Using Email Rules to break up the Inbox Tsunami

A couple of years ago, I had 4 jobs. I was teaching a Masters professional communication subject with 60 students; I had been seconded part-time to a huge web project that I ended up project managing; I was still working in Academic Skills and running 2 social media platforms and an online teaching feedback service; and I was trying to pull together the ends of (count them) 4 articles/chapters in various stages of nearly published. I was crazy. And my inbox was crazy.

Now my inbox is usually pretty crowded, because I’m someone who does everything via my email. It’s my to do list. It’s my read it later storage. It’s my place to keep a record of everything that happens for reporting purposes. It’s my place for notes to self. It’s my preferred way of communicating with colleagues.

When I was using Rescue Time to track how long I spent doing various kinds of work, I discovered I was using email at my desk for 8 hours a week. That wasn’t counting email on my phone, on my laptop, at home. These days, it’s probably 16 hours a week.

I’ve tried having multiple apps and platforms, like Pocket and Evernote, but I’m absolutely an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ kind of person. If I’m not looking right at it, I’ll forget all about it.

At the same time, if I see a bright red notification on my mail app that says ’54’, (or some days ‘154’) I’ll have a heart attack. I can cope with any number around 20, but more than that is too stressful. I pretty much never get to ‘inbox zero’ but I used to get to ‘inbox<10’ every single day. These days I feel smart if I get to ‘inbox<100’. (I can get 200 emails in a day at this time of semester, so this is pretty good going).

But ‘out of sight, out of mind’ is precisedly why this system of rules works so well for me. The number of emails in my inbox proper is more manageable; and the number of emails in my secret second inboxes can wait till I look at them. This is particularly useful if you have jobs you only do part time, or in batches, so they can wait until you are in that ‘office’ to deal with those emails .

Email rules.pngSo: here is my quick guide to : Using Rules  to Organise your Inbox.
This guide is for Outlook, but the same principles apply in almost any email program. 

  1. Set up Folders that reflect the various parts of your job: projects, subjects I teach, read it later, notifications. I currently have about 20, but I started with about 6.
  2. When an email comes into your main inbox that is actually one of these kinds of emails, right click, and go to Rules.
  3. I have 2 kinds of rule.
    1. Using sender to sort email
      My team members on a project, for example—From X Jones, Move to Project 1 folder. I only open that folder on days when I’m working on the project.
      Notifications from Twitter, various mailing lists, newsletters etc go into WebLists. I only open that folder when I have nothing to do—and regularly mark all as read without reading them.
      If I’ve emailed myself, that email goes straight to my To Read folder. I rarely look in this folder, but will search using key words, so I try to write pretty descriptive subject lines.
    2. Using tag words in the subject
      I always use the subject number of any courses I teach to sort email in that folder. So I can send an email in February with a great resource that I’ll want to use in October, and if I put SCIE90006 in the subject line, it will never hit my real inbox, but will just be waiting for me when I come to update my lectures in Semester 2.
      Emails from administrators, or anything from the LMS will automatically go into the box I need too.
      I also teach my students a session on how to write email, and tell them what I’m looking for. It’s not 100%, but I do get a lot of students emailing using SCIE90006 in the subject line and making my life easier.

When things were quieter, I did a quick count, to show how this worked for me. (And then I got busy again and never posted this!)

I had 24 emails in my main inbox that had come in since the day before. 20 of those were ‘thanks’ or ‘noted’ or ‘fwd to Y, can you please send through a couple of these? ta’ emails. They took me 30 minutes to read and answer. I had an extra 2 in my project inbox, of the same kind.

I had 33 emails in ‘WebLists’. I scrolled through in about 5 minutes, checking if there was anything I needed to be aware of. Mostly, I need to glance at them, no more. 2 further quick responses though were… not needed, but would be ideal, so I did the ideal thing.

There were 6 each in ‘Articles etc for Reading’ and ‘SCIE90006’. I don’t need to read any of these today, or tomorrow, or next month. In fact, knowing they are there is comforting, because I know I have some fantastic new resources to help me teach next semester.

And so finally I had 4 emails unread in my inbox. Those 4 emails were all jobs I needed to get to in the next day or so—but they are actually jobs that require some work (like 5-30 minutes each). My to do list numbered 4. I can do that!

That horrible red button notification SHOULD have said 71 at lunch time. Instead, it had a much gentler number, and it broke my email tsunami in a set of much smaller and more manageable waves. 


Since then, I’ve expanded the number of rules, the number of inboxes, and made them ever more sophisticated. Emails that come in to certain alias addresses get an automated reply. Things get forwarded on. Things get automatically marked as read. You don’t have to do all of this at once, just build a ‘Circulars’ inbox and a rule that moves all the allstaff emails into a place you can deal with at the end of the day… or tomorrow.


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