Posted on Mon 12 June 2017

the one true method of email handling

People are overwhelmed with email.

In response, they declare email bankruptcy – that means that they arbitrarily delete their inboxes and hope the problem will magically fix itself – or adopt strange methodologies.

Here is the one true method of dealing with email. It works. It requires some setup. It requires some change in your behavior.


  • Your personal email is private and your work email is not. Your employer almost certainly has the legal right to read through your work email. Don’t use it for personal matters, at all. This also saves you the trouble of telling all your friends your new address when you change jobs.

  • Context is important. Therefore, create folders for friends and family. It’s possible that you want to automatically file these, but it’s more important that you save them to a consistent place after you have read them. (Does your aunt keep forwarding scams? Automatically file her messages. Perhaps you should talk to her about her problem.

  • You will always have new email. Therefore, turn off any alert noises, buzzes, vibrations, flashes, notifications, or other devices trying to get you to respond to routine email.

  • Some email actually deserves to wake you up. I can’t tell you what that will be for you; it is your responsibility to figure out how to identify it. What I do is set up a second account that I do not use to send email, don’t sign up for email lists, and don’t tell people about unless I trust them to wake me up in the middle of the night. That email account plays annoyingly loud music at me. If you’re lucky, this isn’t something you need.

  • You will always have more low-importance email than you have high-importance email. (You are the only judge of importance.) Therefore, you must tell your email system to automatically filter low-importance email to folders where you will not see it until you choose to go looking for it.

  • You must adhere to your own schedule. Therefore, set aside time in that schedule to read through the folders that pertain to what you are doing. If you don’t read a folder, it means it’s not important to you.

  • Context is important. Therefore, every email list that you have signed up for needs to go to its own folder, automatically, before you see it. If you want to read it, you need to make the decision to go look at that folder and read it in the context of other messages from that mailing list. What should end up in your inbox? Messages from humans, to you, that you need to see. When you’re done,

  • If it’s more than 2 months old, it is less important. Therefore your computer must have a second tier of folders that are automatically archived versions of the primary folders. You can pick another age, but two months works for me: this month, plus the context of last month.

  • History is important. Therefore, learn to use the search functions effectively to get at the meat of those archive folders.

  • Spam happens. Therefore you will tell your computer to automatically shunt spam to its own folder. About once a week (or once a month, depending on how trusting you are) you should review this folder for mistakes.

  • Change happens. Sign up for work email lists with your work email. Sign up for professional email lists with a personal email account. You will leave your employer someday, but your professional reputation should accrue to you.

  • Change happens. New email lists, new acquaintances, fading interest, new topics, whatever. At least once a year, go through your mail sorting rules and figure out what needs to change.

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