Yesterday, in response to an article by Marc Orchant that I read in More Space: Nine Antidotes to Complacency in Business, I overhauled my email filing structure. Most of the old structure is still there (maybe when I get a faster computer, I'll be satisfied to use search tools rather than filing to find messages, but for now, I'm keeping a bunch of folders), but I made a few key changes. My primary goal was to empty my in-box and keep it empty.

Until yesterday (hopefully never again!) I was one of those people with thousands of messages in my in-box. A lot of them could have been deleted long ago, I'm sure, but I would have had to dig through hundreds or thousands of messages to find the ones that were ready to go. Although I have filed many messages away, my inbox was still filled with:

  • The early messages in conversations that had already ended (which I hadn't gone back and deleted).
  • Less urgent action items that had gotten lost in the pile.
  • Less urgent reading material that had gotten lost in the pile.
  • Messages I'd left open to remind me to respond to them, to which I had responded, but since they'd been buried in the pile before that, I couldn't see them to delete them (and I didn't bother to go searching for them).
  • Messages that I wanted to keep around temporarily (eg. tracking numbers for things I'd bought online), which had served their purpose and been left to rot because they were buried by the time they were ready for deletion.
  • etc.

I haven't been using my new system long enough to be sure that I've got the problem licked (I may have simply moved it off to some different folders), but I at least have reason for hope. Here's the basic outline of my filing structure now:

  • In box (new items and things that need to be acted on NOW)
  • Act (things that require action from me)
    • Today (but not necessarily NOW)
    • Soon
    • Someday (hopefully!)
  • Read (information I need to read, but not necessarily act on)
    • Bugtraq (messages to the bugtraq mailing list automatically get filed here. I periodically scan the subject lines to see if there's anything I need to read. If not, I delete everything).
    • Atom (same story, only with the IETF Atom Syntax mailing list)
    • Marketing (I've subscribed to a number of marketing-related mailing lists. All that stuff gets files here automatically. Someday, if I get me schedule under control again, I may resume reading it!)
  • File (most of my old filing heirarchy still exists here, but nothing new will go here unless I want to keep it. In the past, I also filed low-priority messages that I hadn't processed yet, leaving them marked "unread"...and generally ignored them after that).

With luck and a little discipline, I'll keep my in-box empty of anything I'm not working on, clear out my "Today" box pretty much every day (it's more of a "in the next 24 business hours" box than a literal "today" box), clear out the "Soon" box at least weekly, and prevent the "Someday" box from growing...too quickly!

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[...] to visit all the major sites, one-by-one,or ignore some of them. It’s similar to the “too many in-boxes” problem that I blogged about a few years ago. Only this time, it’s “too many [...]
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I've titled this entry "Too many in-boxes" for two reasons. One is that, as mentioned above, I used to file non-urgent action items alongside saved items, essentially creating a few dozen in-boxes for myself. Too many. The other is another issue altogether.

Along with my email in-box, I have four others: new posts in my forum (I bookmark them in my feed reader until they're taken care of), my private message box in my forum, new tickets in my helpdesk system, and my private message box in my helpdesk system. Too many.

The forum and helpdesk systems provide essential services, and I have no intention of getting rid of them. In the forum, I have at least a little hope that someone else will answer a question before I get to it (thanks so much to those who do!) In the helpdesk system, conversations are automatically organized so that they messages aren't interspersed with messages from a gazillion other conversations. (When I hire someone to do tech support, it will also facilitate the routing of questions to the appropriate person--I'm sure I'll still be answering a lot of the more difficult questions).

But the private messaging features of both systems are now officially endangered species--once I've cleared those in-boxes, I'll be turning those features off. It's not that private messaging isn't needed, just that usng it shouldn't require the creation of yet another in-box. I'll probably enable the sending of private messages via the forum, but they won't be stored by the forum--just forwarded to the user's private email account (without revealing the recipient's address).

In the helpdesk, I'll probably just remove private messaging altogether. I currently see all of the tickets that are submitted, and if I hire someone to take over tech support, they'll be able to route any messages meant for me my way. If the message you want to send me really needs to be private and you don't already know my email address, you can always post a "teaser" message. Either it will get assigned to me, after which the conversation will be private, or I'll send you my email address.

One in-box may not be enough, but five is definitely too many.