About ten years ago, I was on a Board of Ordained Ministry seminary visit to Union Presbyterian in Richmond when I asked Beth Downs if I could create and lead a workshop at Conference residency events on the management of time, information, and technology. She agreed.
For the uninitiated, residency events are designed for people who are seeking ordination in our church, people who in the “provisional journey” between commissioning and ordination. These events are provided to offer these nascent clergypersons helpful tools for ministry.
In these workshops, one thing I would discuss is how to manage email, and in this post, I would like to share with you what works for me, as email management is something at which I think I am actually pretty good.
So then, if your New Year’s resolution is to become more organized, read on.
The first thing you need to know is that I forward all of my email to one Gmail address, and then I set up Gmail such that I can return email from whichever account I like. Even if you do not use Gmail, the basic principles of this methodology will work for you.
Gmail uses a system for categorizing email called “labels.” In other email clients, labels would correspond to folders. However, the nice thing about labels is that one email can have more than one label. For example, if an email relates to work and a particular project, you can label it “Work” and “[Project Name].”
Another feature of Gmail that you can turn on in Settings is called “Multiple Inboxes.” Turn this on, because you will need it in a moment.
THREE ESSENTIAL LABELS
Create these three labels: @Action, @Waiting, and @Hold. Then go into Gmail’s settings and create the panes like I do in the image below:
Make sure to click “Save Changes” and then go back to your email. It should look something like this:
The beauty of this is that you can see all of your email that needs your attention at once, but categorized.
NOW FOR THE LOGIC BEHIND THE LABELS
As your email comes into your main inbox, if during your email processing time, you can answer it in less than two minutes, do it. Otherwise, file it under “@Action,” “@Waiting” or “@Hold” and archive it. Archiving will get it out of your main inbox, but you will still be able to see these emails, because you are using the Multiple Inboxes feature.
@Action corresponds to any email that requires more then two minutes to respond to.
@Waiting corresponds to anything that requires someone to get back to you, including things that I am waiting to have shipped to me.
@Hold corresponds to anything that you want easy access to. It is a short-term holding place. For example, on Thursday, I receive an email containing the agenda for a meeting on the following Tuesday. Another example would be an email that contains a hotel reservation for an upcoming trip. Nothing should stay in @Hold for long.
Now here is a trick for using @Waiting: Let’s say I am emailing you to ask you to do something. I make sure that I send the email to both you AND me. As a result, you get a copy and I get a copy, and I drag my copy to @Waiting, and now, when I gaze upon my multiple inboxes, I can see everything that someone else “owes” me. At the end of the week, I ping each of these people to make sure they are working on whatever I asked them to. Whenever that thing is done, I remove the label and archive the email.
SO FAR EVERYTHING HAS BEEN FREE, BUT…
One service I use and swear by called SaneBox (www.sanebox.com, $7/month). This service has many cool features, but I simply use it for email filtering. When you sign up, it creates folders such as @SaneLater, @SaneNextWeek, and @SaneNextMonth. The magic is this: SaneBox can tell if an email is unimportant, and if it is, it files it to @SaneLater instead of the Inbox. @SaneLater is where stuff like Amazon receipts and bulk email will go. You only need to check this label once a day.
Now, let’s say something ends up in @SaneLater that you don’t want there. Don’t worry. Just drag it to your inbox and SaneBox learns to always send email from that sender there. Likewise, if something lands in your inbox that should go to @SaneLater, just drag it there. The service learns in both directions.
Another nice thing about SaneBox is this: let’s say I have an email arrive that I can’t deal with until next week or next month. I just drag the email to @SaneNextWeek or @SaneNextMonth, and when Monday or the first of the month arrives, the email arrives in my inbox as a new email.
The second lovely service I use is called Boomerang (www.boomerangforgmail.com, $5.00/month). Much of what Boomerang does is also done by SaneBox, with one exception: Boomerang can recognize dates in your email. If you use Google Calendar, you can hover over a date in an email sent to you and it will show you everything you have scheduled that day and give you an option to add that appointment to your Google Calendar from within Gmail itself. It is handy and saves me a good deal of time.
I hope this all helps you wrangle your email, and I wish you a healthy and productive new year. Let me know if you have any questions, and share your best practices in the comments section.