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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?