet.

The corporate email system is a different ballgame. I couldn't subscribe to either Unroll.me or SaneBox because my company has a spam filter which does a great job before the email even hits my mailbox. Moreover, every email that comes through is likely to be important. In a day, I'll receive a variety of emails. For example, an email from a colleague asking for assistance or informing me of an upcoming consultancy; a customer asking for support; a partner asking for guidance with their customers; an internal bulletin with a new release or with information on a security vulnerability; a manager asking me to jump on a project; our QA team asking me to test a new build before its release; and/or our company developers asking for steps to reproduce a specific bug in the application. I cannot ignore any of these emails or have them filtered to other sub folders before I see them. I also cannot just check emails once or twice per day.

I went through a process of archiving every email. However, this didn't include just archiving all old emails together, as suggested in a tip for achieving inbox zero. I didn't just archive older emails. I added every email to my inbox from the sub folders and went through every single email to archive it after checking whether I needed it now or later for reference. I created a folder called Active and for any project that I'm currently working on, the email for that project went into this sub folder. The use of conversations helped minimise the number of emails in this sub folder.

An email management system is going to require discipline and while I have a slightly different approach to managing each account, it requires that discipline to maintain that. After 2 years of use, it's embedded in me to know important emails for projects I'm currently working on will be in the Active sub folder. If I have replied to an email and am now awaiting a response, this is a good example of an email that will go into the Active sub folder.

5. Unified Inbox, Zero & Unified, Inbox Zero

The first step in my workflow was to separate out my mailboxes. I did that because it's easier to manage individual mailboxes separately with no link to each other. It's the same principle behind GTD; a project can always be broken down into smaller tasks to become achievable. The next step for me was working my way towards a unified inbox. The reason for the 180° change was simply because I didn't want to use two separate applications to manage personal and corporate accounts. And because I wanted to achieve Inbox Zero across all of my accounts. I was able to manage each account separately with the flow of incoming emails, so it only made sense to utilise a unified inbox.

Inbox Zero is a term coined by Merlin Mann. It comes with the idea of achieving an empty mailbox but by using specific techniques to get there. When you're triaging emails, you ask: is this an email I need to do something with; am I waiting for something; is it only for reference; can I delete it; should I file it away somewhere?

There are no shortage of articles based around the idea of achieving Inbox Zero. For example, you may come across posts about how to achieve Inbox Zero in 5 simple steps, but there are a number of issues with guidance articles like this. Everyone has a unique way of working with different thoughts on productivity. You cannot take 5 simple generic steps to achieve a new way of working and magically expect that to work. The problem with these generic articles is that if you follow it (because it's written by a trusted source), and then find you can't achieve Inbox Zero, it's easy to associate an attempt to becoming productive, with failure. "I've tried it before and it didn't work for me" is a common thought in this scenario, leaving you closed to future options.

Inbox Zero comes under my definition of productivity and being on top of my work, but my wife, who has never missed a deadline or task, prefers having every email easily accessible in her Inbox. There are no wrong approaches here, but I do shy away from the generic articles that try to emphasise one way of working.

Because I am set up with the same system on Mac and iOS, I can triage emails anywhere and achieve the same result. I am not using a technology that's specific to one platform.

6. Practising Inbox Zero

A solution to a problem is only as good as the preparation that goes into that solution. If you get to the root of the problem, you're likely to maintain that solution for longer. Because I am only subscribed to the emails and newsletters I require, managing emails is a simpler task. For example, I don't still require new promotional emails every two weeks from a hotel I booked for my honeymoon, 6 years ago in the Caribbean. And because email management is something I have under control after a lot of work, I am not subscribed to either Unroll.me or SaneBox anymore. Those services helped in my journey, but they're not part of the destination.

Maintaining the luxury of Inbox Zero for all four of my accounts is a system that's backed up with discipline and procedures. Just like Merlin Mann talks about in his definition of Inbox Zero, I triage every single email that comes through. And the process differs slightly for each account.

When an email comes through to my corporate account, if it's associated with a project I am working on, I will action that appropriately. Either I will reply with answers to questions or obtain the answers first and then reply. Because my task project system is as heavily maintained as my emails, I can always keep track on whether I'm waiting for something from someone, in order to progress with the project, or if there's something for me to do. If the incoming email is a new consultancy request, I make the appropriate new project in 2Do to work through that. 2Do is my task management application of choice and I will explore that in a separate post. When I have replied to an email, I move that email to my Active sub folder while I am waiting for a response. When the project has completed, I move the email to the archive. And when it comes to finding an email, I agree with my wife's approach on the search functionality; it is fantastic.

On my other accounts, when an email comes through, it's likely a support request or feedback for the business account or newsletters I'm still subscribed to and bill reminders for my personal account. A feedback email is simple to deal with and I will reply to that email with a quick thank you response or to answer any questions. If it's a bigger support request, it will make its way as a task or project in 2Do depending on the nature of the request. Once I'm done with the email, I simply archive it. I do the same with important emails that come through to the personal account. For an email that requires something to be done (other than a quick reply), like pay a bill or check out a beta invite to an application, I will send this to 2Do. The process of doing this is straight forward. Within any email application I am using, I simply flag that email.

As detailed by Federico Viticci in his review of 2Do, there is an interesting integration with emails in this task management application. And although this post is about emails, my task management application has to be briefly mentioned because of the integration. You sign in with your email account in 2Do and whenever you flag an email in your email client, that email gets added to your 2Do Inbox. The subject becomes the task name and there is an action which links directly back to the email in the form of message://. This allows you to access the action from your iOS device or Mac, and it will link to the email within Mail.app on both devices. This is extremely handy. So when an email comes through that requires an action, I flag it, and it gets added in the background to my 2Do Inbox. I can then simply archive the email because the task will link back directly to the mail, even if it's archived. There are a number of other criterion which can be used for bringing in emails into 2Do which are available within the 2Do app. The flagging works for me.

Because the email to 2Do functionality does not work for Exchange accounts, to reproduce this behaviour for Exchange, you can set up a dummy gmail account and have all task-based emails forwarded to this. For example, set up a dummy account and if you have a task in your corporate environment that needs to be added, just forward the email to this dummy account. You can have the settings for this account to bring in all emails to 2Do. I personally don't use this because if I have a corporate email in my inbox, I know I have to deal with it before it leaves my inbox because of my Inbox Zero obsession. This tip could be something I explore in the future.

By actively deciding if an email is a task, needs to be archived or deleted, I can maintain Inbox Zero quite easy, daily, on all four of my accounts. If I receive 5 or 75 emails a day, I am comfortable with my process of handling that.

7. The Perfect Application(s)

I have talked a lot about the processes and services but not about the applications I use on a daily basis. Firstly, there isn't one perfect application. If that existed, there wouldn't be a new email application available every month. Email applications, much like task management applications is all about personal choice and requirements. I work mostly from my MacBook Pro, but do an extensive amount of achievable work on my iPad and more predominately, my iPhone when I am away from my desk. On my computer, I simply stick with Mail.app as my main email management system, with all 4 of my accounts connected in, while using the unified inbox. It works for me; it's clean and by using BetterTouchTool, I have quick access to shortcuts like archive, delete and move with gestures on the trackpad.

On iOS, I do really like the simplicity and beautiful UI of Mail.app but I am missing some key features which make me favour Spark by Readdle "Spark by Readdle"). Directly from an email in Spark, I can perform a series of actions which Apple really need to bring to Mail.app in iOS 10. Every email in Spark has access to the iOS share sheet in general when clicking on a link. If I receive a newsletter that I want to read later, I can simply add the link from the email straight to Pocket. All newsletters come with a view this email in a browser link which can be easily added to Pocket (or any other service) by simple tapping and holding on that link. Mail.app currently requires you to click on that link which takes you to Safari where you can then access the iOS share sheet. I'm trying to reduce friction with my workflows.

The other action I use frequently is the Save as PDF option in the iOS share sheet when in an email. To do this from an email, tap the share icon (an arrow coming out of a box) and tap Save as PDF. From here, I can save the email as a PDF, directly to iCloud Drive. I am not sure if this is a limitation of iOS currently but at this point, when saving to iCloud, I cannot rename the file. I like to keep a naming convention of year-month-date - company - details of the document.pdf. I work around this by just saving it to my Action folder within iCloud Drive that I can then process later from my MacBook Pro or from the iCloud Drive app on iOS. I do this for all receipts that come in, tickets for travel and any other reference documents. Because Spark is available on iPad as well, I can process emails quickly, from anywhere, therefore maintaining my desire for Inbox Zero.

I use Spark because of these features. While it does support other features like snoozing an email (which takes the email out of the mailbox and brings it back when you're ready for it), I find this as a form of procrastination and I don't use it. If an email requires my attention in the future, I simply flag it and it gets added as a task to 2Do. I also do not use the Smart Mailbox which attempts to filter out newsletters and receipts within the inbox directly. If iOS 10 brings iOS Share Sheets for links and emails to the Mail.app, I will have no dilemma again on email applications. I find it aesthetically more pleasing to use Mail.app but stick with Spark for the efficiency that comes with it.

While Microsoft have done an excellent job with the Outlook "Outlook") iOS application, I have chosen Spark because of the share sheets and because you can assign 4 sets of actions when viewing emails in the list. For example, I have the following set up:

  • left short swipe = delete
  • left long swipe = pin (flag)
  • right short swipe = archive
  • right long swipe = move

I have also removed notifications from all of my devices for emails. I do not need the anxiety of notifications coming through for every single email. I have VIPs set up for select users and I will be alerted to those.

A lot of work has gone into making sure I have an email management system that works for me. I value my productivity and prioritise this system of being on top of things. I pride myself on overcoming the stress of missing emails or deadlines and while this setup works for me now, if my Appsolute Pixels email account starts bringing in hundreds of emails a week, or if my role changes in my job, I may have to look to adjust the system. The important factor about productivity is that the landscape can change anytime. You have to be open to change when your system isn't effective anymore, or if your responsibilities change requiring a different way of working. My system may not work for you but if you do want to try it out, you should now have a blueprint to get started. I have been an Inbox Zero advocate for almost two years now and I love it.

Thank you for sticking to the end and please feel free to contact me if you have any questions or write in the comments below and I'd be happy to help.