One of the ongoing struggles that almost everyone in ministry that I know has is in keeping their email in-box cleaned out, organized, and in some sort of order. Most of us receive a plethora of e-mail throughout the day, some of which we are hesitant to delete right away because it has information that we want to hold on to, while some has items that require our follow-up. After a while this mass of information builds up, and before you know it you suddenly have a hundred or more e-mails in your in-box requiring filing or responses.
I think that all of us know that our productivity will be enhanced if we take some time to clean out the closet, so to speak. But when we go to the in-box, what we are faced with is a big pile of messages that have no sense of order that can seem overwhelming.
I have discovered several things that work for me in moving beyond “cleaning despair.” By no means am I one of those folks who is able to maintain a “zero message” in-box. but I have found several things to help me wade through the mess and cull down the level of chaos.
Your Email Client
Before I share my tricks in organizing, I have to note that the choice of how you access your email effects how your organize yourself. There are two basic methods of dealing with e-mail – web based services such as Gmail or Hotmail; or desktop e-mail “clients” like Outlook and Thunderbird. There are advantages and disadvantages to each method, and each system has it’s own way of thinking about e-mail organization.
I confess that while I have tried to stay exclusively on “the cloud” at times, I find myself coming back to a dedicated e-mail client. Part of the reason is that one generally has more resources available at one’s finger tips with these clients, although Gmail is certainly catching up. My current preference of Outlook 2007 (which is a significantly improved version of Outlook) has as much to do with calendar integration and the fact that Outlook much more easily syncs with my Palm and Blackberry. However, there are good reasons to stay in the cloud, and I actually use Gmail as my primary e-mail service even while accessing it with a stand-alone client so that I can review e-mail when not near my computer.
The reason I mention this is that Gmail has a very different organizational scheme from almost all of the rest of the pack, both software and “cloud” based. For almost all of the other services and clients, the folder based method of organization runs supreme. This allows one to create a set of folders, or even folders within folders (a hierarchical mode of organization) for storing data. This model of organization by “file cabinet” has been around for a long time, is easy to understand, and works well. However, it does require that one remembers where one filed a particular item of data, and if one’s filing skills are lacking, organizing this way can seem anal and overwhelming.
Gmail came along with the first different organizational model which is becoming more and more prevalent. What Gmail does is to throw our the notion of hierarchical storage. For Gmail, there is no need for any other folder than the in-box. Why? Because they believe it is more efficient to use “tags” on messages to identify broad topics, and to use the power of their search to find anything in a small space of time. Messages that are “completed” are archived (hidden) but in a central repository that uses the power of tagging and search to find the desired material.
Both methods work well and it really is a matter of preference regarding how your organize your data. I tend to prefer the hierarchical model because my mind generally is more likely to think that way, although I love the power of search and tags. What has developed in more recent years among many systems is a willingness to merge the two approaches, so Outlook has folders for organization, but also a powerful message search and a some capability for tagging.
In the next post, I’m going to talk about how I clean the box using Outlook 2007.