I’m a big believer and advocate of taking an Inbox Zero approach to email. The basic premise of Inbox Zero – at least as I interpret it – is that you should hold a bayonet to the throat of every message that lands in your inbox and force it to give you a reason to keep it. You are your inbox’s only sentry, so guard it well. Okay, that’s a bit dramatic… or is it? If you consider how much time you spend in email and how much it actually drains your productivity if it controls you more than you control it, then maybe it’s not so radical.
Letting your email know who’s boss takes effort, practice, and constant discipline. But the rewards you reap from taking this approach keep you in the habit.
The latest email frenemy I’ve managed to tame is the email newsletter – that needed but dreaded hunk of gaudy HTML that lands in our inbox every day. We know that in maybe one out of five of them, there will be some link, some snippet of information that’s useful. So we either 1) stop what we’re doing to read them, 2) let them stack up in a stress-inducing “read later” pile within our email system, or 3) ignore them.
Options 1, 2, and 3 are all wrong in my opinion. There's a better way.
Newsletters, like any other emails that don’t require a response should be purged from your email system. Exile them to a place where you actually can read them later. But how?
First, my email system
My email system is a heavily adapted version of the systems described in David Allen’s Getting Things Done and also borrows from Merlin Mann’s Inbox Zero concept. I’ve been using my system for about a year now with great success.
The key is to always process your email inbox to zero (empty it) each time you enter. In the graphic below, the middle black circle should disappear when you’re done. When it disappears, you’re left with only good information (archived reference material) and actionable information.
You can then begin doing things and stop checking email. Really, stop checking.
Put another way:
- Is it reference material? If yes, archive it.
- Is it actionable? If yes…
- If it requires a response, put it in a respond pile using a special label.
- If it requires me to do something but no response is required, make it into a task in my task system.
- If it’s something I want to read later but does not require a reply, get it out of my email system to read later.
- If none of the above, it can probably be trashed.
I consider newsletters “read later” material. But I’ve found that storing them within my email system is bad because they can really accumulate. Further more, it’s difficult to decide when to read those “read later” messages and when to process, reply, and do other more productive things in my email.
I’ve found that the more I can segregate these activities, the more efficient I am. To me, email is much more useful if stays a communication system, not a magazine rack.
So what does a “read later” pile outside of your email system look like?
Enter Posterous, a ridiculously simple blogging platform built around email.
With Posterous, you can blog using email to post just about anything you would ever want to post on a blog. Pictures, video, PDF, anything you can attach to an email, you can fire right into Posterous. It will do everything required to make it viewable online for you. All you have to do is send an email to your Posterous email address (e.g. post@[yourdomain].posterous.com).
For more information on using Posterous, check out their FAQ.
It occurred to me that I can set up a dedicated, private Posterous blog solely as a dumping spot for email newsletters – or really anything that I want to get out of my email and into a “read later” pile.
I can simply forward email newsletters right into my dedicated Posterous blog, and it retains the formatting. The best part is that I don’t even have to visit the blog to read the newsletters: I simply subscribe to the blog’s RSS feed using Google Reader, where all my other “read-only” stuff awaits.
This means that when I’m in Reader and have time to read, I can read the full newsletter right there. I can also send it to Instapaper from Reader if I want.
And it doesn’t just work for HTML newsletters. I can also forward emails with attachments like PDF, and Posterous will embed and attach them to the post.
Everything is kept in one, searchable spot that I can come back to anytime. It also occurred to me that I could use comments in Posterous to make notes, but I haven’t found a need to do that yet. Accessing it from Reader seems to work just fine.
In the end, using Posterous as a “read later” repository has the following benefits:
- My email inbox stays cleaner
- I ensure that I don’t miss any important information in newsletters
- I can quickly scan newsletters for information when I’m in a “reading” mindset (i.e. when I’m in Google Reader)
- I’ve taken another step toward maintain an action-based approach to email handling
If you have any tips for processing email into distinct piles, or really anything related to GTD and email, please let me know.