How I Took Back My E-mail Inbox

Feb 20, 2012 update: See my new email strategy.

For the past couple of years, my gmail inbox has been flooded with so much email that unless I respond to incoming email within a day, it gets buried with other incoming email. I’m guessing that many others have a similar problem.

Gmail has come out with various solutions — priority inboxes, stars with various colors to note importance. But I finally bit the bullet last Sunday afternoon and created about 30 filters to make non-essential e-mail automatically skip my inbox and be filtered in the sidebar. With all the non-essential email out of the way, I can focus on the important communication — the email that is actually from a real person to me, and which requires a response.

I set up filter to automatically catch non-essential email and make it skip my inbox. This leaves my inbox free of junk.

The list of automatically filtered email is pretty long, and includes most of popular online services such as Amazon, Facebook, Goodreads, Netflix, Paypal, Linkedin, Google Plus, Twitter, and a host of other non-essential sites. A good majority of it includes social media updates, and I even (sorry guys) have a filter for Blog Comments.

Rather than minimizing the non-essential email messages, the filters allows me to review them in a more streamlined way, since they’re all grouped together rather than scattered about my inbox.

Filtering out nonessential messages also allows me to better focus on the task at hand rather than checking out the Gmail notifications that appear every few minutes in the corner of my screen.

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By Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer working for the 41st Parameter in San Jose, California. I'm interested in topics related to technical writing, such as visual communication, API documentation, information architecture, web publishing, JavaScript, front-end design, content strategy, Jekyll, and more. Feel free to contact me with any questions.

  • mike

    Hey, Tom — probably you don’t use Outlook (?), but even if you don’t, you might want to check out Harry Miller’s video series on how to use time- and task-management features in Office.

    One of the strategies they recommend is categorization. :-)

    • Tom Johnson

      Mike, thanks for your comment. I’ll check out the videos. By categorization, do you mean categorizing the incoming email into various folders?

      What do you think of the argument/findings from this article? Here’s an excerpt:

      We all spend time every day looking for information in our email, yet we know little about this refinding process. Some users expend considerable preparatory effort creating complex folder structures to promote effective refinding. However modern email clients provide alternative opportunistic methods for access, such as search and threading, that promise to reduce the need to manually prepare. To compare these different refinding strategies, we instrumented a modern email client that supports search, folders, tagging and threading. We carried out a field study of 345 long-term users who conducted over 85,000 refinding actions. Our data support opportunistic access. People who create complex folders indeed rely on these for retrieval, but these preparatory behaviors are inefficient and do not improve retrieval success. In contrast, both search and threading promote more effective finding. We present design implications: current search-based clients ignore scrolling, the most prevalent refinding behavior, and threading approaches need to be extended.

  • John Melendez

    Great article!

    Of course it always helps to unsubscribe from stuff that you no longer need. I just did this recently.

    It seems also that some unscrupulous types enjoy signing people up for email lists that are not related to their interests… Annoying!

  • Larry Kunz

    I’ll be interested to hear how this works out for you, Tom. The proof will be in how often you go and check all of those categories in your sidebar. If you’re like me you’ll look at them a couple of times. But before long the frequency will steadily drop off toward “never.” I leave them there, though, because maybe someday I’ll find a nugget amidst all of the dross — and besides, I’m still only using 3% of my Gmail storage capacity.

    • Tom Johnson

      Good point. I have been using this system now for 2 weeks with my gmail and it seems to be working. I was really drowning before.

  • Harry

    The video series that Mike links to above addresses Larry Kunz’s concern (at least to some extent) by calling out the discipline required to make filters and categories work. If it’s important to keep up with the information, you should schedule time to review the mail just like you might set aside time for reading blogs. In a sense, the sidebar folders/categories are now like more blogs in the reader!

    • Tom Johnson

      Thanks Harry. Cool videos. You’re always so innovative with your approach. I watched the first three so far and will check out the rest later. What’s been the response to them?

      • Harry

        The response has been great, based on comments and ratings, and from talking with people who watch it. The best thing is several people have told me they started following the best practices after watching, and they really like the results. Most of these people had read the article that the series is based on ( but didn’t try to follow it – if you look at the article you’ll see why. :-)

  • Craig

    I got the labels to function, sort of, but where are the filters that actually move email into their category folders? I am ending up with email messages that are labelled, but they haven’t been moved anywhere. They’re still sitting in my inbox.

    • Tom Johnson

      When you set up the gmail filters, there’s a check box that says “Skip inbox.” That will automatically move it away from your inbox into the filter.

      • Craig

        More complex than it needs to be. I think Yahoo manages this part, and only this part, better.

  • Hayley

    I have loads of filters but I never thought of doing this. Thank you, you have saved my inbox!

  • Michael ‘MC’ Carter

    Tom, have you checked out the Gmail GTD plugin ‘ActiveInbox’? It is *awesome*. (Eek. I try not to use that word. But it is.) (Note, I am just a user. Not in any way affiliated!) AI adds a toolbar across the top of your Gmail Inbox so you can tag things as @Next, @Action, @Waiting On (that last one is gold) as well as add Deadlines etc., and a box in the left pane to quickly look at what is due today, upcoming, etc. It is essentially a super-efficient way to apply and remove Labels in Gmail to allow useful categorisation/views. If you like the Filters you have set up so far, I’m guessing you will *love* ActiveInbox. I think Google should acquire these guys to make it native Gmail functionality (or at least available via Labs).

    • Tom Johnson

      Thanks Michael. I installed ActiveInbox and am checking it out. So far I do like it.

  • Tom Johnson

    Four months later, I must confess that I rarely looked at all the email in my filters. They might as well be in the trash can. My attempt to take back my inbox through these filters failed. My new approach is to unsubscribe from unwanted email.

  • Tom Johnson

    My friend Will Sansbury sent me a link to The email game. It’s quite cool. It allowed me to speed through my email pretty quickly.

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