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The Simple Guide to Managing Your Email with the Asian Efficiency Email Workflow

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Email

Managing your email has become an important part of modern knowledge work. As common as it is for everyone to have email, most people still do not know how to properly manage their inboxes. People often complain that email is one of their largest sources of distractions, and that using email ends up wasting a lot of valuable time.

When we first started Asian Efficiency, we introduced our Asian Efficiency Email Workflow that showed you how to manage your email inbox with a 3-folder system. This was effective back in 2011 but over the last half decade we’ve discovered two things:

  1. The system worked well if you dealt with fewer than 20 emails a day but as soon as you got more, it would be too overwhelming and the system broke down.
  2. There is a more effective way to deal with email by using an integrated todo list that is required to keep up with today’s work demands.

This is based on hundreds of emails we’ve received from AE readers and our own experience working with coaching clients.

Based on the feedback we’ve received, we’ve tweaked the workflow that now is more sustainable and effective. Whether you get 20 or 100 daily emails, this new workflow is much more effective and you’ll be able to deal with email in less than an hour a day.

Let’s face it. None of us want to spend time in our email app. We all have more important and fun things to do.

For the sake of this article, I will use Gmail. You can apply this to any other email provider (Yahoo!, Hotmail, and so on) or email clients (Apple Mail, Postbox, Mailplane, Microsoft Outlook, etc). If you use something else than Gmail, don’t panic. You can use the same workflow for your email provider or application.

To ensure you get the most out of this email workflow, there are three simple concepts I need you to understand.

What is Inbox Zero?

The first concept to grasp is Inbox Zero. As the name might imply, it’s an empty email inbox. This is the result we want to shoot for, but when we refer to Inbox Zero we mean the concept.

And that is not just an empty inbox. Inbox Zero is much more than just getting your email inbox unread count down to 0.

We need a way to process inputs efficiently. It’s about tying up all the loose ends that can cause you to stress out because you’re worried about what you might be forgetting to do. It’s about putting a trusted system in place so that you can deal with everything you need to do appropriately.

Thus, Inbox Zero is a state of mind. It’s…

  • Being able to trust that the system you’ve decided to use to process email is working efficiently and everything is filed in the appropriate place.
  • Having an efficient process for dealing with all the inputs in your life.
  • Gathering all the information you want to keep and all the things you have to do in a way that won’t drive you crazy and having systems in place to put things away where they belong.

Imagine this scenario. You just arrived at the office and you’re about to start your day. You’re a smart person because you read our Eat That Frog methodology so you know the first thing you don’t do is check your email. You first work on your Most Important Task (MIT) before you check email. Fast forward an hour and you’re finished with your MIT. You’re now ready to dive into your email client. Instead of feeling anxious what that red unread number might go up to, it doesn’t stress you out anymore. That number doesn’t mean anything to you. It’s a meaningless number.

When you can reach that state, that’s when you have Inbox Zero in place. You have absolutely no anxiety around email and the unread number of emails doesn’t faze you whatsoever. It’s a sign that you have an email system in place that you trust and are competent to use. That’s what the concept of Inbox Zero represents.

This article will be your starting point on getting there. We’re finalizing a course on email management that’s coming out later this year that goes in more depth and reveals a more advanced email system, but this post will show you the simplified version that anyone can use right now to get their email inbox under control.

With Inbox Zero out the of the way, the second concept I need to you to grasp is the Touch-It-Once principle.

What is Touch-It-Once?

You’re smart so you probably already derived what this concept means:
Whenever you have to deal with something, you deal with it right away. You don’t postpone it and come back to it. You touch it once and move on to the next thing.

We have a whole post about the Touch-It-Once (TIO) principle but the above definition will suffice for this post (but definitely read the post for mind expansion).

When you touch something more than once, you’re wasting a lot of time. Have you ever looked at a bill twice? Maybe three times? Sometimes four times before you ended up paying it?

What about that text message you’ve reread multiple times? I’m sometimes guilty of this myself. Sometimes I’ll get a text message, read it and then say “let me reply to it later”. You know what happens? I keep thinking about that text message a bazillion times before I end up replying (if it all, sometimes I completely forget and look like I ignored them). It’s a waste of brainpower, willpower, and attention. What I should do is reply right away (and luckily I do now). With text messages, it should be pretty straightforward because the messages are short.

Can you see how this applies to email? I’d argue that it’s even more important for email because of the volume we have to deal with. Imagine you read 10 emails and you decide at some point to reply to them later. That’s 10 thoughts, reminders and stress points for you to deal with it every second you don’t address it.

That’s a lot of unnecessary stress and that’s why the Touch-It-Once principle is so important when you deal with email. This…combined with the 2-Minute Rule.

What is the 2-Minute Rule?

If you’ve read the book Getting Things Done (GTD) or any material on GTD, you’ve heard of this rule before. It’s simple: Whenever you get something to deal with, if it takes less than 2 minutes to do…do it right away. If it takes longer than 2 minutes, then put it on your todo list and move on to the next item.

This same concept also applies to emails. If you can process an email in less than 2 minutes, do it right away. Otherwise, put it on your todo list.

When you combine the Touch-It-Once principle with the 2 Minute Rule (2MR), you have the 80/20 of handling emails efficiently.

TIO + 2MR = Asian Efficient skills for processing emails

If there’s nothing else you learn from this post, just remember that little formula. Even if you don’t learn the email workflow I’m about to show you and you only apply these two concepts (TIO and 2MR)…you’re still more Asian Efficient than the majority of people out there and you’ll deal with way less email stress.

But let’s now dive into the technical part – the email workflow.

The Asian Efficiency Email Workflow

You now have the 80/20 of email management – 20% of the things you need to know to get 80% of the results. The email workflow will fill in the other gaps that will get you to 95% of the results you’re looking for.

(What’s the remaining 5%? That’s an advanced email workflow we will teach in our email course that shows you automation rules, automated filters, todo list and calendar integration and much more. It’s highly technical and only needed for a small group of people who get hundreds of daily emails and live/die by email for their work/business.)

Here’s a flowchart of how the email workflow works:

simple email workflow by Asian Efficiency

Let me walk you through the diagram.

  1. When you open your email app, you commit to process your email.
  2. You open an email and now you have to make a decision (next step).
  3. The 2 Minute Rule kicks in: does it take less than 2 minutes to process this email?
    3a. Yes, reply right away, archive it and move on to the next email.
    3b. No, put it on your todo list, archive it and move on to the next email.
  4. Repeat starting at step 2.

Pretty straightforward, right?

Quick note: If you’ve used our previous email workflow, this is an updated version that is quite different. As you can see, we got rid of the folder structure (Reply, Waiting, Archive). The old workflow is still a good workflow but it has a couple disadvantages: 1) it doesn’t work when you get a lot of emails 2) you have to remind yourself to check those folders when you’ve moved emails. Based on our experiences with coaching clients who started to get more than 20 daily emails, they got overwhelmed and often forgot to reply to emails because they were “out of sight, out of mind” due to the folder structure. That’s why in this new email workflow, we got rid of the folder structure and recommend a todo list to use alongside your email client.

One thing I want to mention, that is an advanced concept, is that sometimes you don’t want to reply right away when you open an email. As you can see in step 3 in the diagram, the text says “do I want to reply right now?”. It’s there on purpose. I want to stress that it’s the exception rather than the rule for two reasons.

First, sometimes it’s a good idea not to reply right away so you don’t condition others that you always reply to emails quickly. Sometimes you have people in your life that overwhelm you with (unnecessary email) and this is a subtle way of telling them “call me or come see me if you need me, otherwise I’m too busy creating value”.

Second, there might be times when you can reply within 2 minutes but it might require you to leave your email client. This could kill your productivity so you decide to address it later. I do this sometimes with anything considered easy to do, low value and isn’t time sensitive.

However, if you can reply within 2 minutes do it right away.

As you can see, it’s a really simple workflow. Each time you get an email, you touch it once and use the 2 minute rule to determine what to do with it.

What makes this email workflow work is that you have to set aside time to process your email. In other words, you don’t randomly check email throughout the day and apply this workflow. It still works, but it’s highly inefficient because you miss the power of batching. Processing 25 emails at once is 10x more efficient than processing 5 emails in 5 attempts.

Personally, I check email only once a day which is at 4pm. However, I don’t recommend this for most people because my situation is very unique. For clients and readers like you, I recommend checking email twice a day. Once after you ate your frog and another time before you finish your workday. In between is when you do your high value work.

In the past, I picked 11am and 4pm as my email time slots.

“What about….?” Let me answer common questions people have about this email workflow

At this point, you might have a couple questions about the email workflow. Here are the common questions I get coupled with my answers.

I work in a company where everyone expects a fast response to an email. Does this still work for me?

Yes, it just means that you have to check your email more often. Instead of twice day, maybe it’s 4 or 5 times a day. Maybe it’s every hour.

If you’re in a role where email dictates everything, such as customer service or sales, this workflow works just as well because the key thing is that you have peace of mind knowing that all email is handled properly. You’ve either replied to it right away or it’s on your todo list (and from there you can prioritize).

When you’re in that role it’s important to accept that email dictates your work. Eating your frog first thing in the morning might not apply to you because everything at work is done through email. That’s okay, just accept that you’re the exception. For most people, I still recommend eating your frog first thing in the morning and then check email.

Which email client / app do you recommend?

For the Mac, Postbox or Airmail. On iOS, we recommend Dispatch or Airmail.

For Windows…none of us on the AE team use Windows so I don’t know.

Which todo list app do you recommend?

One thing we always take into consideration at Asian Efficiency is that the apps you use have to work together within an ecosystem. Integration between apps is a key factor whenever we make an app recommendation and use apps ourselves.

It’s pointless to use a todo list app that doesn’t integrate with your email client. A lot of tasks come through email so it makes sense that whichever todo list app you use, that it integrates with your email client.

If you’re using a task manager that doesn’t integrate with your email client, you end up copying and moving tasks around all the time. It’s a lot retyping, reorganizing tasks that are out of sync and overall there’s a lot of friction. Does this sound familiar? Then you might want to reconsider which task manager or email client you use.

On the Mac, we recommend OmniFocus. It integrates very well with the majority of email apps. We have a whole course on how to use OmniFocus and we recommend the app to everyone because it’s the most powerful and it works smoothly with almost all email clients on the Mac.

Maybe you hate OmniFocus or you’re already on another app. Are you now doomed? No, absolutely not. Here’s what I would do:

  1. Find out if your current task manager integrates with your current email client. Just search for “(your todo list app) (your email app)” and see what shows up, e.g. “todoist postbox” or “wunderlist apple mail”.
  2. If there’s an integration, great! Learn how to use it and you’ll be #AsianEfficient.
  3. If there’s no integration, reconsider either 1) switching your task manager or 2) switching your email client that works with your task manager. Of the two, switching email clients is the easier option.

Quick note: Sometimes there might be a little hack with Popclip where you can bridge the two but it’s a rare exception.

I have thousands of unread emails right now. How do I get started with this workflow?

I feel your pain! I’m happy that you’re here and committed to getting this addressed. Here’s my recommendation:

  1. Go through emails that have been sent in the last 30 days. Only process those. Even if it’s in the hundreds, process those emails because they are the most important to deal with.
  2. Anything older than 30 days, you can safely archive them.

The idea behind it is this: if it’s an important email, it’ll come back to you. Either someone will follow up with you or it’ll somehow catch your attention (which then you can use the search function to find an email). Otherwise, it’s not important enough and it’s too old to deal with so you can safely archive those emails.

I know this might sound scary, but I’ve advised hundreds of people to do this and they had success with it without any repercussions.

What do you do when you’re waiting for a reply from someone?

In the past, we recommended a folder called “Waiting” where you put all emails in that you’re waiting for a reply. This works really well if you’re disciplined and committed to it. I used this approach for many years where every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday I would go to my Waiting folder at my 4pm and follow up with people.

It’s still a viable option but the problem I’ve seen people have with this is that they forget that folder exists or they forget to check it frequently. It goes back to the whole idea of “out of sight, out of mind”. The reason people leave emails in their inbox is because they can see it. They know that when they login, they will see everything they need in their inbox.

With an extra folder, you have to know and remind yourself that you have to frequently go in there and process emails. For some people that’s not a problem, but based on customer service emails, my experience with clients and tons of people we’ve talked to…that extra folder is often ignored or forgotten.

The solution is to have those emails on your todo list. Preferably you use an app for this because with paper it’s hard to keep track of emails where you are waiting for a reply.

If you use OmniFocus you can use a specific context, i.e. “Waiting For”, to track those emails. If you use another app and it doesn’t use contexts (like most apps), you can change the name of the task to start with something like “Waiting X”. For example, “Waiting for Mike to get back on a proposal” or “Waiting on Kristin’s reply to second date”. You get bonus points if you use TextExpander snippets for this.

In our advanced email workflow inside our upcoming course, we’ll have a more specific tech solution that’s very smooth, automated, integrated and foolproof but the basic idea is the same.

How do you deal with “sent emails” that require a response?

Very simple: it’s another task on your todo list. Whenever you send an email and you’re waiting for a response, create a task and you don’t check it off until the desired outcome has reached.

If you’ve read the answer to my previous question, it’s the same thing. Here’s an example. I’ll send an email to team member Mike with a question on when the next blog post will go live. I’ll then create a task “Waiting for Mike re: next blog post date”. Since I use OmniFocus, I’ll assign the context “Waiting for – Mike” (it’s a sub-context of “Waiting For”) so I can track it. If need a response by a certain date, I’ll set that as a due date. So if I need a response by two days from now, then that becomes the due date.

At this point, Mike and I can have multiple back and forth emails. I might shift the due date anytime based on our conversation. Mike might have said “Let me back to you on that in 3 days” then I could shift my due date based on that answer.

I won’t put a checkmark on the task until the desired outcome has been reached. As soon as I know when the next blog post goes live, then I’ll check it off.

This looks great but I get over a hundred emails a day. Wouldn’t this add too much friction to my workflow? I’m afraid I’ll be spending more time managing email than getting stuff done.

This is a fair concern and it’s something we address in our advanced email workflow that’s in our upcoming course. We’ve worked with people who get so much email that they’re switching back and forth between their email app and task manager all day long.

This will happen but it’s the most secure way of knowing that you have everything handled and taken care of. Does it require a bit more work? Absolutely, but you can also leave work and go to bed knowing that everything has been addressed and is being tracked. There are no open loops in your head such as “Did I reply to that?”, “Did I miss out on an important email?”, “Did she ever follow up with me?”

Is a little extra work worth it to have that peace of mind? Based on our clients’ success, absolutely.

However, I do want to point out that if you get more than 100 emails a day, there’s a big opportunity streamline that. I’ll bet my precious Macbook Pro that most of those emails are automated and low priority. They might be status updates, automated notifications, industry news, newsletters and such. Most of these emails can be filtered out and easily processed in batches with specific filters and rules (something we cover in our course).

I am a “folder person”. Does this mean you don’t recommend using folders in emails?

I used to be a folders person too until I realized the diminshed value they had. Back in the day I had folders for specific clients, receipts, account information and so on.

Nowadays I don’t have any. What’s changed?

This could be a whole blog post by itself but the main thing I’ve realized is that information shouldn’t be stored in your email account. It should be stored in a proper “container” and you must create personal systems around it. Anything that you do need to reference in your inbox can be quickly found with a simple search.

For example, maybe you store username and passwords in your email client (like when you sign up for courses or online stores). I now move them over to 1Password (or Lastpass if it’s AE related) so I can quickly login to websites and not need to find them in my email app.

If you’ve ever had to reference something in your inbox (like a login username/password) multiple times, I’m sure you’ve gotten distracted by other emails. Whenever you open your email client, its sole purpose should be to process email. Otherwise, you’ll get distracted. There’s no such thing as “let me quickly find this piece of information somewhere in my inbox” because what inevitably will happen is that you’ll see other unread emails and you’ll get easily get distracted. Before you know it, you end up wasting an hour just dealing with email while you should have done something else.

That’s why I advocate that you store (frequently used) references outside your email client. Another example of this is receipts. They now get forwarded to our bookkeeper. In the past, I would put it in the receipts folder and then at the end of the year go through it like a stressed out maniac for taxes and such. It was so inefficient that I created a new system where now I hired a bookkeeper so I can just forward any receipt email I get and it’ll be taken care of.

What about attachments? I drop them in Evernote (or Dropbox depending on file size).

When it comes to clients, I deal with them in my task manager. I’ll have folders in my task manager related to the client so I can keep track of them.

Got more questions?

If you have any questions about the email workflow, post them below and I’ll reply. And if you want to be notified when our email course is live, just let us know where to send the updates:

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108 Comments

Posted by Guy Wyers  | March 29, 2011 at 4:41PM | Reply

Excellent advise!
We think that it is essential to finalise the processing of an email before closing it.
Many people are finished processing an email and leave it in their inbox, because archiving or filing it is so painful.
To solve that problem, we have created Tagwolf (www.tagwolf.com). Tagwolf improves people’s productivity in managing their inbox, by predicting the most likely folder for each email and suggesting it to the user, who can confirm the folder and file the email with a simple mouse click. This represents an important time saving compared to manually dragging the email to a specific folder within a complex folder structure. Tagwolf is an add-in compatible with Microsoft Outlook.

Posted by AE Thanh  | March 30, 2011 at 5:12AM

Thanks Guy. That’s a nifty tool you created there, although dragging folders is pretty fast I can see how some people would like to use it.

Posted by Henry T  | April 8, 2011 at 12:53PM | Reply

I think it’ll be appropriate to include in this article a credit to David Allen and his GTD (Getting Things Done) methodology.

Posted by AE Thanh  | April 10, 2011 at 11:32AM

I’m not sure how this email management workflow can be credited to David Allen or GTD. The closest thing is the 2m rule but I already credited that. This all purely is for email whereas GTD is for something else.

Posted by A.S.  | May 25, 2011 at 7:34PM | Reply

Dear Friends,

I’ve been using a very similar system (In fact, I’ve adapted your system). I organize my e-mails inserting some tags with the app Mail Act-On (blue for reply; green for send to evernote; magenta for send to Omnifocus; Archive folder; and waiting folder). The idea is the same, but in that way I insert my e-mails into my projects. In general in less than 10 minutes my e-mail inbox is clean.  Thanks. AS.

Posted by AE Thanh  | May 25, 2011 at 8:34PM

That’s great you adapted the system to work for you. This guide is definitely not the only way to organize emails of course, but I do think it gives people a great system to built upon, like you did.

Posted by Vic Rodriguez  | August 15, 2011 at 5:48AM | Reply

Great! Thanks again guys. My system has gotten so much simpler and more effective. Appreciate it – Vic Rodriguez

Posted by Thanh Pham  | August 15, 2011 at 3:38PM

Awesome, great to hear the system is working for you!

Posted by John Dobbin  | December 3, 2011 at 1:11AM | Reply

Shortcut suggestion for Outlook 2011 Mac users:
label your folders “1. Reply”, “2. Waiting”, “3. Archive”
Then you can use the keyboard shortcut shift-command-M (Move to folder) + the number of the folder you want to despatch your mail to – no more dragging files into little folders. 

Posted by Thanh Pham  | December 3, 2011 at 3:00PM

Thanks for sharing that tip John!

Posted by Malan Darras  | December 6, 2011 at 8:16AM | Reply

good stuff here Thanh… I currently use Mac Mail and pull in emails from 5 email addresses (different companies). have you ever done this type of setup in Mail with multiple email addresses? Curious if there is a way to do it.

Posted by Malan Darras  | December 6, 2011 at 12:03PM

oops, figured it out, quite simple really. if anyone else is using Mac Mail with multiple email addresses:

Add new Reply and Waiting mailboxes as normal, but you have to delete the email from ‘Reply’ or ‘Waiting’ when you’re done versus Archive.Mac Mail auto-archives any email you move to the Reply or Waiting folder in your mail inbox, creating a new copy in the Reply folder so when you’re done, simply delete it.

Posted by Thanh Pham  | December 6, 2011 at 12:47PM

Yeah that will work. I don’t know if you can have a shortcut for moving emails to a specific folder, but it could be handy to save emails in an Archive folder. This is only when you sometimes need to reference emails for in the future (receipts, tracking code, etc).

Posted by Peter  | May 23, 2012 at 7:48AM

Hi Aaron- I’ve tried using this system in Apple Mail (since I have 4 different email accoutns), and as far as I can tell, the only way to make this work is to create folders that are stored on my mac, rather than the email server. The problem then is that I can no longer access processed email from my iPhone, another computer etc. Any tips?
Thanks

Posted by Aaron Lynn  | May 29, 2012 at 5:54AM

Hi Peter,

Are you using IMAP?

I don’t use Apple Mail anymore (to slow!) but never had a problem syncing gmail folders with Apple Mail/online/iPhone.

Posted by Ruben Parra  | June 7, 2012 at 4:33AM

Hi Aaron,

Thanks for sharing I’m using sparrow and I have three computers plus mobile devices using imap accounts for our domain address my question is how can I use the system you described here since every email I moved to a folder will move in every coworker computer before they read it.

We are using omnifocus as well.

Best and again Thanks in advance.

Ruben

Posted by Thanh Pham  | June 9, 2012 at 3:36AM

Hey Ruben,

If I understand correctly you are sharing an inbox – in that case it’s a little tricky. My suggestion would be to mark the email as read and keep it in your inbox for no more than 48 hours. After that, move it into the right folder.

Posted by Chris  | November 7, 2013 at 9:03PM

Malan – I love this cause I want my mail to auto-archive but not I until I tell it too. That seems to be a difficult task to accomplish. I tried creating a rule where it would archive when I categorized it. But I can’t get the rule to run on emails already in my inbox, which is the whole point.

One question, I’d have to setup hundreds of rules to work this system. How do I know if an auto-archive rule is set up or not?

Posted by Jen  | December 18, 2011 at 11:26AM | Reply

Loved your suggestions on email management. If you’ve read David Allen’s Getting Things Done, the system you described above dovetails nicely with it.  I use GTD for my personal organization (calendar planner) outside of email but like Linenberger’s Total Workday Control Using Microsoft Outlook better for managing my inbox at work. He explains how to use the To-Do Bar in Outlook to drag and drop emails as tasks with deadlines or just keeping a task list. I love it. I’m interested in whether there is a keyboard shortcut for moving to tasks as the previous poster noted. I wrote an article on Managing Email At Work (click on my name for more info on Outlook) that explores how I use rules, folders, sorting by conversation, using templates and clean up etc. to help manage time.

Posted by Anonymous  | December 20, 2011 at 3:11PM | Reply

I *love* this approach.  Terrific article!  I was looking at your other article on Essential Mac Apps, and was wondering what would be the best email client app to use for this approach.  I’ve been using Mailsmith for yeas, mostly because it has great email filters, and it would be very tricky to set up a whole new email client (w/ all of the mailboxes and filters).  So, I’m wondering which client you’d recommend?  Specifically, I’m looking for a client that will…

-Enable me to use the approach you’ve outlined in this article
-Work with my iPhone – in terms of replicating read and replied emails (it’s getting increasingly confusing to have a bifurcated division of message and replies on Mailsmith v. Mail on the iPhone).
-Have the same same level of filtering and mailboxes that I’ve got on Mailsmith, but…
-…will also have some sort of replication of emails (in the same way that DevonThink Pro files are replicated) so that I can see the same message in an Inbox as well as in a folder (if such a feature is possible).
-will have variable search options that will enable me to both cast my net wide, and narrow my search with greater specificity
-It would be great if there’s a client out there that could save drafts as your writing emails (to prevent against losing your work during a crash) in the way that the Gmail client functions.

I notice in the Essential Mac Apps article, you recommended Postbox, Apple Mail, and Thurnderbird.  (I’m not sure why you use three clients, but that seems confusing to me.)  I’m hoping i can consolidate my email into one client that will satisfy all or most of the above listed features.  Does anyone have any suggestions…?  My sanity is begging for your help!  Thanks…

Posted by AE Aaron  | December 28, 2011 at 6:44AM

Hey,

Any of the main mail clients out there can do everything that you’ve outlined except the replication function (I’ve never heard of this outside of smart folders). To save drafts you just have to set up IMAP and then configure your client to make sure it saves to Gmail’s drafts folder and that way drafts are movable between iPhone/Mac/PC.

I use Mail/Postbox/Thunderbird because each is email for a separate chunk of my life – e.g., Mail for personal accounts (I have 3), Thunderbird for AE (we have 5ish shared accounts), Postbox for my business (we have 50+ accounts).

I’m yet to find the “perfect” email client. Apple Mail was great until Lion, and for me at least it’s now waaaay too sluggish. Thunderbird is too simplistic. Postbox is awesome and probably the one I’d go for except you can’t see your activity status and they keep on pressuring users to pay for upgrades (which should be free via the App Store). I tried Sparrow for a while but found it too simplistic – though if you have only 1 account it could work.

The Gmail web interface is pretty smooth, and you can set up filters there – that’s actually my preferred method; to set up filters via Gmail and then use IMAP to access my email via various clients.

– Aaron

Posted by Anonymous  | December 28, 2011 at 1:33PM

Hey Aaron,

Thanks so much for your reply…  I’ve heard others recommend Postbox, but I’ve also heard a number of misgivings about it (e.g., poor customer support), , such as Download Postbox for Mac – Powerful and flexible email client. MacUpdate.com and MacUpdate: Member Profile I’ve also read that they’re not great when it comes to handling large quantities of mail. I have thousands of message, and just find it easier to use my email client to archive my messages. I realize this might be a mistake, but so far it seems easier than using an email archiver. Anyway, have you had problems using large quantities of email w/ Postbox? Even Postbox seems to acknowledge that it can be a problem for their functionality…  

What do you mean that Postbox won’t let you see your activity status?  I wonder if there’s a way to fix that… 
How does Postbox interface with DevonThink Pro?  Like you, I heavily rely on it…  And what about using Postbox with an iPhone? That’s one of the reasons why I was considering the move from Mailsmith to Mac Mail – that is, that email status, replies, and folders would be replicated on the iPhone. I’m assuming that you feel that an IMAP system would take care of that (except for the folders), correct?  

I’m just playing devil’s advocate here, why not just use Mail with some of the plugins like MailTags and Mail Act-On to give Mail the robust functionality that we’re seeking? It seems like a way to have the kind of advanced features and functionality while at the same time having a native Mac application – and therein have app that plays better w/ other apps, is (perhaps) a bit more stable, and maintain access to Mac support (when needed)? 
 
Re: Gmail, I’m actually in the midst of trying to figure out how to forward my Earthlink POP account to another IMAP account – so that I won’t have to worry about space overload (as I do w/ my Earthlink account), and so I can take advantage of IMAP functionality.  But…I place a high premium on email security, and have grave concerns about Gmail’s data mining.  So, I’d love to find a Gmail-like solution, but with the added security protection. 

Look forward to your reply, and thanks again for all of your tremendous help…

Posted by AE Aaron  | December 28, 2011 at 11:42PM

IMAP fixes a TON of problems.

The way I’ve explained it to others is this:
IMAP is opening folders directly on your mail servers. Any changes you make there are reflected on the server, and stored online (“in the cloud”). This means changes you make on say Apple Mail are reflected on Mail on the iPhone or Outlook on your PC. It also has no problems dealing with folders – the folders I have setup on my email clients are reflected 100% in Gmail (where all my email is hosted).

POP3 is like copying mail. You leave a copy on the server, and any changes you make are restricted to where you made them.

Note that IMAP is a server access setting – your mail provider has to support it and you have to configure your client to allow for it. If MailSmith + Earthlink support it in your case, you could just switch over that way and make it work.

RE Postbox:
Never had a problem with large quantities or email. Got about 200 emails this morning and there wasn’t any slowdown. There’s also a neat “focus” function that lets you filter emails sitting in your inbox.

The only thing I don’t like about Postbox is their customer service and misleading pricing model.

RE Apple Mail:
I find it slow, and I only have 3 accounts set up there. I imagine adding plugins would make it even slower.

Posted by Anonymous  | December 29, 2011 at 9:41AM

Thanks so much, Aaron…  Really appreciate it.  I understand what you mean about Gmail.  I’m drawn to it, but am a bit leery about the data mining since security is of paramount importance for me, and so I’ve feared that a breach in privacy would bleed over into a breach in security. Given my situation, w/ trying to use an IMAP account to bounce my data to and fro my Earthlink account (in order to get IMAP functionality, more space, etc.) and trying to buttress my security, is there another IMAP account that might be able to recommended? 

Re: Postbox, I got more info from another forum about tags and global rules (which Postbox allegedly lacks). Please believe me: I’m really not trying to initiate a fight – I just want to get clarity on what Postbox and Mail (w/ the plugins) actually do, how they work differently and therein serve my needs. This is the response I got from anther former Postbox user…
“Postbox does NOT have rules that apply to all accounts. Whoever told you this is wrong. Here is a quote directly from an email i received from Postbox support:”Postbox doesn’t support Global Filters. Filters must be setup for each account, and once this is done, you can then go to the Tools menu and then select “Run Filters on Folder” or “Run Filters on Message.”
“and yes, you can use Topics as Tags, but this is a non-industry compliant way to get there. For many, no big deal. for me, it doesn’t work because once i archive my emails into Mail Steward (once a year i archive the emails from 2 years ago so i only retain the last year’s emails in Mail itself, to keep size down), i’ll lose those Topic designations and will no longer be able to search by them. With MailTags, they are actual tags and are imported and handled as such and i can search my archived emails for them.”It would be problematic if Postbox really lacks global rules since I’d like to integrate 5 mail accounts into a complex system of files, folders, and tags (or topics).

As far as Tags go, I suppose I could get by with Postbox’s topics since I don’t use Mail Steward.  But sometime I think I ought to use Mail Steward for managing all of my archived email…though for now I prefer to keep it in own place in my client… 

Is that a bad idea? Do you use Mail Steward?  I’m eager what you guys at AE say about this because it seems like an extension of email management!

By the way, I inquired about Postbox’s lack of activity status and heard the following: “Activity Status appears in the footer of the app. It’s not all that verbose, but it is there.”  And re: payment, this is the explanation I got from another blogger: ” I paid once for Postbox 1.x and got all the updates to 1.x, and once for 2.x and have been getting all the updates since. As an owner of 1.x I was also eligible for a discount. 1.x was out for so long that I didn’t mind shelling out the $20 or whatever it was for the update. YMMV, but I don’t think that their policies here is overreaching.”  Not sure if that jives w/ your perspective…

I will tell you this, though: I totally agree w/ their customer service.  So far, I’ve found it to be sorely lacking.

Posted by AE Aaron  | December 29, 2011 at 11:26PM

Hey,

I used a private POP3 mail server before switching to Gmail and I haven’t used anything else since. I run multiple domains on Google Apps and don’t really have a problem. When I don’t want to use gmail for whatever reason I’ll just use my web server’s built-in mail server (which supports IMAP).

I’ve never used Postbox’s global rules. I set up my filters using Gmail’s rules and they carry onto Postbox via IMAP. I don’t use Postbox’s Topics functionality that much, but I use the Contacts functionality quite a bit, and because that syncs with OSX’s Address Book it works quite well. Also, Tags in Gmail correspond directly to Folders in Postbox (at least 2.x).

RE Activity Status and upgrades-
Activity Status is TINY in Postbox. Tiny to the point where you can’t tell what’s going on until it spits out an error saying it can’t connect to your mail servers.

Upgrades – my main issue with this is that when they ported Postbox to the App Store they encouraged everyone to switch to repurchase 2.x there for easier maintenance and updates. And a bunch of people did – i.e., paying for Postbox again, with the understanding that future upgrades would be free. Then I guess they found out when they released 3.x that Apple’s policy is to not charge for upgrades, and now they’re encouraging everyone to move off the App Store version to purchase their 3.x release direct.

I’ve never used Mail Steward. Gmail has more than enough storage space and everything’s accessible – don’t really see the point of archiving into a database?

– Aaron

Posted by Anonymous  | December 30, 2011 at 1:17AM

Thank you so much, Aaron.  Quickly…

Re: the transfer to POP to IMAP, the problem is threefold: (1) I’ve got to setup an IMAP account, and figure out how to transfer all of the POP mail to the new IMAP account (new and old messages); (2) I have to transfer a huge structure of files and folders that filters and retains 5 different email accounts, (3) without the Global Rules in Postbox (or whichever client I choose) I will need to thus use an IMAP host that supports server side filtering (though I have no idea where to look for such a solution right now).  

That’s why I’m concerned about the transfer AND the lack of Global Rules in Postbox (which I’d need to integrate 5 mail accounts – so that I can build one rule for one folder instead of 5 rules for each account for one folder…ugh). But…maybe there’s a solution I’m overlooking, and if there is I’d surely welcome it!

I hear you about the upgrade and activity status.  Pity about both…

What about Thunderbird?  You said it was “too simplistic”…and I’m looking for powerful search options and ways to tag and organize mail and folders w/ a lot of flexibility (which addressing the above concerns!).  

Interesting to hear you’re take on Mail Steward.  I was actually half expecting to hear you recommend it, since it seems to be a way of mitigating the decency of heavy memory usage for any email client (al al Hazel or something like that).  I’m surprised.

By the way, I’ve been recommending your site all one the Mac blogs! 

Posted by AE Aaron  | January 3, 2012 at 7:15AM

I hear ya. I did a POP3 to IMAP migration for a friend once and my immediate thought was “never again”.

If I did have to do it again, I’d post a job or Odesk or Freelancer with my requirements and see if I could get someone with more everyday experience to do the migration for me, and set up the IMAP filters. Google Apps has server-side filtering, not sure about other providers.

Thunderbird is fine as a client, it’s just not as well-featured or organized as say Apple Mail or Postbox.

RE Mail Steward – just wanted to clarify that I haven’t actually used the program and the first I’d heard of it was from you =) From their webpage I don’t see any real use for it with my own setup of IMAP mail servers + client access.

– Aaron

Posted by Anonymous  | December 27, 2011 at 11:15PM | Reply

My one concern w/ zeroing out my Inbox is that sometimes I need to reference all of my emails to remind myself what I’ve received, who I need to follow up with, and who I’m waiting to hear back from.  Do you have a solution or recommendation for this?  Thanks!

Posted by AE Aaron  | December 28, 2011 at 6:45AM

Official line: create tasks in your task manager/todo list for follow ups/waiting on.

Personal take: I don’t do inbox zero exactly – anything I’m waiting on or that I need to handle within the next couple of days I leave in my inbox. Once something has been filed away into a folder/tag, I regard it as done.

Posted by Anonymous  | December 28, 2011 at 1:52PM

Right.  I totally appreciate the official line and personal take!  I try to employ both methodologies.  Like you, filing away my email means that each message goes into their designated folder. That’s great, and it should be that way. But sometimes I need to look at the full Inbox to recall what I received, replied to, and need to follow up on – sometimes I just need to see a full unvarnished email to jog my memory. You dig what I mean?  Any suggested solutions for that? Thanks!

Posted by AE Aaron  | December 28, 2011 at 11:36PM

Not quite sure what you mean.

The emails I keep in my inbox are things I need to deal with later or that I’m waiting on.

For example:
* Notices my bank sends me to go download e-statements.
* Status updates from outsourcers on projects that are still active/outstanding.
* Stuff I need to action/reply to but it’ll take more than 2 minutes.

Posted by Anonymous  | January 10, 2012 at 10:47PM | Reply

Hi Aaron,

I’m about to set up your process, and had some small questions.  This is a big move for me because, as part of this set up, I’m also permanently forwarding my Earthlink POP’s to a Gmail account (so I can use IMAP), AND switching from Mailsmith to Postbox.  I mention this because for the last few years I set up an automatic filtration system for my mailboxes (or folders), so that my POP messages automatically filtered into their designated  mailboxes (or folders) – each of which had specific alert sounds to help me differentiate what’s important and what’s a “secondary” message (for that particular time). 

By using your system, I’d essentially be undoing that entire system that I’ve used for years.  But I appreciate the efficiency and process you’ve outlined: you force us to click on the email, decide whether to respond to it – therein determining its immediate behavior – and then to store it in an appropriate folder.  So, while I set up this process, I’m importing my mail from Mailsmith into Postbox and transferring my old folders and filters.  To that end, I’m wondering:

-In order to set up your process, and make it successfully interface with my old hierarchical system of folders and filter, would you recommend that I: (1) Store my old folders system (e.g., Personal, Work, Assorted) inside of the Archive folder (i.e., so that the folders would exist as a subset underneath the Archive folder)? and (2) That use Gmail’s labels in place of filters to maintain the previous storage system?

-By using your set up, and transferring my old system, would would the newly archived emails be referred to their corresponding folders by hitting the Archive key after finishing my email?  That’s sort of the desired outcome I’m aiming for.   

-Like I said, I use a hierarchical system of mailbox (or folders) in Mailsmith.  I’m new to Gmail and Postbox, so I’m wondering if you’d recommend that I use Gmail’s label for the sorting macro folders (Personal, Work, Assorted), and then using Postbox’s Topics for the more granular sub-folders?  I’ve just been using “sub”-mailboxes in Mailsmith, but it seems that I’d have more flexibility through setting up Topics in their place (so that more than one contact can exist in several Topics).  The only question is how best to what to do with the  sub-mailboxes when I import them into Postbox (as well as the POP sent mail on Mailsmith).  Any thoughts?  

Thanks again…

Posted by AE Aaron  | January 11, 2012 at 1:08AM

Hey,

Labels and folders are roughly the same thing in gmail. When you use “folders” in Postbox, they correspond to labels within gmail’s web interface. I’m pretty sure you can do subfolders and “sublabels” so to speak to.

I suggest recreating your hierarchy within gmail (web interface) first. Then importing your old mail. Then moving them into the relevant folders. Then setting up your filters from mailsmith into filters in gmail (under account settings, your filters will apply server-side). Not sure if you can allocate different sounds.

Pretty sure that when you hit archive on email in gmail it just gets archived to “all mail”. I normally just drag and drop into the relevant folder.

Topics is more of a filtering within a folder (specifically, the inbox). I don’t really use them that much.

– A

Posted by Anonymous  | January 11, 2012 at 11:59PM

Aaron…Thank you SO much for this.  It’s incredibly generous of you…  Just have to ask a few super quick follow up questions to makes sure I’m totally understanding you… You wrote “I suggest recreating your hierarchy within gmail (web interface) first. Then importing your old mail. Then moving them into the relevant folders. Then setting up your filters from mailsmith into filters in gmail” 

I was surprised to hear that I could create an email hierarchy within Gmail.  But as far as importing goes, here’s the thing…  I was planning to import Mailbox’s POP mbox into my new mail account or client since: (a) they are already sorted in a particular order (and contained in their appropriate mailbox), and (b) the include (and exclude) all the mail I want to import, and (c) the sent mail on my Mailsmith client doesn’t match the outgoing mail on the server (classic reason why IMAP is better than POP).  

So, is it possible to do this with the steps that you’ve outlined?  If so, how?  BTW, I was *really* surprised to read that you don’t use Topics all that much!  I thought that was one of the highlighted features in Postbox!  I was planning on using them to collate mail from disparate accounts into one area.  Is that how you use them?  Man, I really hope that when I do hit hit “archive” in gmail, it will filter the messages properly.  I’m redoing my whole email system so it works with you system!  Hope it all works out…  And thanks again for all of your help!

Posted by AE Aaron  | January 12, 2012 at 7:29PM

Archive doesn’t filter mail – gmail’s filters do that.

Strongly suggest you set up a test gmail account first and play around with how it handles mail – that will pretty much show you how labels, folders, hierarchies and everything else works within their system. Ditto with Postbox. You could setup a test gmail account and test that by setting it up in Postbox and seeing how changes go all-around.

Not 100% on how you can import an existing POP3 inbox into a gmail account (I’ve only worked with private IMAP servers before) – though a quick Google search will probably sort that out.

Actually, now that I think about it, you could do it this way.

Set up your POP3 account in Postbox (by exporting out of Mailsmith and importing into Postbox). Then set up your Gmail account (with correctly structured folders/labels and everything else). Then manually drag and drop your old (archived) mail from your POP3 folders into your Gmail folders, one folder at a time. Postbox will sync via IMAP all your local folders to Gmail servers, thus preserving your hierarchy.

I didn’t really catch what other questions you had – maybe bullet point them? =)

Posted by Anonymous  | January 14, 2012 at 10:55PM

Hey Aaron,
Thanks so much again for this.  I am experimenting with this, and also contact Postbox tech support to see if your import / transference strategy would work.  So far, they think it will.  Will let you know…  One quick question about merging they approach in this article with setting up and importing my old email folder and filters…  With my current email system (POP non-Postbox client), my emails automatically filters into their designated folders.  What I’m trying to do is to first have them run through the system that you’ve outlined here: click on the email, decide whether to respond to it – therein determining its immediate behavior – and then archive it.  I’m wondering if I use your import / transference strategy, and set up the email management system in this article, will my emails only transfer into their designated folder *after* I hit the archive button in Postbox (after I’ve completed the steps you’ve laid out in the article)?  That’s what I’m hoping to do…
In other words, I don’t want my messages to automatically filtered – UNTIL I finish the process outlined in your management strategy, ending by hitting “archive” in Postbox (at which point, the messages will automatically fields into their assigned folders).  Sound good?  

My other question was simply when / how you used Postbox’s Topics?  It seems like a way to collect all overlapping email categories that cross over from other accounts.  Just curious…  Thanks!

Posted by AE Aaron  | January 18, 2012 at 8:37AM

OK, gotcha now.

1. Archive button. Archive in Gmail/Postbox as far as I know, simply puts the message into the “All Mail” folder. It doesn’t move the message into any other folder. This may be different from it’s operation in Mailsmith (I’m assuming that’s what it’s referring to). The way I sort my inbox is this – go through it, and drag-and-drop into relevant folders as I go. An alternative way is to set up filters in Gmail to presort your mail for you. In Postbox, this then shows up as having unread mail in particular folders, which I can then go through and look at (e.g., all my marketing newsletters go automatically into one folder so I can go through them in a batch).
2. You can set up filters within Postbox to assign topics to almost any message condition. I prefer to set up filters at a gmail level and have messages go into separate folders. The reason for this is because sometimes I travel without a laptop and have to log into gmail from someone else’s computer, and I want my filtering structure to remain in place. The favourite contact/date filters are pretty much automatic and I use them a lot.

Posted by Lisa H  | March 3, 2013 at 10:45AM

Oh, I took a little more time to read through the other posts and found my answer…for you personally, you just have one archive folder with no sub-folders, and use the search features to find stuff. Cool.

Posted by Anonymous  | January 26, 2012 at 10:50PM | Reply

Thanks so much, Aaron. Here’s the deal…  Ideally, I’d lie to first see all the message in Inbox, employ the process you’ve outlined out in your article, and then after replying to messages (via your process – e.g., through the 2 min. rule or reply label / folder), and then click on the Archive button and transfer them to their designated folders and subfolders.  For me,  dragging-and-dropping message into relevant folders would be a time costuming affair w/ the volume of emails that I’ve got.  I’ve been filtering unread messages in particular folders, and while it has it’s advantages, I sometimes loose track of messages as I bounce between folders trying to account for new, incoming messages.  That’s why I’d like to employ a system that first shows new messages in the Inbox, then processes the email through your great process, and *then* press Archive (or something like it) so that processed messages will automatically transfer into their designated folder.  Make sense?  Is it possible to  this?  Thanks!

Posted by AE Aaron  | January 26, 2012 at 11:03PM

As far as I know, that’s not what the archive function is for. Archive is simply archive – it moves your mail from the inbox to “all mail”. If you want to move messages around, you need to use the move function. If I remember correctly that ability to press a button and apply a predesignated filter to a particular message is something you mentioned you could do in MailSmith – unfortunately other email clients don’t work that way. My guess, is that the majority of people have no problems dragging and dropping mail into other folders, or they do what I do and receive mail in other folders via preset filters.

Probably the closest thing you can use is the “run filters” function in Postbox (or other software). But be aware that this applies to ALL the email in the inbox.

Posted by Anonymous  | January 27, 2012 at 9:08AM

I dig it.  Well, I could roll with running using the “run filters” function in Postbox (I’m now a Postbox user, thanks to you!).  But let me ask you this…  Is there a way to set up Postbox in such a way so that it functions the way that I’ve outlined?  Namely, I want to look at new messages in the Inbox, processes the email through your great process, and *then* use the “run filters” function in Postbox so that processed messages will automatically transfer into their designated folder.  What do I need to do to ensure this process works?  Thanks!

Posted by AE Aaron  | January 29, 2012 at 3:49AM

That would be a question for Postbox support. As I mentioned – I find it easier to use gmail’s filters server-side and then drag-and-drop messages as necessary.

Posted by J.  | April 5, 2012 at 4:25PM | Reply

Hey guys,

I realize I’m starting up an old post, so this query might go unanswered. I’ve tried PostBox or several months, and thought I’d be able to fully cross over to it. But the tech support has been absolutely [I][B]awful[/B][/I] – absolutely the worst I’ve experienced with [I]any[/I] paid application. They took weeks to respond to questions, and then decided not to answer my (totally legitimate) questions after a while. So…after all of that, I’m sadly considering another email application.

At this point, I’m seriously considering using use Mail with add-ons like MailTags and Mail Act-On to give Mail the functionality that I’m seeking, and maintain access to Mac support (when needed). I understand that add-ons are unsupported hacks that break as Apple releases new versions (of Mail, for example). But is there a better alternative…? I’m at my wits end…

Thanks!

Posted by Martin  | December 21, 2012 at 5:46PM

I am thinking of using Mac Mail, Mailtags and Mail Act on as well. Have you established a successful workflow using Mail and these addons?

Cheers

Posted by Maggie  | May 31, 2012 at 2:31PM | Reply

I run a small company and am trying to implement this style of answering email along with omnifocus for me professionally and personally. I find that my biggest challenge is remembering everything that needs to be done and keeping momentum in projects. I used to write everything down everyday, then transfer anything that didn’t get done to the next day. This approach worked the best, but lacks the syncing/ tech element that I also need. I work remotely almost all the time and want transparency and sharing capabilities.

My big question about your email organization idea is the “waiting folder”. I have so many emails that are “waiting” it begins to look like an overcrowded inbox again. Some of these are long-term project follow up that could theoretically be “waiting” for a long time, some are smaller tasks, some are things I need to ask someone else about before proceeding. Any ideas on how to clean my act up?

Posted by Paula  | July 16, 2012 at 8:58PM | Reply

I am a new user in gmai. I am trying to find this solution:
When I reply to someones email and hit send, I also get the reply back to my inbox. Where is the setting for me to change that?
Thanks for your time.
Paula

Posted by George Chase  | August 12, 2012 at 10:07PM | Reply

This is exciting, only we need to find a way to add the two “new” folders to the top, or as seen with the new “Unread” mail area. I use labels exclusively, the “reply” would be alphabetized as would “Waiting”

Thank you,

George

Posted by Thanh Pham  | August 13, 2012 at 1:44AM

Yeah it seems like that’s not possible at the moment. That would be a great addition though.

Posted by Jeff A  | September 11, 2012 at 1:48PM

I just discovered this article yesterday and have converted my work emails over to it using Gmail on the web. I gave up on PC/Mac based mail applications years ago when Gmail came along and have never looked back.

Already the system is working very well and I’ll convert my personal email over to it shortly. Thanks so much for sharing your system.

To get Reply and Waiting to appear at the top under Inbox and All Mail I had to label them +Reply and +Waiting.

I also use secondary client labels but your system works well with this extra layer as well. Thanks again, Jeff.

Posted by Thanh Pham  | September 11, 2012 at 1:51PM

Thanks Jeff, glad to hear it’s working well for you and that you customized it for your own needs. That’s really important for anyone reading – make it personalized for yourself.

Posted by Jennifer McLaughlin  | August 17, 2012 at 8:56AM | Reply

Fantastic article, thank you!! Do you have a methodology for organizing your archive box? For example, I created a subfolder called financial and under that I have subfolders for each financial institution I deal with. It only takes a moment to set up these subfolders initially but really saves on searching later. I have SO many old emails that I want to keep for whatever reason, but I’m struggling with coming up with logical, organized subfolder structure. Thoughts?

Posted by Thanh Pham  | August 17, 2012 at 9:28AM

You can definitely create subfolders in your archive box but I prefer to use the search function to find any old emails.

Posted by Julian  | August 19, 2012 at 8:39AM

Hi
I’m in a similar situation regarding storing archived emails and would appreciate you passing on any ideas that come your way and will do likewise
Regards Julian

Posted by Mike Hayes  | August 18, 2012 at 8:06PM | Reply

This is great stuff. I adopted it this week and I feel much more productive. I have one question. Currently, (on Outlook), I view my email by conversation, so I can see the thread in context. My question is, should I start cleaning my inbox from oldest to newest or the reverse? There are good arguments for both. Clearing by newest first allows me to catch “emergencies” or “fires” as they come in, but clearing from oldest first let’s me adress things that are important but might be stale. Do you have thoughts?

Posted by Faigy  | September 11, 2012 at 8:32PM | Reply

Hi! This article looks great. to read it on my iphone, would I convert it to a pdf? How do I do so? I don’t have the adobe software for that, I think. then I could read it in ibooks. Instapaper would show all the text but not graphs. thanks

Posted by Thanh Pham  | September 12, 2012 at 10:11PM

If you visit the page with your iphone, you’ll get the mobile version with just text and graphics. If you do get the PDF version, iBooks should be able to read it.

Posted by Julian  | September 23, 2012 at 11:34AM | Reply

Hi
Excuse my ignorance but can I set up sub folders in my archive folder if I use gmail

Posted by Thanh Pham  | September 23, 2012 at 3:36PM

No that’s not possible unless you use an email client.

Posted by Andrea Nagar  | September 30, 2012 at 11:33AM | Reply

Thanks a lot for the valuable information. I clean up my inbox regularly but I was leaving in it all the emails I planned to do something with.

I will now start using the @reply folder.

For the @waiting folder, I’m currently using followup.cc (and I’m also testing sanebox). This prevents the need to use (and check) the @waiting folder.

When I send an email I can automatically decide when I want to receive a notification if the recipient has not replied.

Posted by Paul  | December 3, 2012 at 5:52PM | Reply

Hi Thanh,

Another useful article from your archives, bumped to the top by Twitter. Kudos! ;-)

I started using a very similar system a while back, which over the months has iterated to the following structure:

Online tree is:
Inbox (with a sub-folder Review)

Offline tree is:
Do? (with a sub-folder Review, just to dump the online version of it into at the end of the day)
Do!
Doing
Done
Info for Do

“Review” is where I have set up a raft of filters to dump sundry newsletters in (as recommended elsewhere in your archives). Basically this is all the stuff I can wade through if and when I have time. I’m also trialling the more drastic “anything not sent directly to me” filter going here. So far… nobody died! ;-)

“Do?” is where (at first glance) I have no clue what is expected of me (if anything). Since I receive mail in two languages, mainly anything that isn’t in my mother tongue and is written in legalese (or in an overly flowery style) gets put there to cool off (or until my brain is cool enough to process it)

“Do!” is where I have understood what is the issue but I haven’t dealt with it yet.

(So basically I have split your Reply folder into two slightly different workflows.)

“Doing” could also be called Delegated (or Waiting), because as soon as I have written to someone for action or input, the mail goes here. But following *another* one of your tips (sorry, too lazy to link!) I have set up an amended signature with a “symbol” at the end, that I can use to filter and track. This allows me to automate two other parts of your advice in the article. (1) As the mail sends, a filter flags the mail for follow-up in a fortnight and (2) any responses containing the symbol received later also get filtered into the same “Doing” folder. (I’m attempting therefore to simplify the follow-up process through automation, and also to hopefully reserve the inbox for new incoming info/tasks.) Then the weekly process of nagging the “dear colleagues” goes a bit smoother.

“Done” is, well, done! (Archive in your system.) All closed issues go here (or earlier/partially redundant mails of ongoing issues, since my version of Outlook doesn’t group “conversations” like Gmail does).

The final mail folder is “Info for Do”. If we have some kind of “big push” coming up, and I want all the resources and info for that easily to hand, then I put the mails in here for easy access. Not much gets in here, like 10 mails for infrequent admin jobs that I don’t want to search for for the 80th time, and another 10 for the hot topic of the month. (I guess this is easier in Gmail with simply starring a mail, but I use the flags in Outlook for something else* and categories seem to complex and “multi-click” to me at first glance. Therefore for the sake of 20 mails, a separate manual input folder isn’t too much to handle.)

In summary, very similar to your system, but with your folders slightly renamed & sub-divided to better fit my flavour of workflow, and augmented with filters (as I’m sure you use as well):

Reply -> Do? & Do! (and arguably Info for Do)
Waiting -> Doing
Archive -> Done

So *my* To Dos out of all this are:

1. Follow-up on your tip to transition mails in “Reply” to a task manager (which I am still weak on), so all “gathering points” are quickly visible.
2. Be more consistent with the use of my “follow-up” signature, to maximise the benefit of the automation… and get rid of the alert I set up so I wouldn’t miss anything… but which quickly irritates me to death!
3. Be more ruthless with my implementation of the two-minute rule

Thanks for letting me ramble on ;-)

* I use the flags for really quickly differentiating between “internal clients”. Then I use virtual Search Folders to keep track of all mails relating to that “client”, no matter where they are in the workflow. But that’s a whole different ramble for a whole other day. :-D

Posted by Thanh Pham  | December 10, 2012 at 10:42PM

Hi Paul thanks for sharing your workflow! That’s a pretty sophisticated workflow you have but I can see how it can work. Like you said, it’s somewhat similar and it’s funny how you came up with this yourself. That must have taken a lot of trial-and-error!

Posted by BN  | January 6, 2013 at 10:01PM | Reply

This is a great article. Thank you for posting it. I already started using your advice with success. However I have a question regarding using this system with Omnifocus.

Simple scenario:
I decided that an email will take more than 2 minutes of my time so I moved it from inbox to “Action/Reply” folder. As you mention in the article, email account is not a substitute for a task manager. So I create a respective action item in Omnifocus for the email. At this point – as I created an action item in Omnifocus- do you suggest:

a) removing the “Action/Reply” label and archiving the email, or
b) keeping the “Action/Reply” label until I have completed all the necessary actions. (Keep in mind that some emails are ambiguous and initiate not an “action” but rather a multi-step “project” with no definitive deadline.)

Thanks in advance.

Posted by Lisa H  | March 3, 2013 at 10:40AM | Reply

This is great stuff! I am so pleased someone tipped me onto your website. I’m going to finally stop just reading and admiring and start DOING. Now, a question about the Archive folder. I’m wondering how much organization you have in that folder. Do you have sub-folders under Archive? Or do you just throw everything in there, and use the built-in search mechanism to find information? The latter is much easier, but somehow I got started down the path of the former (probably thinking it was the more organized approach), and before I switch over (which feels drastic), I’m looking for more personal experience.

Posted by Lisa H  | March 3, 2013 at 10:46AM | Reply

So I have another question. I use MS Outlook at work, and obviously our Inbox is stored on the server by default. We have a max so I do need to set up archive folders in a different location. I’m not intimate with outlook archiving so I’m wondering your advice about how to manage this. Have an Archive folder on the server, and then periodically “archive” that information to an archive folder on my hard drive (if backed up) or a separate, personal folder on the server?

Posted by Lisa H  | March 3, 2013 at 10:48AM | Reply

Sorry, me again! Any advice about managing “sent” items?

Posted by Jeffrey James  | July 25, 2013 at 1:13PM | Reply

It’s true, being able to stay on top of email is super important. And once you have your system in place, it should free you up to spend more time on other important tasks.

Posted by The Inbox Zero Concept - Fit For Blogging  | September 19, 2013 at 3:51AM | Reply

[…] heard about the inbox zero idea from time to time, but an article on the Asian Efficiency blog really caught my attention and spurned me on to take the philosophy […]

Posted by Monika Wahi  | September 26, 2013 at 12:14PM | Reply

Excellent advice! I will try to change my ways and see if I can get to 0 inbox!

Posted by Michel Goldstein  | October 9, 2013 at 12:48AM | Reply

Hi! I’ve been thinking of using this system a lot, but my biggest concern is that I currently have a lot of folders and subfolders in Outlook. I’m worried about starting to shove everything in an archive folder because what if I don’t know the right combination of keywords to find it in the future, or I want to look at all the related ones for a project.

Posted by Thanh Pham  | October 12, 2013 at 4:00PM

That’s a legitimate concern but as long as you can remember who the sender is, it’s fairly easy to find things.

Posted by Justin Hunt  | October 15, 2013 at 3:17PM | Reply

So, I’m curious to know what iOS email client you’d use to complement this workflow for ipad and iPhone.
I’m currently giving mailplane a try and the zero inbox methodology but would like to be able when using by iOS devices for the same “feel” in managing the workflow.

Justin

Posted by Scot  | November 12, 2013 at 11:20PM | Reply

I know this is an old post but I thank you. I know I had been told this. I even practiced it at one time. But with my new responsibilities, I realized my time was sapped by my email! I have been back in control for a couple of weeks now, thanks to this little reminder. Hard work at first, but once you manage that email with the concept of Zero Inbox, you will not want to go back! I just reposted your article on LinkedIn.

Posted by David  | December 4, 2013 at 10:06PM | Reply

The concept is great, but not looking at email in the morning at all gives me pause. What if your boss has an urgent matter for you? To deal with this, I would create a folder where your boss’s (or that “important person’s”) emails can be routed. You can give that a quick glance in the morning just to be sure you aren’t missing anything urgent. What’s more, directions for something you’re working on now may have been altered — in which case, ironically, you’re wasting your time in the pursuit of productivity. So I’d say take a glance at your boss’s emails in the morning. And I agree for the most part that the rest can wait. Or is there a way around this? Thanks!

Posted by Hugh Mark  | January 5, 2014 at 4:51PM | Reply

Very interesing I am going to try this. WHat happens to other things? E.g – a report / very long article you know you should read later but not sure when you will get round to it? Also does your reply folder always contain things you meant to reply to but never got round to?!

Posted by Anukampa  | January 7, 2014 at 3:37AM | Reply

How do I reach ‘Zero Inbox’ with all my old emails?
For current emails, I am following the above mentioned methodology.
But I have an old account and have around 8000 emails in my inbox.
How do I archieve all of them?

Posted by Fiona Crowley  | January 16, 2014 at 2:57PM | Reply

Thank you, thank you, thank you! I am amazed at how easily I have adopted this system. Took a few hours to get up and running and has been smooth sailing ever since early December 2013. My inbox is always empty and my productivity has definitely increased. You guys are the best.

Posted by Jason Frasca  | January 28, 2014 at 8:49AM | Reply

Great article… Not sure why I never thought to add a waiting folder to Gmail… I have one for GTD!

I prefer 3 x a day for mail… to ensure I am on top of things… It is also faster to process that way as well.

You guys rock!

Posted by Thanh Pham  | January 28, 2014 at 2:28PM

Thanks Jason! :)

Posted by Devinder Maheshwari  | January 29, 2014 at 1:35AM | Reply

I am a blogger and email conversations are one of the most important aspect of blogging which most people don’t know. But, Emails bite a large chunk of time and hence decrease the productivity.

I really loved your post and I will try to implement the tips in my daily work-plan.

Posted by Amit  | March 20, 2014 at 2:24AM | Reply

I am using I phone 6 i have configure outlook mail but there is problem .mail are working fine but problem is .like if in a time 10 mail download form my mail server to I phone inbox and than i need delete some mail form i phone inbox then other mail download so is it possible to download more than 20,30 mail in a time

Posted by Ant Pugh  | March 27, 2014 at 10:30AM | Reply

Love this post. I implemented this a while ago and have seen much improvements on email workflow.

I have a question for you though:

I am Windows… so don’t use Omnifocus (although I might change to Mac just for what I’ve heard about that software!).. But I use another task management system that I’m relatively happy with and I also have 3 inboxes.

The flaw I have with your Archive/Reply/Waiting system, is that every time I am ready to get to work, I am looking through 4 locations for tasks :

1) my reply folders (x3)
2) my task manager

This then gives me an opportunity to procrastinate – ie. do I check my task list in my task manager, or do I choose to reply to an email in one of the 3 Reply folders in the email? I would really like one location for all tasks which includes ‘Reply to email x’.

In an ideal world, the Task Manager would allow me to reply to the emails directly from the task manager itself so I don’t have to go directly back into my email to find the email, and then reply to it (can Omnifocus do this? I know there is a program called IQTell that does this, however it is blocked by my company so I can’t use this for company emails).

Do you think it’s more productive to use the system described in this blog post, rather than creating tasks from emails, and then keeping all emails in one Archive folder and then just searching for that email once the task appears in the task manager?

I hope I explained myself properly?… looking forward to your thoughts!

Posted by Anthony Edward Pugh  | March 28, 2014 at 5:57AM | Reply

Love this post. I implemented this a while ago and have seen much improvements on email workflow.

I have a question for you though:

I am Windows… so don’t use Omnifocus (although I might change to Mac just for what I’ve heard about that software!).. But I use another task management system that I’m relatively happy with and I also have 3 inboxes.

The flaw I have with your Archive/Reply/Waiting system, is that every time I am ready to get to work, I am looking through 4 locations for tasks :

1) my reply folders (x3)
2) my task manager

This then gives me an opportunity to procrastinate – ie. do I check my task list in my task manager, or do I choose to reply to an email in one of the 3 Reply folders in the email? I would really like one location for all tasks which includes ‘Reply to email x’.

In an ideal world, the Task Manager would allow me to reply to the emails directly from the task manager itself so I don’t have to go directly back into my email to find the email, and then reply to it (can Omnifocus do this? I know there is a program called IQTell that does this, however it is blocked by my company so I can’t use this for company emails).

Do you think it’s more productive to use the system described in this blog post, rather than creating tasks from emails, and then keeping all emails in one Archive folder and then just searching for that email once the task appears in the task manager?

I hope I explained myself properly?… looking forward to your thoughts!

Posted by Thanh Pham  | April 7, 2014 at 9:59PM

You only reply emails in the Reply folder when you’re checking email. Ideally that’s just twice a day.

All the other times you’re using your task manager for doing stuff. If you need to move emails to your task manager, then do it.

Another way of phrasing: let your todo list be your guiding post for getting stuff done. Only reply to emails in the Reply folder whenever you’re opening your email client during the day (twice) and spend no more than 30m per email session.

Posted by Andre  | April 3, 2014 at 7:53AM | Reply

Great article as always!!

I have invested in all the software you guys recommend but still working an mastering these :)

When you are sending an email using Mailplane, how do you save that to a specific “group” in Devonthink? And as what, just a hyperlink? Same with receiving mail….

Is there an automated way to create a pdf, which contains the hyperlink back to the mail, but by saving as a pdf in Devonthink, the content of the mail is now searchable? Maybe Keyboard Maestro?

Posted by Samuel  | October 18, 2014 at 7:32PM | Reply

Thank you for posting this great article. I have taken your advice and revamped my gmail account from a hierarchy of hundreds of folders and sub-folders down to just 3 folders. First, I created a temporary folder and labeled it BACKLOG and dragged all of the many folders I was using previously under it so I could start to go through them as time permits and process the existing emails without allowing them to disrupt my new system. Then I created the two folders you recommended (REPLY and WAITING) so I could immediately began implementing your awesome strategy going forward with any and all new emails. I’m looking at my Inbox with no emails in it for the first time in years and it feels great! I’ve been able to keep my Inbox at zero for a while now and have been able to whittle away at the emails in the BACKLOG folder in the slow times and should have it down to zero soon. Thank you again for helping me regain control over my Inbox.

Posted by Thanh Pham  | October 19, 2014 at 12:46AM

You’re welcome :)

Posted by AN  | May 4, 2015 at 4:03AM | Reply

Hi, firstly thanks for this. think its amazing the simplicity involved here and I am keen to get this done. I work in a rather transactional industry and I also travel a lot. past decade I have been using my memory to keep track of agreements of commercial nature as they’re mostly done on email.

I have right now multiple 1000’s of email in my inbox and some yes filed by customer or supplier… I really want to clean this up but wondering if you know how I can make this simple to search as well ? because I need to go back and find some agreements as well.

thus basis your workflow I would be searching a massive Archive right ?

today I have about 131 folders under my inbox in Outlook and this further moves into the archive file…

am open to suggestions :)

Posted by Mark Greening  | June 24, 2015 at 10:55PM | Reply

Hi, do you have a system for keeping track of Sent emails which require a response? I could sent 5 – 10 emails per day asking for information or for someone to do a job, but it’s quite easy to forget that you asked for this unless you keep a list of these requests. But I also don’t want to be adding all these requests to a “Waiting For” list as that’s a whole lot of double typing.

I’m on a Mac using Mac Mail.

Posted by Mark  | August 9, 2015 at 8:14PM | Reply

I know this is an old post, but I see it’s been asked a few times over the years: I too would be interested in hearing tips for dealing with SENT mail. This is the one area I never see addressed in these mail management systems. Thoughts? Thanks!

Posted by Aaron Lynn  | August 10, 2015 at 6:01AM

Hey Mark,

What would you like to know?

Most modern mail apps group/thread sent mail with incoming mail and that’s where I would go look for it.

– Aaron

Posted by vishal  | August 12, 2015 at 6:12AM | Reply

thanks

Posted by Mark Greening  | August 25, 2015 at 1:10AM | Reply

I guess what I mean is, lets say I send 20 emails per day, 5 of which require the person I’m emailing to get back to me with an answer about something I’ve asked them. Over a week, that could add up to 20 people I’m expecting to get back to me with an answer. But how do I keep track of all these people who need to give me answers? Because it’s not uncommon to suddenly realise one day, “hey, Joe never got back to me with an answer to my question and I emailed him two weeks ago!” I also use Dave Allen’s Things to Do technique for keeping track of stuff like this when it’s non-email, but emails tend to generate a lot more requests, so how do you keep track of them all?

Posted by CamilaBP  | November 6, 2015 at 9:30AM | Reply

Thanks so much for this article… I´ve been using Outlook for years and have archives folders but did not have a processing system until now… Thanks to you!
I´m a university law professor and get a lot of mails with news, rulings, updates and articles to read from different sources or websites… Do you have any further advice on how to manage this? I´ve started leaving them in a “To Read” folder (as the Reply and Waiting folder) to tackle them once a week for an hour, saving the articles or pdfs of my interest to my Dropbox filing system (that´s another issue for me; for my work I´ve tons of data in pdfs and docs… the sole task of organizing took days but it now saves precious hours of my time and I feel I know waht I have and where to find it).
Also, any further advice to manage the Sent Items if I will continue to use Outlook in my work account? I use Mail on my Mac at home for my peronal account…

Posted by khaleel  | January 13, 2016 at 12:27PM | Reply

Excellent info ! I wil try work on this stuf

Posted by Hesham Tahoun  | January 14, 2016 at 1:59AM | Reply

how would you scale this system to work with an assistant, and still want to read every email, like a marketer would need to look at every email for feedback.

is it possible to have it done in 2 layers. the assistant tags emails in batches based on context and mark them unread, you then sort by the tag and read a ton of similar emails at once, do you think that would scale well for someone who receives a 1000 email a day ? do you know a better way ?

Posted by Linda Maye Adams  | February 14, 2016 at 6:09PM | Reply

The two minute rule is deal killer for me. I get a lot of email that qualifies for the 2-minute rule, but if I followed it I would never get anything done but email!

Instead, I do a quick look at the email. Is it an emergency? If it is, then I do it right away. If it’s not an emergency, I move it into one of several folders, depending on what it is. Most of the emails go into an activities folder, dated for that day, and then I go through that folder at 1:00 and deal with most of the emails. If anything comes in after that, it goes into the next day’s activities folder. Especially, I want to answer as little as possible right away because then people come to expect a 5 minute response, and then complain when I have 3 emergencies that take all day and I can’t get to anything.

Posted by Avi-Gil Chaitovsky  | July 12, 2016 at 3:46PM | Reply

At work, we use MS Exchange with MS Outlook. With meeting times constantly changing and meeting materials and links to Skype/Webex (or similar screen-sharing tools) being added last minute, it’s hard NOT to have my email client open all day.

Any tips?

Posted by AbdAllah  | July 13, 2016 at 11:50AM | Reply

Thanks so much for sharing this approach! There is a powerful way in Outlook Email to assign & track task by using FLAG. Also there is a way to set reminder for the sender & receiver for the task to complete. I was using folders to save different emails but I discovered they piled lots of undone emails. Now I use 3 folders only (Action/Follow up/Archive) in batches 3 times a day and always achieving Inbox Zero.

Thanks,

Posted by Jamie  | July 13, 2016 at 12:37PM | Reply

i am an AE student and have applied these concepts for a long time now, and my system is Airmail/Omnifocus/Google Calendar – works seemlessly on phone and mac.. i am a personal assistant for a very busy and disorganized but well intentioned boss. I try to be her productivity system and i am applying these techniques to her email management as well. For mails that need her attention – i create omnifocus tasks with a specific context, then archive them- the problem is if she doesnt give me the time to go over the emails with her that require her reply, they become my responsibility, because i have archived them and they are in my task manager. I create a space for her to go over all of her pressing mails every day, but she doesn’t always take that time with me.. i would love for you guys to help us personal assistants out there come up with some good systems to handle unruly bosses. thanks!

Posted by Thanh Pham  | July 13, 2016 at 2:54PM

Thanks Jamie for sharing this! You sound like an amazing assistant. I think as an assistant, if you can create systems for your boss, you become indispensable. You’ll need a good relationship with your boss of course but if my assistant could create systems and make my life easier one thing at a time (by creating systems) then that person is extremely valuable to me.

Posted by Davy C  | July 13, 2016 at 1:33PM | Reply

Great article Thanh. It’s super helpful and intuitive.

What do you think of Inbox by Gmail?

When it comes to processing emails where I’m “Waiting for” something or “require a response,” I use Inbox’s SNOOZE feature to have the email returned to my inbox at a specific date/time.

It requires an extra step to specify the return time but it saves me the trouble of creating a task.

It also presented an uplifting graphic when you empty your inbox.

Thoughts?

Posted by Thanh Pham  | July 13, 2016 at 2:52PM

I haven’t played with Inbox too much because I tend to use email clients as a wrapper on top of Google’s email services. Personally I don’t use the snooze function because of my OmniFocus integration but I know Zack likes that approach. Luckily there are multiple ways to get the same result! I’d say, keep it going if it works for you.

Posted by Stienie  | July 14, 2016 at 2:18AM | Reply

I enjoyed your article, simple and easy to implement. I have started lately to use boomerang for gmail, for emails I send that needs follow-up, and also for those times where I can answer quickly, but I don’t want to, as you can schedule a message for a certain time. I think it is a wonderful tool. Would like to hear your views on that?

Posted by Vic Roberts  | July 14, 2016 at 7:41PM | Reply

According to audiobook I am currently listening to by Dr Kyra Bobinet (https://www.amazon.com/Well-Designed-Life-Thinking-Purposeful/dp/0996734570), this is Simple Email iteration V2.0! I always struggled with “rotting” forgotten messages in the Waiting & Reply folders. Thanks for the serotonin hit…have to go to implement.

Posted by Nate  | July 14, 2016 at 8:01PM | Reply

Though I completely understand the purpose behind this change, I don’t feel like I have the option. I work for the government and often deal with classified, or at the very least confidential information, which can’t be transferred to my task manager. Therefore, when I create the task, I still need that email readily available for reference or to reply to in the future. Combine that with Outlook’s pretty terrible search system that continually wastes my precious time, and I’m in for a lot of workflow friction. I just don’t know how to move away fromthe folder system in my situation. Thoughts?

Posted by Amy Harris  | July 15, 2016 at 9:15AM | Reply

For Windows users, I recommend IQTELL in place of Omnifocus . Your email accounts are inside the task manager. One click makes the email into a task. It’s very easy to attach these to projects as well. So when you need info on a project, you just look under that project. Relevant emails, attachments, Evernote files, etc. are all in one place. There is no getting sucked into the email blackhole. You are only in your project or task.

Posted by Rohit Rosario  | July 17, 2016 at 7:41PM | Reply

Great article! I’ve picked up several points that I think will make me much more efficient with my email. Thanks!

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