I’ll concede that email can be very useful at times, but it also appears on my long list of modern menaces. As a Victorianist, I often think the telegram was an adequate means of communication: it was speedy, succinct, and the news it contained was always important. Conversely, I receive over 100 emails per day, ranging from spam, to unreasonable requests, and occasionally something I actually want to read.
A few years ago I suddenly realised there were thousands of emails languishing in my inbox, some of them even unread (sorry if that was yours). Deciding action was needed, I embraced the idea of Inbox Zero, created by Merlin Mann, the founder of 43 folders. He believes that emails should simply pause in your inbox, rather than taking up permanent residence. When a new message appears, it should be either turned into a task, filed away for future reference, or deleted. Goodness only knows why, but I often feel queasy about deleting an email permanently, even those that really annoy me. As a GMail user, I can simply archive it instead, thus removing some clutter from my inbox, but also ensuring that it’s still retrievable.
The easiest way to implement the Inbox Zero approach is to use a task management tool. My favourite is Producteev, a web-based and standalone program that allows me to manage my to-do list through email. If I receive an actionable email, I forward it to my Producteev address and edit the subject line to include a category, priority and deadline. It’s then added to my task list and I will receive a reminder when it’s due. By replying to that reminder with the word “done” I can remove the task from my list. Alternatively, I could extend the deadline or change the priority. There is bags more functionality, but that’s the basic principle.
There are other similar tools available. Remember the Milk is very popular, but I’m not quite so keen on the interface. If you have an educational (.ac.uk or .edu) email address, you can get the premium version of Producteev for free. The basic version is free to all.
Of course, no software, however clever, will stop people from phoning to ask “Did you get my email?” I suggest holding their hand on a hot radiator ’til they apologise. The problem of email overload would be greatly reduced by users thinking before they forward a message, or copy it in to dozens of recipients. If you’d like to be part of the solution, take a peek at the Email Charter, an eminently sensible set of guidelines that could make all our lives easier.
If you have any tips and tricks, please do comment below (but don’t email me).