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Email Management: Inbox Zero versus Inbox Infinity and My Recommendations

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A couple of days ago, The Atlantic published an article on Inbox Infinity. The article has a very provoking title: "Don’t Reply to Your Emails".

It refers to a method which got popular by Merlin Mann.

Inbox Zero

In an ultra-short summary of Inbox Zero, you should master an empty email inbox by only applying one of five simple rules once to each email when you see it the first time. This prevents you from re-processing the same emails over and over when you frequently skim through your inbox which is redundant and lost effort.

  1. Delete
  2. Delegate (and delete or archive)
  3. Respond (and delete or archive)
  4. Defer by putting it in your task management (and delete or archive)
  5. Do now if it is done within two minutes (and delete or archive)

I embraced the method since many years and despite the fact that my inboxes usually do contain more than one email, it really did help me with email management.

Inbox Infinity

The article of The Atlantic states that you should accept the fact that there are too many emails to process. Therefore, you should stop trying to read and/or answer all emails. Modern software typically doesn't have issues with "too many emails".

But some people don’t realize that I physically couldn’t even open every email I receive, let alone answer each one.” Simply accepting that, she said, has made email much more manageable.
One critical step in the inbox-infinity method is to publicly admit that you have too much email to handle and be up front about not responding. You can start by messaging close contacts and family members, providing them with alternative ways to reach you. A friendly message to relatives might say, “Hi, I’m overwhelmed with email these days. I’d still love to hear from you, but if you want to reach me, I’d much prefer a call on the phone. My number is X.”
Not everyone has a job where they can manage this: A client will not likely accept your new inbox-infinity Zen state as an excuse for a missed deadline. However, even instituting this policy in your personal inbox will make your life saner.

My Thoughts On Inbox Infinity

I pity everybody who has to deal with several hundreds of emails each day.

The fact that Inbox Zero doesn't work for some people because of sheer email amount is an indicator that they do have other issues which needs to be fixed. In my opinion, Inbox Zero should always be a viable method. If not, email in general does not work (any more) for those people.

First of all, I'd suggest that preventing high numbers of emails in the first place.

I personally do not read mailinglists using my email system. I prefer to handle the ten to twenty mailinglists I'm subscribed to using my Usenet reader over NNTP. Gmane is a service that does the conversion from emails to usenet threads.

Unsubscribing to nice-to-have but not really relevant mailinglists reduces the amount of less important FYI-emails even more.

Some companies do have developed the habit of putting many coworkers in the Cc header of emails to replace internal communication effort with it. In my opinion, this is a very bad habit where all Cc-receiving parties do have to invest the effort of extracting the relevant parts of those potential long emails all the time. This is rude and does not scale for everybody.

A good email habit is to send multiple emails when you do have multiple requests you would otherwise write into one long email. This seems to be contra-productive since this results in more emails. On the other hand side, you could then keep each email very short and keep the email receiving parties to a minimum per email.

Using auto-responders and ignoring most emails all-together is no option to me. If you practice this method, you either transfer your problem to your communication partners which I consider being rude or you are moving your problem to different channels, like chat or phone. This results in information overload due to information fragmentation.

An email client that offers threaded view is able to help managing emails significantly. No, Outlook does not offer this feature in a way that it is of any help.

My Personal Email Method

I'm using just two main folders for emails: inbox and archive.

Practice Inbox Zero and provide easy to use shortcuts for each action including moving something to the archive or to your task management.

Master a decent email filter tool which filters out emails according to your rules to one spam-folder. Emails in spam folder that are older than Y months get purged automatically.

The email client has to offer decent query methods according to time, people, and arbitrary keywords in header or body.

The email client provides a decent threaded view of email conversations.

The archive contains all emails sent by me and all archived emails.

Archive emails get archived to files when they are older than XX months to limit the refinding effort.

Using a flexible software setup is a bonus.

Research

Most things I mentioned in this article are well researched and backed up with research results.

There is one book that summarizes many research work: "The Science of Managing our Digital Stuff" by Ofer Bergman and Steve Whittaker, two very well established PIM researchers.

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