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Rambling on Productivity and Email (Part One)

I know I have written many articles on productivity as it relates to Email and GTD before. Check out some past articles here, here, and here. In fact, that last article is my most hit and read article on my blog, in the (almost) five years I've been blogging.

Recently, with a lot of various changes within my personal lifestyle, such as getting the iPhone 3GS, consolidation of email addresses, and generally trying to establish a workable workflow in life, I've been putting the touches on how to process email and generally work with things in life more efficiently. I'll try and write a series of articles on this, so I don't bore you with one big long one.

First, and probably the most interesting as far as I think, is how I process email.

So, my corporate email is Gmail. My company moved our Email hosting solution to Gmail a bit ago, foregoing the traditional take on keeping email in-house, backing it up, using IMAP or Exchange, having people manage it. etc.. It saved our company a ton of money by doing it, and I find that things are much more efficient now that our email is hosted in Gmail.

First off, almost everyone in the computer industry has a Google account now. It's a hard pressed experience to find anyone that doesn't have a account now. I know a ton of companies that their actual email domain (such as ours) is gmail's engine as well. So it's a familiar interface. There was a bit of learning curve with some of our personnel when we first moved to Gmail, but so far it's been great, and if you are a business with the flexibility and need to reduce the amount of machines and backups and people that you are currently maintaining, I'd seriously consider taking a look at Gmail for your corporate enterprise.

Anyway, back to productivity...

Accounts and Consolidation
All my email accounts forward to one account. One. I virtually have about six email accounts for various things (such as emails originating from this blog), but all of them are forwarded to one account. This makes consolidation of email and processing much easier. In Gmail under "Settings", and then under the "Accounts" tab, you can put all your email addresses you have under here and it will be able to "Send mail as:" for all of the accounts that you forward to your one account. Below the accounts you are specifying are two radio buttons.

"Reply from the same address the message was sent to"
"Always reply from default address"

If you want to have all your email coming out of your one "consolidated" account always be that single address, leave the bottom radio button checked, however, if you want your email to be allowed to be sent as the address that it was received on, check the top radio button. This will allow all of your email to be addressed from the proper account when you reply or forward.

Gmail has abandoned the traditionalist thought of "putting email into folders", and after a while so did I. Now, for those of you (like me) that were used to their email coming into the inbox, and then having a series of filters, either in Outlook or, as you would read in my previous articles, to put those emails into folders, Gmail is a bit different. Instead of sorting things into "containers", you may have one email that is "tagged" with different containers. These tags and containers are called "Labels". Think of an email like a piece of paper. You can label this piece of paper with several things to remind you where to find this paper. So, let's say it's work related. You might tag it with "Work". What if it's a receipt? But it's also work related? You might tag it with "Work" and "Receipt", and maybe "Expense Report". The email doesn't exist in multiple copies, it's just labeled additional things.

There are two types of labels in my opinion. Types that I call "Straightfoward" and "Dynamic". (You won't see those terms in the interface, I just made them up.) Straightforward for me, is a static label. For instance. Anything from the domain "" is labeled as "Sourcefire". This can be considered a static folder, or Straightforward label.
Then I have another type of label that I call "Dynamic". This label spans across "folders" and labels. An example of this is, "Customers". Any email I get from a customer, I label as "Customer". These emails probably exist in about three other labels (receipts, to-do, Sourcefire, etc) but are also tagged as "Customer" so I know where to immediately go find an email from a customer.

Filters are a way of automatically performing different actions on emails. Applying labels, deleting them, marking them as read, skipping the inbox, etc. I talked about some of the things you can do with filters in this post. So I encourage a read of that. I use Filters as "How can I possibly get this email out of my inbox in the most efficient way possible if its something that I don't have to read right away".

For instance. I belong to about 20 or 30 listservers of various natures. Computer listservers, Apple listservers, Gmail listservers even. Things that interest me, things that I like to read or participate in. (This nets me about 1000 emails a day) But you know, these aren't things that need to be dealt with immediately. Sometimes, ever. The Listservers that aren't as important bypass my inbox directly. Read the above post on how I do this, and you'll see.

The point of this is, the email that I don't need to DEAL with right away gets put away.

When an email hits my inbox, I have one of three actions that I do with it.

1) Read it, Reply to it.
2) Read it, Make a Todo out of something it contains.
3) Read it, Archive it.

That's it, either write them back, make a Todo, or get rid of the email. I don't keep things in my Inbox. Inbox Zero is what I attribute this to. I follow the principle of "if an email takes less than two minutes to respond to, do it. Do it right now." If I think I'll need to write a long winded response, or I'll need to look something up in order to get a proper response to your email, I flag it as a Todo, and I Do it when I get done the inbox process. If I need to forward it, I do it. If I read it, digested the email, and it contains no action, I archive it. I'll write a blog post later on Todos and how I process those.

Another key thing if you follow my advice for email consolidation with Gmail is -- keyboard shortcuts. Seriously. You have got to learn these things. Go into your "Settings" in Gmail, and enable the Keyboard shortcuts. Go back to your inbox and Hit "?". Question Mark. You will get a nice on screen display with all the shortcuts that are available in the Gmail interface. It will take you about two weeks to master these, but after you do, you'll be flying through email. Almost too fast. Make sure you actually read what you are doing. Sometimes I'll make the mistake of checking off several emails at a time and archiving them. Accidentally archiving one I needed to deal with.

The reason I attribute some of my workflow process to the iPhone 3GS is, this is the first iPhone where the Gmail web app wasn't a complete dog in terms of performance. Prior to this version of the iPhone using the Gmail web app worked just fine, don't get me wrong, but it was slow enough to just tick me off enough to not want to use it. Now with the iPhone 3GS, the processor is faster, it executes javascript faster. It's become my replacement for the built in app on the iPhone now. (Oh yeah, and cut and paste helps a lot too when trying to put stuff into a ToDo list.)

Until next entry...

Please leave comments below.


mish said…
How do you manage to-dos? Just as a series of items labelled as such? Or do you do something else? I know Apple made a big deal about To-Dos in mail .app and wasn't sure if there was Labs functionality for something similar or what?
Joel Esler said…
That'll be my next post. Thanks Mish.

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