How I manage my email

The odds are high that if you are in a lead or management position in the games industry, you are getting a lot of email. This post presents the system I have been using to manage my email since March 2008. It is easy to set up and easy to use.

My approach is based on Gina Trapani’s system, which she describes in this Lifehacker post. Her system is based on a slightly more involved method by productivity expert Merlin Mann, described here. And I suspect that his system is based on David Allen’s GTD, probably the most popular general time management method right now.

The four folders

I use IMAP to access my email. I archive all of my emails on my main computer, which is being backed up regularly. I’ve created three folders on my mail server: FollowUp, Hold and Later. On my main computer, I have a folder called Archive.

Here is what these folders are for:

  • FollowUp contains any emails that require an action on my part. Not necessarily a response – an action. If I need to reply to an email, it goes in here. If I get an email saying someone is following me on Twitter, and I need to decide if I am going to follow them back, that email goes in here. Even if I just need to read and think about an email, but don’t have the time to do so right away, it goes in here.
  • Hold contains any emails that I need to have around for awhile, but do not require an action. Examples are shipping information emails and flight and hotel reservations. The nice thing about IMAP is that I can access these emails from anywhere, as long as I have an internet connection. I don’t have a lot of emails in here, but I wouldn’t know of a better place to put them if I didn’t have this folder.
  • Later contains emails I want to read later. It’s that simple. It usually contains emails from mailing lists or links to articles I intend to read. There is a grey zone between FollowUp and Later. Later means you will read it later, but that is an action, so why isn’t it in FollowUp? If it’s not important, why isn’t it in Archive? My rule is: If the email requires an action, but I can afford to ignore it, I put it in Later. Otherwise, it goes in FollowUp.
  • Archive contains all emails I have dealt with. Again, it’s that simple. I used to archive using a hierarchical set of folders, but I stopped doing that and now just put everything into one huge mailbox. It makes archiving that much easier – meaning I actually do it – and search is powerful enough these days that I can find any email I need. I haven’t missed my hierarchical folders at all, especially now that I’ve added some smart mailboxes.

The final folder in this system is the Inbox. And again, the rule is simple: keep it empty.

My old system

Before I explain how I use these folders, let me tell you about my old system. I had a pretty full inbox. If something needed following up, I would flag it. I added a smart mailbox showing me all flagged emails so I could quickly see them all. This seemed a reasonable approach to me, but it didn’t work. It didn’t give me clarity of mind. I would still look at my inbox and feel stressed over certain emails, whether they were flagged or not.

I think there are a few reasons for this. First, when I looked at my full inbox with flagged emails, there was a lot of information on the screen, a lot of emails that all required different things: reading, replying, processing. In my new system, all folders except Archive contain a very low number of emails, and most of them are basically a little list that I can work through email by email.

Second, it was not clear from looking at my inbox which emails I had processed – in the sense of determining what I needed to do with it – and which I hadn’t. To me, the key element of GTD and similar time management methods is the processing and classification of items. You separate the time management itself from the actual work. You sit down and process your unsorted, messy list of (as David Allen puts it so well) stuff and you classify it into containers corresponding to how you intend to treat each item. Then you actually deal with the items.

When you do this, it becomes incredibly clear what you need to do with each email. Everything becomes nice and crisp. If it’s in your inbox, you haven’t processed it yet. And that is something that became hard to see in my old system. Unread status just doesn’t do it: often you need to read an email to decide what to do with it. Setting the mail back to unread is cumbersome, and then you can’t tell which are the really unread emails, and which ones are read, but unprocessed ones. With my current system, it doesn’t matter if a mail is read or unread: if it’s in my inbox, it’s unprocessed.

How to use the folders

After setting up the folders, there are a couple of routines you need to follow on a regular basis. First of all, keep your inbox clean. The nice thing is that this requires almost no brain power. I do this on my iPhone in the subway. Just go through each email and move them to the right folder.

Second: check your FollowUp folder and, well, follow up. The FollowUp folder is like a to-do list (but only like: I use a different program to handle my main to-do list, as I don’t think email clients are the right tool for this). Effectively managing a to-do list is a topic that is beyond the scope of this article.

Third, occasionally check your Later and Hold folders. This should be lower priority. You should not be able to get into trouble over ignoring these folders for a while. You did put that flight on your calendar, right?

How to get started

So how do you get started with this? It’s easy. Set up the folders, and process your inbox. I had one full inbox and at least two ‘DMZ’ folders containing emails going back years when I started using this system. I blew through all of them, many hundreds of emails, in a few hours. Just process. Archive, FollowUp, Later, Archive, Archive, Hold, Archive. Don’t think about what the email is about or what work it entails: just put it in the right folder. It was very easy, and incredibly satisfying.

So that is how I’ve been managing my email. It works for me: I have had an empty inbox since the day I started using this system. Maybe it can work for you as well. I have not used this system under the toughest of conditions. When I was a producer at Rockstar Games, I would get an incredible amount of email. We had many automated emails: repository summaries, vacation requests, build process reports. Everyone was strongly encouraged to communicate using email, and to put a ton of people on cc. However, I think this system, perhaps extended, will be able to deal with that kind of pressure.

How do you manage your email?

Comments 9

  1. Stephane wrote:

    Thank you Jurie!
    I was using my inbox as my Hold folder and it was causing me exactly the kind of anguish you’ve described.
    I feel much better now :)

    I use a similar method, although I do keep separate folders for mailing lists (automatically sorted and de facto “Later”-tagged) and jobs, when a multitude of unrelated mails can be hard to search for in a big archive.
    I also keep folders for things I know I’ll have to access far in the future (proofs of payment, yearly subscriptions, etc.). It wouldn’t feel right to put them in Hold.

    Posted 25 Jan 2009 at 14:20
  2. Jurie wrote:

    I also have a server-side folder called MailingLists, with server-side rules moving mailing list emails in there. As you say, it is, de facto, the same as Later.

    Jobs, good point. For the last job that involved a lot of emails to different people (organizing the GFG 2008 conference, in fact), I had server-side and client-side folders for holding and archiving. I try to use a smart folder if I can.

    I have some things in Hold that are pretty permanent, like a file I can use to help track down my laptop in case it should get stolen.

    Everyone has slightly different needs: I don’t claim this method to be perfect for everyone. But it’s hopefully a decent base to start from, or a source of ideas.

    Posted 25 Jan 2009 at 14:27
  3. Jurie wrote:

    And I didn’t specify this in the article, but GMail or other webmail services make some of this a bit easier. But I don’t use GMail.

    Posted 25 Jan 2009 at 14:28
  4. Stephane wrote:

    Okay, I’ll bite: What service do you use?

    Posted 25 Jan 2009 at 15:09
  5. Jurie wrote:

    I didn’t mean to imply that I use some exotic but carefully selected email service. I use Dreamhost, my web host. I wouldn’t recommend you to go out of your way for their mail service, but it works for me.

    Posted 25 Jan 2009 at 15:20
  6. Stephane wrote:

    Too late!
    I’ve subscribed to their most expensive plan.

    Damn you influential internet people!

    Posted 25 Jan 2009 at 15:30
  7. Jurie wrote:

    I’m pretty happy with them as a web host actually. I say that despite their amusing snafu a year back where they prematurely billed all of their customers for the next year, and despite their latest newsletter, which was poop-themed. I am not joking.

    Posted 25 Jan 2009 at 15:43
  8. thomers wrote:

    Interesting read, thanks! I’m curious – are you a GTD-practitioner in general?

    (lol, actually I’m just wondering whether there’s an official GTD certification, because every cool system has to have even cooler people getting money from you to hand you a paper stating you now belong to this inner circle of cool dudes, right? *g*).

    Seriously, I just started using my private (as in non-enterprise) blackberry, and I after reading your post I checked but I don’t think I can move mails from the inbox into any folder there… :-( (I know I could do it with the enterprise blackberries I had).

    Posted 02 Feb 2009 at 14:01
  9. Jurie wrote:

    Hmmm… that sucks about the Blackberry. I have an additional folder called ‘ToArchive’ so I can move mails there on the iPhone for later archiving. Ideally, I’d like to automatically do that, but I haven’t yet figured out how to do that.

    And no, I cannot call myself a GTD practicioner. I’ve read the book twice, I learned a lot from it and it’s very inspirational, but I never used GTD as is. I do feel what I am using is strongly GTD inspired, but hey, no clue if David Allen would agree or not. I’d say the book was worth the money but since Stephane gave it to me as a gift that’d be naughty ;)

    For what it’s worth: I am planning to put in place a process for handling physical mail, and it would be quite similar to the process outlined above. And for task management I use Things for Mac and iPhone. It rocks. I tried OmniFocus too, which is more GTD-ish, but – and this is directly related that GTD-ishness – I found it hard to get into and actually use.

    Posted 02 Feb 2009 at 14:47