Thinking Through Email: Automate and Sort

We’ve covered a lot of ground in this series on email. If you take some of these suggestions under consideration you’ll be able to start getting your inbox under control. Remember, it’s not about “inbox zero”. There will always be another email coming in to mar that clean slate. Managing email is about keeping your communications under control rather than scrambling to keep up.

Bearing that in mind, let’s go over a final suggestion before we wrap the series: automation. I mentioned it briefly in the post on limiting what arrives in your inbox. Most email clients and services offer some form of automation. If the one you use doesn’t, find a different service and forward your address to the new one.

If you’re processing lots of email and sorting it manually, you’re missing out on one of the greatest advantages of the medium. Let’s look at some of the ways different services handle sorting.

Tags

Several services offer tags as a way of sorting and organizing. Gmail[1] and Apple Mail are the most common[2]. Tags have several advantages over folders. First, they are not discrete. A message can carry multiple tags(sometimes called labels) at the same time, allowing you to find a specific message with various search terms.

For example, I could add a “2013” tag to every message I sent or received that year, but also add specific tags like “Receipt” or “Personal” to each message. Not only can I search for messages by a specific tag, I can cross-reference them and find all my receipts from 2013.

My problem with tags is the gigabytes of email that I received before tags were invented. I find the “search” functions in my email clients far more useful. If your business’ record-keeping is mission-critical[3] you may consider tagging your incoming email[4].

Folders

I love folders. I’m not ashamed of it. I’ll proclaim it loud from the rooftops. Tags are cool. They’re new and shiny and Apple wants us to use them. But I find the rigid hierarchy of folders comforting.

I think it’s easier to sort into folders. I rarely need to attach a single email to multiple categories, and if I do I can accomplish it through nesting the folders[5].

I like the feeling of knowing “where” something is[6]. All my podcasts are archived into folders. My photos live in folders. Nothing on my computer is tagged.

Even if it’s a giant “Archive” folder[7] that I frequently search, I like to know it’s all there somewhere. Tags just don’t fit the way I work.

What Should You Do?

Different things work for different people. If tags sound interesting to you, give them a try. Add some tags to your email app and let the app auto-apply those to some of your incoming messages.

If the thought of multiple tags stresses you out, sort your email into folders. Put together some rules to auto-sort your incoming messages so you can find what you need quickly.


  1. Gmail calls them “Labels”.  ↩

  2. Both services offer folders as a way of sorting as well. More on that in a moment.  ↩

  3. If you’re a doctor, lawyer, or accountant for example.  ↩

  4. Find an intern to tag your archived email.  ↩

  5. You can get away with this if one category is a subset of another: “Bananas” can’t go in the “Beef” folder, for example  ↩

  6. Look, I know it’s just bits on a magnetic platter. It’s just a metaphor, OK?  ↩

  7. Where most of my email lives  ↩

Thinking Through Email: Limit Your Intake

We’ve been taking an in-depth look at email over the last couple of weeks. We took a look at what it really is[1] and thought through how to mitigate it’s more distracting qualities[2].

Turning off your notifications will help you focus on your other work instead of being pulled away every few minutes to deal with an email. But what about when it’s time to actually process your email? What if working on our inbox is a 3 or 4 hour task?

I have two main suggestions in that case: reduce your intake and take advantage of automation. We’ll deal with intake in this post, but before we do, let me suggest that you find an email application that will do some of the heavy lifting for you.

Apps like Mailbox, Inbox from Gmail, and even Apple Mail and the Gmail web app have features that will automate a lot of the details of processing email. Take a few minutes to explore some of the features of third party email applications and find something that will work for you rather than limit you.

Cut it Out

I find it easier to put off checking my email when I know there’s a lot in there. When I get back from vacation my inbox often sits untended for days before I can talk myself into working on it.
I can justify not dealing with my inbox if it’s going to take me an hour or two to process.

We get a lot of email. We get a lot of email we don’t need. We get a lot of email we don’t need that we don’t have to get. The best solution is limit what comes in on a daily basis. Do you need constant updates on birthdays and anniversaries? Are you still getting social media notifications in your email?

Turn off as much of the automated garbage as you can. It just sits there and it makes your inbox seem more daunting than it really is.

How I handle it

I get a lot of email because I do a lot of things online. Email quantities build up quickly when you sign up for new services or join new communities online. If you signed up for email updates from that cool new blog you found, you’re probably getting three or four new updates a week.

Every few months I take a hard look at the emails I’m getting. Am I reading them all? Is this important to me? Do I care about baking the best pies or was I just buying my mom a cookbook?

As I check my emails across a span of several days [3] I think “Will I read this or am I archiving or deleting without reading?” If I read the email I’ll keep it this time around. Otherwise it gets moved to the Spam folder and I click the “unsubscribe” button.

What Can You Do?

Think about what kind of emails you really want to receive. Which are the ones that make you want to check your inbox and which help you talk yourself out of it?


  1. Emails are really memos, and as such they excel at some tasks and fail at others  ↩

  2. But for real, if you haven’t turned off notifications on your phone and desktop, you need to do that right now. Well, finish reading this, then go do it.  ↩

  3. It takes several days because most email updates don’t come daily.  ↩

Thinking Through Email: Turn Off Notifications

Email is tough. In the last post I wrote about why we have such a hard time with it, why we’re so often overwhelmed by it. The root of the problem is that it wasn’t built for the things we use it for. So where do we start? How do we get it under control?

I have a couple of ideas I want to talk through, though it will take us a few posts to get through them. These ideas work well for me[1] and I think they’ll be usefull to you as well. They’re not all original. Others have written about so often that they’ve become common practice these days[2].

RELAX

We need to relax when it comes to email. The email alert on our phones and PCs[3] has us so conditioned that we turn to deal with the email immediately. This impacts the quality of everything we do, including email itself.

Consider turning off noticitations. Ignore the inbox when you work on other projects or take a break from your work. Check email a few times a day rather than letting your inbox dictate your focus.

Remember, emails are memos. We don’t get a notification every time someone places a note on our desks. That sheet of paper doesn’t bring the rest of your work to a halt. It waits until you have the time to deal with it.

The more we let incoming email dictate our work, the more scattered and inefficient our work is going to be.

If It’s an Email, It’s not an Emergency

Think back on your last month or two of emails. How many times were you notified of an emergency through email? You may be in a position that invites that sort of email. But you’ll receive emergency notifications through a phone call, instant message or a text[4].

The key is that you have to convince yourself that it’s OK to not see an email the moment it arrives. If you feel you must, use priority options for your most important contacts. Both iOS and Android have a method to ensure some contacts can get through no matter what.

The Recommendation

Turn off your email notifications and deal with all your emails in bunches, rather than as they come in. You’ll be more productive as you clean out your inbox and less distracted when you work on other projects.

Our communication methods don’t own us. Email connects us to the people in our lives at home and at work. It’s a tool that we use to send information. It’s not an end, it’s a means.


  1. On the occasions that I’m disciplined in my interactions with email. I don’t have it together, I’m just trying to get there.  ↩

  2. If I need to attribute one of my suggestions here to someone in particular, let me know: machinecompatible@gmail.com.  ↩

  3. I mean in the Personal Computer sense, not the Windows Machine sense.  ↩

  4. If it’s a true emergency, you’ll probably get all four within minutes of each other.  ↩

Thinking Through Email

Email dominates our communication today. It consumes chunks of our work days. It frustrates everyone. But why do we have so much trouble with email? Why is something so essential to our work such a source of pain?

Let’s consider two reasons we get frustrated with email. First, we don’t understand what email is; second, they’re so darn useful we use them for everything. We’ll focus on the problems in this post and consider solutions in an upcoming post. So first,

What is Email?

Email grew out of an office environment. People at work designed it to solve work problems. Email was never intended to be the ultimate communication method. The memorandum was the dominant form of office communication, and we can draw a direct correlation between the two.

Take a look at the header from a memo I wrote for a class:

Heading from a memo turned in for a Seminar in Public Administration.
Heading from a memo turned in for a Seminar in Public Administration.

Now look at the header from a marketing email I got from Amazon this morning:

Header from a marketing email from Amazon.com
Header from a marketing email from Amazon.com

From, To, Date, and Subject. The format hasn’t changed at all. Our first problem with email is that we don’t understand what it is. No one would ever use a memo to set up a lunch date, or plan a meeting. We use memos to communicate agendas and minutes for meetings. We send them to inform an organization of upcoming policy changes. They are useful for transmitting information and awful for planning.

The Clash

Emails are memos in every way but one: email transmission is instant. It’s so tempting to shoehorn email into jobs it’s not suited for. How often have you tried to set up a simple meeting and found yourself trapped in an email chain?[1]. We’ve correlated email and communication such that we default to email.

The memo is useful for a lot of communication. Newsletters and marketing messages translate well to the format. We even send personal letters via email.[2]. But if we’re going to get our inboxes under control we need to find better ways communicate when the message doesn’t fit. It might be as simple as sending a text or (Heaven forbid) making a call.

Wrap Up

Before you send an email consider what you’re communicating. Are you informing or planning? Do you need a record or is the message disposable? Thinking before messaging can prevent a lot of headache on the backend.


  1. A Doodle Poll would solve that problem.  ↩

  2. Remember when we complained that email was so impersonal compared to getting a letter in the mail? I think the email header had a lot to do with that. It just felt wrong getting an message from Grandma with the same header as the memo we got from our manager at work.  ↩

App Crap: Colossatron

App Crap is a series of software reviews for Machine Compatible. It includes games and productivity applications, mobile and desktop applications, and web apps.

I ran across Colossatron from HalfBrick on the featured page of the iOS App Store a few days ago. It’s a fun combination of several different game types including tower defense, match-three, and snake. The player takes the role of the Colossatron, a robotic snake from outer-space bent on destroying the world.

Playing

The gameplay is straightforward. The Colossatron has 4 cities to destroy on each of 7 continents. Destroying every city on a continent will open that continent in survival mode allowing you to earn money and prisms. Play consists of adding colored pods to the Colossatron while it snakes it’s way across the screen. The pods will fire at the enemy’s on the screen automatically.

Red, blue, and yellow pods appear on the screen at random. Three pods of the same color will combine to create a stronger pod, and three stronger pods of the same color can combine a second time. Two pods of different colors can combine into a secondary color, purple, orange, or green. The types of weapons the pods contain will rotate every day. You can, however, unlock a particular weapon forever with prisms, the games premium currency.

Upgrading

A wealth of upgrades and power-ups are available including pods that provide passive bonuses. These include increased firepower and shields, as well as a Mega-bomb pod that clears all enemies from the screen. As mentioned above, players can unlock favorite weapons as well as upgrade their armor. Players can also choose a perk after each continent. These unlock special attacks and the ability to rearrange the Colossatron at will.

After destroying the 28 cities in the campaign, you can start a Prestige campaign. Prestige mode starts you at the beginning of the campaing. You’ll retain your armor upgrades, weapon purchases, and access to survival mode. Your perks are also reset and the enemy difficulty is increased.

The Results

Colossatron blends several varieties of casual games into a unique format. It’s a quick game to pick up and play, but provides enough depth to keep me interested. The game is free-to-play, and hits the sweet spot for that format. It’s fun to play for free, but offers some enticing upgrades for a reasonable price. If you’re looking for a new casual game to play and you’re tired of the same old genres, give Colossatron a try.

Check out Colossatron on the App Store: