Archive for December, 2008

Managing Email

Thursday, December 11th, 2008

Most of you probably know this already, but I hear more than a few complaints about being overwhelmed by email.

I get around 10,000 non-spam emails per month. I think the tactics I use will pay off for anyone handling more than 25 or 30 “real” emails per day. If you’re getting much more than 30,000 per month, you may need more sophisticated techniques.

Start with: spam filters.
I use a Bayesian one, and recommend this class of filters highly. They learn as you go from the emails that you mark as spam, and from the ones that you fish out of your email box as non-spam. After a few weeks of using one, you should be catching the vast majority of your spam, and have a false positive rate in around one or two tenths of one percent.

Follow with: threading.
Having your conversations collected by thread is critical. Not everyone “snips” well. (Snipping is cutting out the parts of the prior email that aren’t necessary for context, so that the whole thing isn’t miles long, and you can find the new entry whether it’s top posted or bottom. Doing it well means keeping enough but not too much to supply context.)

Next: subject filters and specialized boxes.
Most of my non-spam email comes from the listservs to which I belong. I filter all of that into special in-boxes, with one for each active list, and one for all of the inactive ones. These are all in a separate folder that I can look at when I have time.

Everything that doesn’t fit a bulk category goes into the general email box, and this tends to be either junk or urgent stuff. It also tends to be pretty small amounts.

Saving emails:
I have dozens of subject boxes, in nested folders (each layer gets more specific), and my email client program automatically indexes them for searching by subject, addressee and sender, or by keywords within the email. I take emails from my current in boxes and file them in these subject boxes when I have made whatever responses or actions are required.

To Do boxes:
If there are long-term projects or issues, I tend to create a to-do box for them, and file emails inside it, even if the action hasn’t been completed. Some of these take such a long time that my other active boxes get overwhelmed. It’s hard to keep track of more than 20 active emails in a box — or at most, 50.