This is a post in progress.
I took some time at the beginning of this week to take a look at the state of my inbox. As my career in technology has progressed, I’ve become interested in reflecting on email activity as a proxy or gauge for the various aspects of my job. Below I’ll describe the context surrounding these numbers, my current strategy for inbox management, and some details of my inbox folder structure.
In the past, I’ve always ended up using my inbox as a sort of to-do list, and filing messages once they are completed. This is of course a fairly inefficient way of doing things, but in my environment at a state university, there are some factors which lend themselves to this approach: 1) you may find yourself needing to look up messages from several years ago, 2) you may need to trace the chain of events through a particular chain of emails or produce a report on a certain time period of a certain project, and 3) there is a neverending pile of projects and tasks that get added, while most pre-existing projects and tasks linger and never get “finished”. In this environment, traditional systematic approaches to PM and task management fail because there is not enough time to devote to keeping every item in a system, or workflow, or queue.
Having started my current job in July 2013, I had done a pretty good job of managing my inbox and filing emails for the first 12 months, but as projects started piling up I began to fall behind – a few vacations and conferences later, I was permanently behind. So I created another layer to my inbox – the current week of emails would sit in the inbox, while the past 3 weeks would each get filed into their own folder. I set the folder to display the total number of items, and when I have downtime I work backwards, starting at 3 weeks ago and reviewing which emails can now be filed, which are now resolved, and which still need action taken. On a good week, I can get the prior 3 weeks of emails down to about 50 or so, split between the 3 folders. On a bad month, I haven’t had any time to file and there will be ~1000 emails between the 4 most recent weeks. This of course takes a concerted effort to sort through, and feels overwhelming – but not as overwhelming as having a single inbox with thousands of messages, some unread, some flagged, all unfiled… so it works.
Describing the chart above, I took this count on Monday AM, so there were only 19 emails that had come in. The prior week only had 124 unfiled, almost 300 from 2 weeks ago, and less than 100 from 3 weeks ago. By the end of that Monday, I had gotten 3 weeks ago down to 10-20. The Flagged Recent shows there were 54 emails flagged out of the ~500 in the past 4 weeks. The Flagged Old showed there were 154 emails that remained flagged from prior to 4 weeks ago. At a certain point I do just let them go, but again working in a slowly moving state job, there are no shortage of good ideas and action items that need follow-up, but it might be 4-6 months before it is possible or appropriate to follow up. I suspect most people would simply let these emails fall by the wayside, at the most waiting to be reminded of the issue by a colleague, boss, or report.
The remainder of the folders in the chart reflect folders that have emails filed in them since July 2013, so almost 18 months. This gives me a way to gauge how much activity is happening in a certain area of my job. For example, Hadoop, a small side project that wasn’t even on my list of responsibilities ended up generating 2500 emails in 18 months – clearly showing the need for extra resources, which we finally obtained in the past month in the form of a consultant.