BitDepth 580 - June 12

Wrestling with your e-mail in-box? Join an unhappy club...
E-mail in a wired world
This is my mailbox strategy for Apple's Mail. The numbers to the right of each mailbox count unread messages, so you can quickly gather that my own efforts at controlling my in-box fall far short of this column's ideal.

Tell me that you haven't been on one side or the other of this conversation.
"I'm following up on the e-mail I sent."
"Uh, I haven't checked e-mail yet."
"I sent it three days ago."

E-mail might once have seemed to be the great lubricator of communications, the oil that eased the engines of commerce, but for most of us, it's just making the virtual ground slippery and leaving us off balance and tottering about.
What once seemed like an easy convenience is now another tool to be managed and handled with forethought, but there are very few manuals for handling e-mail, so herewith is the Bitdepth guide to managing your in-box.

Mail client or webmail?
Most Internet service providers will offer you an e-mail address or three when you sign up and the choice of clearing your e-mail using a mail client, software that scoops up your e-mail from online servers and bring it all to your computer or viewing your e-mail online using the window of a web browser. What you may not know is that some online e-mail services like Hotmail and Google also have backdoors that allow you to use a mail client with those "web only" accounts as well.

The choice really boils down to whether you're more comfortable sorting your e-mail offline (when you're unconnected), which mail clients excel at, or need to view your e-mail from any computer, which is really what web mail is designed for.
My own preference is to work with a mail client, which allows me to gather e-mail from the five different e-mail addresses (including two web mail sources) I use into a single in-box and deal with all my e-mail simultaneously, regardless of its source.
I keep two web mail accounts active for those rare occasions when my mail client just won't connect from an odd location, and I really need to send an e-mail.

Managing the in-box
Regrettably, this is one of those "do as I say and not as I do" bits of advice. Personal organisation gurus advocate the pure in-box; an empty folder into which fresh e-mails pour and are dispensed with ruthless precision.
Most mail (and web mail) clients come with a few folders preset, an in-box, an out-box, a sent folder and a trash folder. What too many e-mail users may not realise is that they can add folders to this standard suite of mail receptacles, adding folders for frequent correspondents, projects or even that blizzard of jokes that get circulated by family with too much time on their hands.

It's possible to let a mail client do some of this work for you. Mail clients such as Thunderbird, Outlook, Entourage and Apple Mail can apply "rules" to incoming e-mails, routing messages to a user specified mailbox. These rules can apply to subjects, e-mail addresses or any combination of identifiers that makes sense to your particular situation.
I regularly get e-mails that I someday intend to read from, TidBits and the New York Times that get routed into a hopefully named "To Read" folder. I never see these e-mails in my in-box.

Captain Kirk's solution.
If you have a hopelessly overpopulated in-box, it's time to apply the Kobayashi Maru solution to e-mail control. Like Kirk in the unbeatable training simulation, you change the normal rules and, well, cheat. 
You don't respond to most of these e-mails or even try to read them. You dump and dump until you've winnowed your e-mail in-box down to human manageable proportions and then deal with what's left.

An even more extreme version of this has been described more recently as "declaring e-mail bankruptcy." Using this technique, you simply delete all the e-mails in your in-box, then send a mass e-mail to everyone in your address book asking them to resend any important e-mails you might have missed due to a "computer error."
If the e-mail in-boxes that I see on my journeys are any indication (my own rat's nest of e-mail not excluded), we could all do with some pre-planning and strategy when it comes to handling a steady flow of virtual mail. What's certain is having no strategy is a sure recipe for in-box disaster because that e-mail keeps on coming.
blog comments powered by Disqus