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How to tame the in-box


E-mail is the worst.
Between alerts from Facebook, newsletters from Groupon, reply-all e-mail chains, work brainstorming sessions and social coordinating, the in-box becomes a daunting pit of quicksand. At a certain point, even the most dogged among us give up.

I certainly did. I began avoiding my in-box, figuring any important messages would be re-sent until I noticed them, or delivered by a more efficient route, like a text message or, in the case of something grave or urgent, a call. But obviously, that doesn’t work. I missed crucial notes from colleagues and an offer of free tickets to see the Brooklyn Nets take on the Chicago Bulls.

Enough was enough. I combed through tech help sites, polled friends and tried to figure out how to make my life more efficient and productive.

There’s no quick fix. But set aside a few hours one afternoon, brew a pot of coffee, get a tasty snack, put on your favorite playlist and roll up your sleeves. It’s time to tame your in-box.

ELIMINATE CLUTTER You don’t need to get an e-mail every time someone messages you on Facebook, follows you on Twitter or endorses you on LinkedIn. Go into the settings on these services and turn off e-mail notifications. Then do the same for the daily e-mails from various news sites, coupon companies, travel deals and concert halls. You’re never going to sign up for that tarot reading class, no matter how cheap the offer is on Groupon, and if you do decide you want it, you can Google around and find a bargain.

FILTERS ARE YOUR FRIEND For recurring e-mails to which you can’t unsubscribe — like the ones from annoying relatives — consider setting up filters for them. Regardless of which e-mail client you use, you should be able to set up filters to capture all the e-mails from one source and file them in a tidy folder until you are ready to deal with them or delete them in one satisfying swoop.

This is ideal for regular, nonurgent, recurring e-mails from a person or company you don’t need to deal with immediately, but don’t want to delete until you’ve had time to check. For example, you could funnel all messages from your child’s teacher or messages related to an coming group trip into separate folders. The downside of filtering is that it’s easy to create too many folders and forget to check them.

V.I.P. STATUS The latest version of Apple’s mail client has a nifty new feature that lets you designate certain people as V.I.P.’s. When messages from those senders arrive, they are flagged so you notice them right away. Ideal for bosses, significant others, children and best friends.

If you use iCloud, it will automatically update your contact list on your other Apple devices, like the iPhone and iPad. The V.I.P. feature is ideal for iPhone users because it will deliver a notification to your home screen so you don’t miss an important e-mail while you’re on the move.

GET IN AND GET OUT A friend and former Twitter employee told me his rule of thumb for dealing with lots of e-mail: Reply fast, archive freely. Check e-mail a few times a day, instead of constantly, to avoid getting caught in a whirlpool.

CHUCK E-MAIL ALTOGETHER Sometimes, when e-mail is too overwhelming, try corresponding with your friends and colleagues directly via instant message, direct message on Twitter or text message. The format demands brevity and succinctness and is a godsend during busy times.

OUTSIDE HELP Now that you’ve gotten the basics under control, seek out some friendly bots to help manage your messages. There are plenty of programs, either free or cheap, that can sift through your incoming mail.

Sanebox: Sanebox performs triage on your messages as they arrive. It tries to determine which you will want to read immediately and which can wait — and does a decent job. One criticism is that the service occasionally sends you e-mails (more e-mail!), asking you to skim through some of what it trapped in its filter, to help sharpen its algorithms about what is and is not essential. But as a treat, the app estimates how much time it saves you on an average day.

Mailstrom: This tool tries to help you analyze and make sense of your in-box. The biggest sender of e-mails, not surprisingly, was my editor. The second biggest? Myself. Google Alerts, set up for certain companies and news, were also cluttering my in-box.

The best thing about Mailstrom is that it has a dashboard that lets you quickly delete huge swaths of messages from a single sender or company. You can skim e-mails by content — like social or shopping — or time period, so you can go through all e-mails from four years ago and delete them quickly and, if you choose, in one big chunk. One evening, I gleefully eliminated around 500 e-mails from Yelp, Twitter, Instagram and Kickstarter in a series of satisfying clicks.

Mailbox: The shiny new kid on the block for e-mail apps, Mailbox is ideal for people with lower volume who use their e-mail accounts as to-do lists and get a kick out of clearing out their entire in-boxes. Mailbox, which is free, has a nifty snooze feature that pushes an e-mail out of your in-box until later, when you are ready to deal with it.

Inbox: This ingenious tool adds a giant “pause” button to your Gmail in-box. One click stops all incoming e-mails until you click it again. It’s a godsend for those times when you need to cut out all distractions.

RETRAIN YOURSELF AND OTHERS Part of the problem with e-mail is that our etiquette on how we use it is flawed. We send notes when a simple text or call would do and bug our friends until we hear from them. Courteously is a free app that determines your level of e-mail traffic. It then provides you with a link you can share or put in your e-mail signature that will let contacts know whether your current load is high, regular or low.

Does it work? After installing, the service told me that my in-box, at 40,000 unread messages, was “normal,” so I never used it again. But I suspect its ultimate goal is conditioning us to be more considerate about when we send e-mails.

WHEN IN DOUBT, GET OUT One kindly reader wrote to tell me that my problems with e-mail could easily be solved by simply getting up from my sad, soulless, windowless cubicle and actually talking to the colleagues who’ve e-mailed me. He said I would “get the satisfaction of personal contact which is much less alienating than mashing the keyboard.”

Jenna Wortham

This article first appeared in the New York Times 10th April


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