Re-arranging my email process

Last week I have made changes in the way I process email. Adapting it more towards ‘Getting Things Done’, which I had avoided doing for years, and making some changes in daily habits around it. Now that I made the change, I can’t quite understand what kept me from doing it, even though before I thought my needs would not be met with a new routine.

Resisting change
As I use Gmail and have the notion I really shouldn’t, I mentally postponed changing my routines until ‘after replacing Gmail’, assuming I would otherwise either increase the cost of leaving Gmail (by having routines more deeply connected to its functionalities), or I’d find a replacement that already contained a better flow by default, making designing change now a waste of time. I know, neither make much sense upon closer consideration. Likely the real reason I made the change now, is having come back from a long vacation, and not many obligations yet as most clients are still away themselves. That, and receiving an external trigger right at that moment.

The trigger
That trigger was getting a message from Martin Roell, that one of his colleagues, Rob van den Brand, is offering a free download of how to deal with email. I downloaded it ouf of curiosity to see if it contained anything new in terms of suggestions. At first glance it didn’t, it was the GTD style approach I already knew (using the 2 minute rule, sorting into piles to reply, read, do and other etc.). Then a few days later a follow-up arrived with a few behavioral tactics to help make the mechanism work. The first one was unsubscribe to a lot of stuff, which led me to review my automated filtering, which led to re-evaluating the original GTD method, which led to implementing it……

The old routine
Over the years I kept all my e-mail in my inbox, always. Piling, never filing (tagging I do). The original reason for that was that my first mobile e-mail app would not let me easily access and search archived mail, only what was in my inbox would be readily available. The first step of my mail process is usually on my mobile.

From the newly arrived mail, I would ‘star’ those I thought would need some sort of follow-up. Things that don’t interest me I would leave unread but not throw out. This would be my basic triage method. I also have various filtering rules that label incoming mail (apart from ‘starred’) according to what part of my professional activities they represent (my company, my fablab stuff etc.) Using Gmail’s multiple inbox feature, those stars and labels were presented on my laptop screen as separate lists next to the main inbox.

At some point during the day I would open my mail (Gmail’s web interface) on my laptop and:

  • mark all remaining unread mail as read
  • work through the starred items
  • look at/answer mail while working on a specific professional context (1 of the inboxes)

The problem with this was that a starred mail could still mean many things (migh be interesting, immediate action, little or lots of work, read, keep in mind etc.) I basically needed to reevaluate every single mail, every time I opened up the ‘starred’ list. Over time that list would grow with unprocessed items from the past, becoming a ineffective mental drag, except for the recently starred messages. Also some of the multiple inboxes had survived beyond their waned usefulness due to changing focus and activities, and I had difficulty putting them to new good use.

The new routine
My current mobile app (the place where I do my first mail triage) fully supports labeling messages and accessing archived mails. Functionality I wasn’t putting to good use. So that makes it possible to do more detailed and better triage on incoming mail. I now, following the GTD material I mentioned above:

  • use many more filtering rules to automatically process and label incoming mails, alerts, mailers etc.
  • have unsubscribed a wide range of mailers connected to long time ago interests
  • have moved some quarter million mail exchanges of the past years from the inbox to the archive
  • label the remaining few mails that still reach my inbox with 1_reply, 2_todo, 3_toread, 4_waiting and other assorted relevant labels (such as ‘bookkeeping’, ‘opendata’, ‘acquisition’ etc.) so they can be more easily found back when needed
  • create new filtering rules when a mail arrives that warrants a filter
  • empty the inbox by moving all labeled and remaining unlabeled mail into the archive

The original multiple inboxes I now show below new mail, in stead of to the right where I had them for the past years. The multiple inboxes now show the reply/todo/read/waiting labels. That looks like this:


Key take-aways and needs
Changing my mail process and method of triage turned out to be easy. It moved the decision what to do with an e-mail forward 1 step, and made it part of the triage. (Before I would only star a mail and then decide later). This makes my normal daily time slot for mail sufficient to actually deal with the contents of that mail.

Main ‘win’ is that my mail interface is much less noisy, both due to heavier automated filtering and removing processed messages from the inbox. Before I would see whatever was left over from ‘before’ and always have a full page of messages in front of me. That clutter is now 5 short lists, with only one of those lists needing attention at any given time. All other stuff from mailing lists are available under a label/tag, when I decide I want to catch up but never clog up the inbox.

My main demand, being able to do triage ‘on the go’, is still being met (and more automated than before). The reduced clutter also feels like it might be a benefit when I move out of Gmail.

The only thing to still do is to much better connect the list of mails labeled to-do to my actual task management tool (Things, by Cultured Code) and making sure they get the right follow-up that way. I could probably automate that, but haven’t figured out how to do that yet. This may mean that the to-do part of the mail flow will actually disappear from my gmail altogether.

3 thoughts on “Re-arranging my email process

  1. Steph Hendrick

    Really interesting, Ton. I use gmail for one account, also have two exchange accounts I use regularly any tips on a program I can implement this strategy for multiple accounts?

  2. Ton Zijlstra Post author

    Hi Stephanie, yes exchange is alsways a bit tricky. When I e.g. have an e-mail account via exchange at a client’s, I keep those separate from my other mail entirely. Mail from other mail addresses I use myself are usually pulled into gmail as my main interface. I am not sure you can pull exchange accounts into Gmail itself as well, although it does support imap (or maybe that’s to make it work the other way: deliver gmail to your outlook application). I’ve never tried that.

  3. Piers

    Just followed your lead for my work account email. Feels great to be at inbox zero – so thanks for the trigger! – but like you now need to connect the task processing phase a little more tightly. Lazily ooking at

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