For as many years as I’ve had e-mail, I’ve tried to keep my inbox empty. First it was because I liked neatness, then because David Allen’s GTD mandated it, and then because Merlin Mann came up with some excellent techniques for keeping your inbox empty.
The problem is, the problem has gone from out-of-control to beyond my control. I think it’s actually now beyond anybody’s control.
It’s like trying to keep the sea from washing away your sandcastle. You could do it early on – a folder or tag for every email you wanted to keep, a spam filter to get rid of spam. Those techniques worked not because they are effective, but because the ocean of email had not risen to your particular sandcastle.
And now it has. Five years ago, RSS was the bomb, email was overrun with spam, and the sheer volume of information from people you individually want to be in contact with had not flooded your inbox. For me, the tide has come in as every company, organization, and person I voluntarily deal with on the web lays claim to a chunk of my attention via email. I can’t blame them – I too want you to read my email. You – startup founder, microISV, what have you – do too.
Call this a self-inflicted wound if you must; but the reality is whether you dump everything from your inbox to some other folder or just let your inbox fill up with thousands of messages, it’s impossible to even file, let alone act on every single message that comes down the pike.
There is hope: I’m reading Douglas C. Merrill’s “Getting Organized in the Google Era” right now and maybe the biggest point that he makes that I’ve taken to heart is we’ve reached a point in the evolution of information where search isn’t justifiable strategy, it’s the only viable strategy.
So as of today I’m giving up keeping my inbox at zero, and will declare daily victory if I can only flag and capture emails I need to act on into OmniFocus which is my GTD master program. No more nice neat folders – it all gets crammed into “Reference” once I’ve picked and flagged what I must do from the stream. File them all, and let search sort them out.
Incidentally, I’ve noticed that searching my IMAP-centralized Gmail in Chrome is about eight times slower than searching for the exact same term on my iMac in Mail. This could be because I’ve been singularly cursed by the gods of Google, or maybe everybody else has the same issue. Considering you can pick up a 2 terabyte hard disk for about $100, I’ll let Google continue to aggregate my email in the cloud so I can get it from anywhere, but will rely on my fast and trusty desktop legacy OS X Mail app to find what I need fast.
How about you? How are you turning the few nuggets of real, actionable e-mail into tasks that you can define, work on, and complete? I’d love to hear about how you do it – please comment.