I like to think of email as a digital deluge--it reminds me of those Skittles commercials where the tiny candies are falling everywhere. A typical email is only about 10K in size, but they rain down from the sky constantly. In the time it took you to read that last sentence, a few more dropped into my inbox. Fortunately, I'm not worried about that at all.

One of the reasons is that I have a system I've been using for about 10 years. (Curious fact I've mentioned in this column before: I once interviewed the current CEO of Google when he was a project manager, and one of the tips I use for organizing messages came directly from him.) It's so streamlined that email doesn't really slow down my day that much.

Of course, if you read this column you also know that I hate email. I wish it would go away. In some ways, it already has--the people I work with the most don't send me emails, they send me a Slack or a Facebook chat message. Yet, I also know it is not about my personal preference. People still use email, especially to communicate with people they barely know.

To keep everything in check, and because I like to run an extremely clean inbox, I've learned a few tricks to cope with the constant influx. Here's what I do to survive.

Never delete anything

OK, this one is tough if you don't have enough storage. So maybe that's the first tip--get more storage. I retain every email, even the minor ones. The reason is simple. I keep the contact, I keep the message, and I don't have to worry about deleting anything. I use search mostly, and that means I have to keep every message.

Label important messages

That's right--about 10 years ago, Sindar Pichai (the CEO of Google) told me in person about labels. I guess I took him seriously. I label all important messages, which basically puts them into personal folders (the term Outlook users prefer). I also label emails related to a specific article or project. I label messages from my kids. I'm all about labels, and it works. (If you don't know how to use labels in Gmail, here's a refresher.)

It's all about search

For everything else--and by everything I mean nearly 300,000 emails--I use search. I'm a master of searching for hidden treasures, using the most unusual words possible. Recently, I was looking for a source for an article about school shootings and searched for that term in my Gmail archive. I found at least 10 messages related to the topic, most from experts. I've been known to search for specific PR people. I use multipel search terms, like "taxes 2018" which worked flawlessly. I use date limits, size limits. It works.

Learn how to scan quickly

A key skill when it comes to managing 300,000 emails is to scan incoming message quickly. I swear processing email has made me a faster reader as well. (I never used to be able to read one book per week, but now it's easy.) New emails, old emails, important emails, unimportant emails--I scan and label quickly. I don't linger over them. If the message looks important enough, I keep it in my inbox for a while. But I never do a close read for any new email. I always mark them for a closer read later.

Don't bother getting to inbox zero

I wrote about this concept long ago--it's not always ideal to clean up everything perfectly. I keep some messages in my inbox as a way to remind myself about them, at least for a while. If they weren't labelled, then there's a reason why they are so important. Avoid deleting or archiving messages or labeling them only because you want to have zero messages in your inbox. Who cares? My inbox is always exactly the way I want it to be, every message in there matters. Usually, that's only about 20 messages total--enough to serve as a daily reminder about the messages I really need.

Avoid long responses

We tend to mimic each other all day. If I send a long email, I almost always get a long email back. Avoid that. I keep messages short and to the point. It's fine to do a follow-up phone call, or take things over to Slack. A long email is just tedious and slows me down. Instead, I'd rather have a handful of shorter messages to read and converse that way. Short messages are easier to manage; longer messages are just a pain.

Those are my secrets. Never delete, label everything. How about you? Send me your best Gmail tips, and when you do, I'd do a follow-up story that collects the best of the best.

Published on: Apr 3, 2019
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