What’s in my inbox

Lately, I’ve been engaged in a duel with my inbox. I’m trying to get it down as low as possible. It’s trying to expand without limit. We usually manage an uneasy balance that involves me going through spurts of filing and deleting and it going, “You’ve got mail!” (No, it’s not audible. Email is distracting enough without an interrupting beep.)

At any rate, I realized one day that I didn’t even have a clear idea of the true magnitude of the problem. How much email was I receiving each day? And what kinds of messages were they?

I decided to track incoming email for a week. The graphic at right (click to enlarge) shows the fractional breakdowns between spam and non-spam, and then a further breakdown of the non-spam in terms of what I did with it (not always accomplished on the day it arrived).

Here’s what I learned:

  • I receive an average of 88.67 messages per day: 38.67 are spam and 50 are non-spam.
  • The spam filter in my Mac OS X Mail.app is really, really good. Not shown in this graphic is the fact that I also tracked how many spam messages I had to manually mark. This ended up being 4 messages over six days, or just 0.67 messages per day. I’m impressed!
  • The most common action I take is to delete messages (19.83 per day). This suggests an obvious means for reducing the number of messages I receive: get off of mailing lists. Unfortunately, there’s only one I’m subscribed to, so this won’t help a lot. It was interesting to discover how much of my email serves only an informative purpose, requiring neither an answer nor to be filed.
  • I send a short answer to 13.33 messages per day, and I file (without answering) 11.5 additional messages. If I answered it, I probably filed it too. Therefore my mail files grow by at least 38.13 messages per day, because I usually file my response as well. It’s actually more, because I send a lot of messages that aren’t replies to incoming messages (thereby adding to someone else’s email inbox problem. Go me!).
  • Most worrying, perhaps, is the “no action” category (5 messages per day). These are net increases in the size of my inbox. And that’s after reducing the number when I deal with that day’s messages on subsequent days, too. Sometimes I conclude my day with 15 or 20 “no action” emails, which just have to be processed later. This is where I’d like to really take corrective action. But if I file email prematurely (before I do whatever needs doing with respect to its contents), then I forget about it (and the task doesn’t get done). I’ve tried moving these items to a separate (small) “Action” folder, but then I forget about that folder. Any suggestions on how to deal with this?

Overall, this was an interesting exercise, and now I have a better idea of how much email I need to deal with on a daily basis, and where my energies need to be focused. I got to claim a minor victory today: for the first time in months (maybe even years), my work inbox got below 100 messages. Yay!

4 of 5 people learned something from this entry.

  1. stough said,

    March 9, 2007 at 9:22 am

    (Knew it already.)

    We’ve talked about it, and I don’t think that you can necessarily use my strategies, but here they are:

    Message Colorizing: I colorize messages with me in the TO: field. These are more likely to need responses and give me a visual cue that they are higher priority.

    File Everything after the first read: After I read a message, and I mean _read_ it and think about it for more than a second, I file that message in the folder for the project that it concerns. Then, when I’m working on that project, I go through that box (from oldest to newest) dealing with the messages and responding if necessary.

    I have no idea what my email volume is like. I think that Mail.app sucks at identifying spam for me. I just have a couple rules of my own that divert most of my spam.


  2. Magus said,

    March 9, 2007 at 10:58 am

    (Learned something new!)

    Lotus Notes (which I use at work only because I’m forced to) does have one nice feature. You can flag an email for “Follow Up”, and it keeps track of those emails wherever you file them and presents a small window with a list of them–double-clicking opens the email.

    Perhaps you can come up with a way of doing something similar? Being able to file the email in an appropriate place while still maintaining a pointer to it lets you file as you read, but still keep a list of action items. Obviously not helpful if it requires more than a simple extra step.

    (P.S. If you’re wondering who I am, I followed a link from tractat.us, and found your writing interesting.)

  3. geoff said,

    March 9, 2007 at 2:08 pm

    (Learned something new!)

    Decide on the next action as soon as you read the email. Then file the mail and track the next action on a separate list if the action will take longer than a few minutes. Shamelessly ripped off from David Allen.

    Personally, if it’s too hard to decide what to do next, I mark the email as unread and come back to it later. Usually those things are amorphous, long-term problems rather than things that are immediately actionable, so I don’t feel bad sleeping on them.

  4. Henry said,

    March 10, 2007 at 1:11 am

    (Learned something new!)

    I hit compose and then immediately postpone on emails I want to reply to later. Then whenever I go to compose a new email, it asks me if I want to continue a postponed one, and I am reminded about those deferred emails.

  5. Troy said,

    April 8, 2007 at 8:41 am

    (Learned something new!)

    I had some related discoveries that you might find interesting (thanks to Tim to linking me to your research)


  6. Mail Enhancement said,

    December 25, 2010 at 3:08 pm

    […] reading Kiri‘s analysis of her email, I was curious about my email. But first… Dr. T sent me mail […]

Post a Comment

I knew this already. I learned something new!