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Duncan and I are the only people who know how to fix email using Gmail’s least popular feature

Thanks to Duncan Farley @ Ancoris for nagging me to get this written down 🙂

You have an email account, yes? In fact you probably have separate accounts for work and personal use. You get spam, right? Both the Nigerian wanting to transfer $25 million into your account temporarily type, and the sort you get from your work colleagues containing sponsorship pleas, notifications of cake in the kitchen and endless threads that you’re CCd in for no apparent reason.

This last abuse is the cause for most complaints I’ve heard about email: blunderbuss distribution by those who can’t be bothered to identify precisely to whom they should be making their request, or who want to ensure that there are plenty of witnesses to the fact that whatever has gone wrong is not their fault. At Orchard we have a relatively healthy code of conduct with email: don’t email someone if you can speak to them face to face or call them, don’t BCC, only CC people if they really need to know etc. We also use Instant Messaging which is used for the “I’ll die if you don’t make that coffee soon lol” type notes that would otherwise clog you up. Nevertheless, people generally say that they hate email, it steals your time, you spend hours farming and filing it, it’s a poor substitute for genuinely productive conversations.

And yet, we all use it every day. If it’s such a terrible medium, then why is this?

The benefits of email are obvious, but you may have forgotten about them so please indulge me and allow me to remind you. It’s free to use. It’s instant. You can search it. You can send pictures, sound recordings, links to other resources. OK so you can do all of these things with messaging apps, SMS text messaging, collaboration tools and social media, but email is the only medium which is designed for long-form authoring: carefully crafted missives that require careful reading, thought and a structured response. And such things are most definitely still necessary — you just can’t plan and craft every aspect of business using only emoji and hashtags.

A few years ago Orchard switched from Microsoft Office to what was at the time called Google Apps, now G Suite. I had already been using Gmail in a pilot for six months, but the full switch involved migrating to Drive, Docs, Sheets, Slides, Sites and Google+ for work-related social comms. It was painful for some folk who were had to be dragged from the swamp of customisation and inventive feature repurposing that Microsoft Office encouraged them to construct, but from the off I was a fan of the simpler Google world that promised to force people into value-adding activity instead of striving for Word template formatting perfection.

Don’t get me wrong — there were and still are things about G Suite that annoy me, and it falls far short of Office in some ways that I actually do think are important. However any qualms were completely outweighed by Gmail’s killer feature — an effectively limitless mailbox.

In former Outlook days, I once analysed my inbound email over several weeks and found that on average I received twelve new real things to attend to each day. The rest of the hundred or so non-spam emails I received were of the “CCd”, “FYI”, “OK thanks” or “Just a quick question” varieties. Even so, if I was out of the office for only two days (which happened most weeks), my mailbox limit would bust and inbound messages would start bouncing.

To prevent this from happening I would have to spend at least two hours every week deleting emails that would definitely never be needed again, and filing the rest in an ever-more complicated folder structure. I’m not anally retentive, I really do need to dredge up old emails from years ago every now and again. To this day I regularly have colleagues ask me if I have a copy of an email they sent me a year ago, which leaves me wondering why they can’t find it in their own mailbox… well perhaps this post may inspire some of them.

So, when I switched to Gmail and my mailbox limit increased from 50Mb to 10Gb I naturally felt liberated. Then.. .what’s that? The allocation isn’t used up by Google-format items? Happy days! I calculated that I had at least seven years before I needed to think about asking for more space. However notwithstanding Gmail’s excellent spam filtering, I was still receiving a huge quantity of stuff in my inbox. To try to keep it organised enough that I could see what the hell was going on, I still had to file away everything I’d read or actioned.

The default behaviour of Gmail is that it automatically separates email into tabbed lists based on whether it thinks it’s Social, Promotion, Updates, Forums or is none of the above and must be something important — Primary. I didn’t want to change one overfull mailbox for five, and I like to live life on the edge so instead decided to try the Priority Inbox feature in which you let Google work out whether something is ‘important’, and concentrate your attention on the ‘important and unread’ items. Scarily, I found that this worked very well from day one. It took me a little while to build the confidence to stop compulsively checking the Everything Else list, but it’s a mind-cleansing experience having someone filter all the crap out for you.

Takeaway One: Google knows what you need better than you do. Trust me/it.

I dig the concept of creating information webs by tagging posts, so started applying at least one label to everything I sent or received, and created folders to show items with the relevant label. After a few weeks of creating more and more labels, more and more folders to show the labels, running out of colours for the labels I came to the realisation that actually I was just creating a different flavour of admin hell.

I had to make a choice: spend an exponentially increasing proportion of my time organising stuff, or let go. I chose life, resolved to abandon labelling and filing altogether, and instead trust my ability to find things later by searching.

I quickly found that doing it this way actually reduced the amount of time I spent looking for things. When you’re trained to navigate folder structures, sooner or later you’re going to want something that isn’t where you would expect it to be. It just isn’t possible to design the perfect filing structure, and beyond the stamina of all but the most ardent of librarians to cross-label things sufficiently well to cater for all future requirements. However when you put effort into search instead, you come to expect that what you are looking for will be in the first few results… you know, like that other thing that Google does. The only time this doesn’t work is when info-terrorists pollute your taxonomic nirvana by sending emails entitled “Quick question”, or no subject line at all, or ask you a new question in a reply to another thread (grrrrr).

Takeaway Two: Stop labelling and filing. You will be able to find it later.

I added a section to the Priority Inbox to show Starred items. Every time someone asked me to do something I couldn’t immediately respond to, I would star it and use this section as my To Do list. Voilà! I have found how to use a mail inbox as an actually quite effective work management tool.

However I still had a problem. The ‘Important and unread’ section only shows email that is deemed by Google to be important and, um, unread. So if I read an email and then closed it without remembering to star it, it would move to the Everything else section. Potentially important stuff needing my attention could (and did) get lost amongst the ever-growing heap of colleague-spam, Medium post updates and LinkedIn connection requests. Back to farming, sigh.

Then one day I had a revelation: Archiving. I had previously never understood what this was about — I mean you either want to keep something in your mailbox, file it away or delete it, right? Nope, not if you’re not labelling things. In effect, archiving is filing, only everything is filed in one big folder called “Archive”. This is OK because you’re going to use search to retrieve stuff later. I then combined with the the ‘lab’ extension that adds a “Send and Archive” button to the email editor, so that any email or reply is sent and then the whole thread archived at the same time. I’ve always used the Conversation Thread mode in Gmail which collects together emails with the same subject line; you have to be a little careful when using this as you could archive a thread with unactioned replies.

Takeaway three: Archive everything that you don’t need to read or action but want to keep just in case. And do keep stuff just in case, because you have unlimited space and it’s actually fewer clicks than deleting it.

The result: I can now usually see my entire mailbox in a single page, and that’s using a Chromebook with a smallish screen. The notification number on the Gmail icon on my iPhone shows the actual number of emails I need to read, and is usually a single digit, unlike a nameless senior colleague who has over 6,500 unread emails showing. My To Do (Starred) list is in the same place as my inbox.

And for the first time in my entire professional career, last month I got my inbox down to zero items. Bliss.

Of course I then sat paralyzed until the next email arrived…

This is my inbox late last week, and how your world could look:

BTW I do still get over a hundred emails every day, it’s just that they’re under control.

I’ve been living the dream for a couple of years now, but until recently didn’t know anyone else that used Priority Inbox, much less had achieved the zen calm I now inhabit. That was until I bumped into Duncan Farley at a conference in December. Like a chance encounter between two trainspotters delighted to meet another who shares their shameful passion, we excitedly babbled that “Yeah I do that too and nobody else does!” I promised to blog about it, so here it is.

Please try this out then if Google try to take away Priority Inbox (which I worry they might judging by the as yet awful new Android Gmail app), complain.

Thank you, no need to thank me.

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