Evolution of my e-mail setupI have been using e-mail for what seems like a very long time and I can’t really imagine living without it in the Information Age and Knowledge Economy. Thinking back I realize that my e-mail setup has changed slowly over the course of the years, with radical leaps now and then.

Especially for those of you “living” in their e-mail inbox, I have written this post to show you the evolution of my e-mail setup, hoping it will provide useful tips to you.

Phase 1, “Newbie”
We’re talking well over a decade ago here (well, it’s closer to 2 decades actually ;) ). E-mail was new to me, I used a single account, sometimes not even my own, and only sent an e-mail occasionally.
E-mail definitely didn’t form a structural part of my personal or professional life. Needless to say, processing and/or storing e-mails was not part of my daily routine back then.

Phase 2, “Chaos”
This is the phase in my life where e-mail really started to gain momentum. I was using different accounts, different e-mail programs, even different internet providers. E-mail was still not such a big part in my personal or professional life that I felt the need or even the inclination to organize my e-mails in any conceivable way… it was just stored in one big pile of stuff! ;)

Phase 3, “Categories”
This was the Information Age and using e-mail had become a structural part of my personal but especially my professional life. I was desperately seeking for a convenient way to handle incoming and outgoing e-mails, for multiple accounts and multiple contexts. I was experimenting with categories, different folders for different people or topics, but usually incoming e-mails just piled up in my inbox. I was losing track of e-mails (and associated tasks) frequently. There was no reference system to speak of.

Phase 4, “Enlightenment”
This phase started a couple of years ago, when especially my professional life required me to create an e-mail setup for myself that allowed me to process e-mails in a more professional way. I was dealing with clients that needed me to do something and I was dealing with e-mails to clients and co-workers that I needed to keep track of. I decided that it was about time to crawl out of the black hole of the ever-growing and overflowing inbox. I created a simple but effective system for myself (inspired by standard time management principles and Stephen Covey).

  • Incoming e-mail: dragged from the inbox immediately and dropped into either “Incoming – Important” or “Incoming – Unimportant”. Both folders are further divided into a “Done” and “Not Done” category.
  • Outgoing e-mail: similar to the folders I created for incoming e-mail.

I started saving important reference material as PDF in a hierarchically structured digital system. My inbox was always empty, but of course e-mails were still rotting away in the other folders I had created without any action taken on them!
However, when it was working, it definitely was the best e-mail setup I have had up to that point.

Phase 5, “GTD – Lean and mean”
After discovering Getting Things Done, I took another radical leap in the evolution of my e-mail setup. E-mail has become an inextricable part of my personal and professional life, so it was about time to organize and optimize it… I refused to let my inbox dictate my life any longer!
So, I am now using an ultra-simple e-mail setup which consists of basically 2 folders:

  1. “Archive 2007 – Received”
  2. “Archive 2007 – Sent”

That’s it!
I create a separate mail archive for each year. Of course I have the standard inbox and outbox in my e-mail program, but they are always empty! Here’s how I handle e-mail using GTD principles:

  • Incoming e-mail: I check e-mail frequently. If it’s not interesting or important I delete the e-mail or drag it to my archive immediately. If it requires action on my part, I print the e-mail before dragging it to the archive. The physical copy of the e-mail gets processed and handled like all other “stuff” in my GTD system.
  • Outgoing e-mail: if I send e-mail that doesn’t need to be tracked, I simply store it in the archive immediately. If the e-mail needs to be tracked, I create the appropriate “Waiting For” next actions in my GTD system. If the e-mail is important for the physical file that I’m keeping for many clients, then I will print it and store it like all other stuff in my GTD reference system.
  • Searching e-mails: to find a particular e-mail (or any other digital file for that matter) I rely completely on the excellent indexing and searching tool Copernic Desktop Search. Any printed e-mail material may be easily found in my simple but effective GTD reference system.

It has taken a considerable amount of time to get where I am today but now I can truly say that e-mails never get lost, actions related to e-mails always get done, I never forget to track important e-mails and reference material is archived in my GTD reference system! And most importantly, I do not have an overflowing inbox distracting me from what I really should be doing and I feel in control of my digital communication!

What does your e-mail setup look like and how has it changed after implementing Getting Things Done?