More Wheat, Less Chaff

Over the last several months, I’ve been making a concerted effort to simplify my information inputs – both in quantity (number of sources) and in types (e.g. mailing lists). I’ve been judicious in unsubscribing from various mailing lists, and using the “+” comment feature on my email addresses to help identify vendors that abuse my benevolent attitude towards giving them my email address so that I can download their (more often than not), crappy POS (piece of software). All in all, things seem to be going pretty well – sometimes to the point where I wonder if maybe my over-engineered solution may be broken and dropping all my correspondence into a bit bucket somewhere. Here’s how to do it!

First, the goal. I want every single piece of email I send or receive to be stored and categorized on my Google Gmail account. Whether it’s a personal email from my Mom or a client email about a changed meeting time, I want it to be available for searching. Similarly with sent mail, whether it’s sent from my phone, laptop, or wherever I happen to be, I want it in my Gmail repository. Actually, this is the easy part. Of the 7+ accounts that I actively maintain, I can simply have them forward the mail to my Gmail account – and because Google lets me specify as many outgoing accounts as I want, I can send email from anywhere and make it look like it comes from Centric, my client, me, or even Santa Claus (assuming of course, that I have access to Santa’s account).

Good. Everything is in Gmail, rules do some extra cleaning for me as well as tagging all my messages for convenient categorization. If someone sends something to my Centric address and I answer it from the Gmail client, it puts my Centric email as the return address – likewise for any mail destined to my other addresses. So I’m done right? Well, I was until I bought a phone that was actually usable for reading and writing email.

For me, while I have n feeds coming in, mail has only three primary themes: work, personal, and other. When using Gmail as my client, this setup is fine because I can just select the tag I want to view and I’m done. But for my phone, what I quickly found was, while I was reasonably happy with the amount of mail that grabbed my attention at the Gmail level, it was still too much of a distraction having my phone beep every ten minutes. As an example, while it’s nice to know, when one of my fellow employees has a new child, I don’t need to know about it while I’m in a meeting. I needed to further filter things out.

Since my phone allows me to have as many accounts as I want, I decided it would be cool if I could set one up for each of my themes, then when email showed up for each, I had an idea of how important it would be to investigate. The problem was that Gmail had everything stored in one big blob and I wanted three smaller blobs. But I didn’t want to increase my email management-to-headache ratio, and I sure didn’t want to have any extra accounts where I had to worry about spam, filters, virii, and so on. IMAP to the rescue.

IMAP lets me automatically synchronize my activity from one machine to another. If I read an email on my phone, my laptop knows, and Gmail knows (well now it does, in the Summer it didn’t). No more having to delete messages from multiple places, or marking items as read multiple times. It just works. The final solution was to create a tag in Gmail called “Phone” and set up filters that would take all mail that was destined for my phone (after I filtered out things like “Baby” messages, Bluespring spam, er announcement and the like) – things I still wanted to read, just not right now – and send it to three secret accounts that represented my three grouping themes (click here for the picture of these 1000 words).

The result? So far I’m very happy with the amount and quality of mail I’m receiving at each point in the process. I’m still judicious about unsubscribing when a vendor gets carried away, or modifying my filters when something sneaks through. Additionally I switched certain things like To Do list reminders and schedule notifications to SMS. My net net is I spend less time reacting to needless emails, and more time focused on whatever it is that I need to be focused.

For other cool productivity hints on Email, To Dos, and related items, I highly recommend Lifehacker.