Notes on email handling

Recently I changed my email client from Mailbox to Postbox and this lead to again rethink my email work flow. With that, I thought about making some notes on how I handle emails. It is worth noting that my two email accounts are Gmail based which makes it possible for me to filter emails at the server side, use labels and other.

From Gmail Meter last month I received 2150 emails, of these, about 262 were sent directly to me and I wrote 174 emails. Time wise this was about 26 hours reading and writing emails in September by my Rescuetime statistics. This amount of time is probably inflated because I spent some time configuring and getting used to Postbox.

After some back and forth I decided write short notes on each main strategy and topic instead of a full blown work flow. You choose what is useful to you and what you can reuse.


Before starting I should at least list what are the drivers behind each strategy, here it goes:

  • Not miss important information
  • Lower time sorting important from non important information
  • Be responsive

Strategies and routines

Control the inbound amount

Maybe this sound obvious, but first control the inbound of messages. You can cancel subscriptions, change to a digest mailing list, go through all and double check if you they are still valid for your current interests and so on.

The idea is, if arrives at your inbox, you are committing some time to handle it and this is a cost.

Inbox zero

I subscribe to the Inbox Zero process, which roughly means that emails siting in my inbox need to be processed and moved to somewhere else.

There is little control on what arrives there. Emails come from projects, mailing lists, friends and so on. Information can be important or not and also is pretty variable what is important. Importance depends on context so features like priority inbox didn't worked quite well for me.

Four possible outcomes to a message in my inbox

Given that what is in my inbox needs to move somewhere else. When an email arrives there are four possible outcomes ordered by cost (time + effort to handle it):

  1. Ignore: I will check the title and the first words on every email, after that I might just archive the message or delete it.

  2. Read: Read the full message.

  3. Reply: After reading, write a reply. Just for things I can reply from the top of my head and will take few minutes to do so.

  4. Action: Some messages will need an action to be taken, like research something, fill my timesheets and so on. For these types I add a new task to my TODO list. If a reply is also needed I mark these messages with a Reply topic in Postbox so it is easier to identify them.

Labeling mailing lists and other labels

I setup labels for almost all recurring sources of emails and these are setup directly on Gmail, example:

  • Projects/project A
  • Projects/project B
  • Lists/topic A
  • Lists/topic B
  • Flight Tickets

When an email arrives is immediately tagged with a label. The purpose is two fold:

  1. Provide a way to slice the triage by an arbitrary priority
  2. Provide a easier search path if needed

The first is to address that sometimes I need to check and triage emails for a certain project first rather the whole inbox. I start in Postbox by selecting a folder and using the focus pane ask to see only unread emails. The second reason is pretty simple, when I need to search for a certain information is good to filter out to a specific topic/project.

No automatic archive of messages

Another convention I adopted is to not auto-archive messages. With time I realized, specially with mailing lists, that I never revisited these messages if they skipped the inbox automatically. They kept coming and pilling up in some folder. The only use would be if I later searched for something and some would show up in the results.

Because email searching is quite rare in my case, the only thing I was collecting from auto-archive was a pile of unread messages and occasionally someone asking me if I saw an email thread that I didn't and it has good information. Nowadays none of my filters will auto-archive messages, I do it myself.

There's one exception though, calendar invites. Because I deal with them in my calendar application these are marked as read and archived. The lesson here is to ignore only things that you can handle some other way. Automatic messages from Calendar, CI systems and similar, can potentially be auto-archived.

No unread messages

I will be short, unread counters are anxiety building distracting devils. I keep them at smallest level as possible. If an email is unread it is because I didn't triage it yet.

Simple filtering

There was a time I had lots of filtering in place. As usual simplicity trumps complexity and managing the filters was more a hassle. Except for labeling, fine grained control in a variable thing like email content doesn't ROI well.

This said, there's at last one filtering I find useful which is the To or CC. Marking emails that are directly addressed to me helps. Specially when you reply to a conversation in a mailing list than you can identify if a reply was directed to you or to someone else in the thread.

Desktop clients over Web interface

I used the Gmail web interface for a long time. My objection in using it is basically having to deal continuously with multiple Google accounts and keeping tabs on browser tabs.

Anyone who use more than one Google account knows that sometimes is a pain to deal with it. You open one and get redirected to another; whatever is your "first" logged account takes priority and sometimes you got to sign-out of one to be able to act on another. I grant that this is doesn't happen often but still is a pain.

Keeping tabs on browser tabs is another reason I do not use the browser for emails, despite the fact that my browser is always running I have to control where the email tab is (I'm familiar with pinning too) to not close it and remembering to open it if the browser quits. Even using Gleebox is not easy to get to the email tab which I require to be an shortcut away.


Frankly I would like to ditch completely emails from my phone. Still, I use Mailbox on my phone, which the feature I use most is swipe to mark as read and archive. Sometimes I reply from it but only if is a two sentence reply, otherwise I leave the message in my inbox until I get to my computer to handle it.

No email notifications

I have no email notifications enabled. The reason for that is that interruptions are bad for focus. Since I can't control when a message will arrive I rather not give a chance to be interrupted when I'm focused doing something else.

The immediate consequence of this is I have to allocate time to check the inbox. During a working day this happens between pomodoros, during a break, before/after lunch, before starting a new task or right in the morning after checking my TODO list.


In a nutshell:

  • Inbox Zero
  • Do not auto-archive favor fast triaging
  • Use filters to tag messages to help triage
  • Use another system to handle long lived tasks/replies/actions
  • Pull email handling over push email handling
Published in Oct 14, 2015