Wednesday, March 18, 2009

How do you use your Inbox?

The Inbox, in many ways, is the junk drawer of people's lives. Everyone has one. You think everything in there is important. But, sooner or later, you realize you can't find anything you need in it, your finger just got snapped in a mousetrap you shoved in there 3 years ago, the crazy glue is completely dried up, and you just want to find a battery so you can play one more round of Wii Sports, and you swear you're going to clean it out first thing tomorrow.

Gmail has tried pushing the idea that your Inbox is your endless repository, "delete" is a thing of the past and searching is the way to get through it. But, a couple years ago, I realized that I was using my email Inbox as my virtual to-do list. And, if you do that, but you follow the junk drawer model, you've (more than once) ended up totally forgetting about something important, because it's scrolled off your visible messages, and, out of sight, out of mind, right?

Last year, I began a campaign to bring my messages down to zero. And I'm not the only one. The suggestions basically boil down to:
  • Don't make your system more complicated than it needs to be
  • Delete, delete, delete! It's much faster to delete immediately, than to keep coming back to it, then guiltily deleting it a month from now.
  • Move things to your calendar or your actual to-do list. Only leave messages that need a reply.
  • If the reply can be written in under 2 minutes, do it now.
  • Here's my own personal addition: always separate your work and personal email into two different boxes.
That's basically it! Now, my personal Inbox looks more like an old-fashioned stack of correspondence -- actual honest-to-goodness letters from friends, that are deserving of a lengthy reply. My work Inbox I should be stricter about (there are many more messages that will take more than 2 minutes, but less than a half an hour, and those tend to linger), but I have fewer than 15 messages there, and I could probably knock it down to 7 with about 30 minutes. Then, at the end of the week, I tackle all the ones that have been hanging around. I never *quite* get down to zero, but I've stopped losing emails in the depths of my Inbox!

For all you mega-Inboxers out there, how do you keep track of the things that still need your attention? Let me know in the comments!


ZDnet's security blog reiterates my earlier advice about protecting your passwords, in light of this week's revelation that several thousand Comcast customer username/password combos were posted to the Internet. Check out their recommendations for password security.


  1. Hey Vanessa - A blog is only useful if you have an RSS feed for it. Where is the RSS feed for your blog here?

  2. Steven, if you put into your feed reader, it should pick up the feed address from the page source. But I'll try to get an RSS link/icon into the sidebar sometime today!

  3. Hi Vanessa,

    Thanks for sharing your method.
    I am a BIG mail user for the last 22 years (my original email address is STILL working :-)) and I am a fan of tagging, organizing, folding...
    Regarding separation of personal and work mails, I use actually two mails sytems, Outlook for work and Thunderbird for personal, so this is easy.
    A bigger challenge is, in my "personal" mail (i.e. pobox email) to be able to separate true personal email from others (e.g. mailing lists, system generated, notifications, etc)
    I have set up multiple methods for that and I am happy to share with you guys :-)

  4. Hey Vanessa, This is why I'm considering setting up a new main gmail account is getting hammered with hundreds of spam messages all the time.