Zen and the Art of Inbox Maintenance

Email can lead to fits of unholy rage.

Everyone has a torrent of email to parse through and sometimes it feels impossible to keep up.

The method for dealing with this headache is unique to each email user. For the 30 people in your office, there might be 30 different ways that people organize (or don’t organize) their email inbox.

I see inbox organization as akin to how clean people keep their desks. For instance, I can tolerate a certain level of clutter, but I reach a breaking point when I simply have to clean my desk or I will become overwhelmed and perhaps even a little disgusted with myself.

By contrast, I have worked with absolute neat freaks, who always filed papers in drawers, aligned their stapler and mouse pad and never left a stray pencil on their desk. And then there was the guy in the back corner who sat at a workstation teetering on the brink of disaster; piles of papers, books and discarded snacks stacked so high that I feared for his well-being.

A days worth of Googling reveals that email users can be bucketed into three general types. Of course, these three “types” form a spectrum and people can fall anywhere on the line. You might not see yourself as staying completely true to any one of these “types”, but instead feel like you are somewhere in between.

To File or Not to File: A Profile of Three Emailers12065642501242564915sarxos_closed_simple_yellow_foldersvgmed11

The Zealot: They use folders and labels religiously. An endless list of folders lines the left side of their inbox. Sometimes there are folders within folders. The Zealot often uses color codes, flags and stars to create a sense of order. These people are generally very organized in other aspects of their lives and find meaning in religiously filing emails by category, project, administrative task or client.
The Monk: The Monk uses only three folders. That’s it. The goal is an “empty” inbox, which provides the Monk a sense of calm. Inbox Nirvana. This method is popular and it pops up quite often on blogs, productivity websites, etc. I’ve seen it referred to as, “The Trusted Trio”, by Gina Trapani on lifehacker.com. The Trusted Trio is: A Follow-Up or To-Do Folder; an Archive Folder; and a Hold Folder. Trapani suggests that users should either respond to an email in under two minutes or, if it requires a lengthier response, place it in the Follow-Up folder to tend to later. All the emails that you might need to reference in the future are placed in the Archive Folder. Finally, the Hold Folder is for those emails that you might need in the next couple of days, such as correspondence on your upcoming meeting or the invitation to a dinner that you’ll attend in two days.

There are several variations on this method, but the general concept remains the same.

The Non-Believer: And, then there are those who do nothing. The way they organize their inbox is by not organizing it. They simply go through their emails, delete, respond, or mark as unread in order to respond at a later time. This person often keeps an archive of prior years. The Non-Believer relies on search tools to retrieve information and relevant emails. As recently as a couple of years ago, the Non-Believer got a bad rap. Their method was viewed as lazy, disorganized, even negligent. All this has changed. The advent of new technology (such as Xobni), allows the Non-Believers to more easily justify their existence. They posit, “Why waste time filing and organizing, when Xobni can find whatever information I need in seconds?”

I would argue that the Non-Believer raises an excellent point.

4 Responses to “Zen and the Art of Inbox Maintenance”

  1. 1 Steve Wilkerson September 11, 2009 at 9:03 am

    I write to ask you to get this to someone who can help me. Although your site show’s me signed in at the email address I have sent you, your support site says it has no such email address among users of Oxobni Plus. I have it, I use it (or I’m trying to), according to Xobni as a Plus subscriber I am entitled to special support for a year but I can’t get there from here. You don’t have to post this, just get it to someone who can get back to me and get this straightened out.


  2. 2 Paul September 23, 2009 at 9:56 am

    I have to admit, that I am a Non-Believer, I am just too lazy to put my mails into folders. Although with the new generation of search tools (xobni or lookeen for example) we are now seen as organized as the Monk or the Zealot I feel a little bit of shame, because both of them are so much better organized also in other areas that I sometimes don’t think it is justified to put them and us on the same level 😉

  1. 1 Today’s Startup and Entrepreneurial Updates | CenterNetworks Trackback on September 1, 2009 at 7:45 am
  2. 2 Your One Stop Spot » Today’s Startup and Entrepreneurial Updates Trackback on September 1, 2009 at 10:59 pm

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