Friday, September 13, 2013

Ten Email Commandments

By Tim Harford

There have never been so many ways to get things done – or so many distractions. This is the ultimate guide to mastering the technology that rules our lives

1. Email is your servant

Corner-office people have secretaries to prevent them being interrupted. They take incoming calls and turn them into written records. They fend off time-wasters. They create blocks of unbroken time during which real work can be done. Email will do all this for you too – and while I am a Gmail user, most modern email programs or services should allow you to do likewise.

First, switch off most, if not all, notifications: the blinking red light on the BlackBerry, the little icon in the corner of the screen, the automated email telling you that someone has mentioned you on Twitter. Most websites, apps, devices and software programs will have a “settings” section and, with that, a “notifications”. If you can’t find it, Google it. Switch ’em off.

You might make an exception for rare events: once a week or so, someone I already know will try to send a private message to me on Twitter. I have told Twitter to send me an email when this happens, but I don’t need a little blinking light to tell me that someone has sent me an email. Unless the End Times Are At Hand, someone has always just sent me an email. I’ll answer when I am ready.

Your phone can prevent interruptions too: a voicemail message can politely ask people to text or email you. Presto: instant personal assistant. Whenever you have finished what you were actually intending to do, fire up your email. Emails form a permanent, searchable record. Consult that record at a time convenient to you.

2. Don’t bother filing your emails – archive them.

Back in the day, people would file their old emails in folders. Gmail popularised the idea of a catch-all Archive: the equivalent of dumping all your documents in a wheelie bin beside your desk and rooting around in there if you ever need to find anything. If your email program doesn’t have a default archive like Gmail, it’s easy to achieve a similar effect: just create one folder for yourself marked “Archive” and dump anything you might vaguely wish to see again into that folder.

Perhaps this sounds insane. Trust me. The difference between a modern email archive and a wheelie bin is that the archive is searchable. If you’ve ever googled a document that you now have in your filing cabinet, you’ve realised the basic idea: search is now so good it is usually quicker to search for something in an undifferentiated archive than it is to find the folder where you painstakingly filed it.

I am serious about this. You do not need to waste time with elaborate folder systems. Forget about them. I use folders only for very specific projects. For instance, I often find myself agreeing to speak at conferences or book festivals, and it can be handy to use a single sub-folder to store all the emails relevant to a particular gig. When the event is finished, I drag the whole sub-folder into a folder marked “Past Events” and it will never distract me again.

More often than not, though, folder structures become unwieldy; choosing the right folder into which to drop an email becomes an extended exercise in thumb-sucking taxonomy, and finding it again becomes impossible.



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