Email Workflow

Last week, Chuq van Rospach had a tear of great posts about email and online communication in general. I already linked to his first two, about the value (and certain doom) of an email charter here. He then went on to discuss what he's learned about how to manage email without first trying to change other people's behavior, in two parts titled "Avoiding email bankruptcy" Part 1 and Part 2. Both are well worth a full read, but I'll also summarize a bit here.

His Part 1 says in effect "email takes real time, so budget that time." His points about never catching up if you try to just fit it in during an otherwise busy day ring especially true. I'd add that any reputation benefit you get from fast turnaround is lost by being that guy who is checking email during meetings.

His Part 2 goes into detail on his email workflow. I was pleased to see that my own workflow is similar - I don't get nearly as much mail as he does (sending 225 and reading 400 messages a day? Ouch), so it's nice to see that my approach could scale.

The high points we have in common are

  • Separate work and home email accounts. Very important. I couldn't agree more, and people who want unified inboxes in a mail client baffle me.
  • try to decide what to do with an email the first time you read it, then archive it right away
  • no filing, just one big Archive.
  • filter lists out of the inbox ( I only do this for high-traffic lists, but my idea of "high" is not that high. )
  • simple filtering - I don't try to use filters to pick out "important" emails - my goal is to read every mail. If I can't, I need to reduce the incoming flow, not tweak my mail client setup.

One difference is that he says he uses his inbox as a to-do list, where I prefer to move things to OmniFocus as soon as I understand what the task is. But it's possible we're just calling the same thing by different names.

He also does more manual management of his archive folder than I do - but maybe this is because there are less than 10,000 emails in there right now. I imagine his archives are bigger. doesn't have much trouble with mine.

Also my archive is a local folder - so it never has to sync with IMAP. This is due to a server mailbox size limit, and it's not ideal. It'd be nice if I could see my archive on my phone, but hey, it's only 2011.


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