Remember me talking about "Getting Things Done"? Well, I used what I could find on the internet about the nuts and bolts of David Allen's GTD system, without having a printed book before me, and cleaned up my e-mail boxes both at work and at home. I think I found the electronic equivalent of the kitchen sink!
David Allen offers some free PDFs at his website (you do have to register as a buying customer, but it's a formality), so I downloaded those that have to do with sorting the inbox, i.e. the flow charts, otherwise known as "processing and organizing". When I say it's like the kitchen sink, what I mean is that once you get a spot totally free from clutter, it becomes an air hole, a place to pop up to catch a good breath while you're working on other areas, and a place that you can be consistent about.
Getting my inbox to zero (i.e. totally empty) removed some of the overwhelm I'd been experiencing both at home and at work. Much like discovering through a month of daily dishwashing that doing the dishes is actually an easy and quick chore, learning to move stuff out of the e-mail inbox and into more appropriate folders has made handling e-mail a quicker and easier chore. And not facing a load of work - whether an overfilled kitchen counter or e-mail inbox - every time you peak in removes both the overwhelm and the guilt.
At work, since a lot of new tasks and feedback on existing ones comes via mail, I tried sorting mail by type of job and made about eight folders total to accommodate that. After a while I found that there were too many different tasks and customers in each folder (and too many folders), and I spent more time than before looking for the mail I wanted. With GTD, I got rid of all task-defined folders, and adopted Allen's Actionable/Reference main folders into which all e-mail in my inbox is immediately sorted. Reference is for archiving. In Actionable (Something Needs To Be Done About This), I made four folders, two of which are called New Jobs and Proofing. Any new job goes into New Jobs, but once I've started on it and sent a proof, I move any subsequent e-mails relating to the job to the Proofing folder. Every time I get a response on a job, I delete earlier e-mails. Neither folder seems to grow much, I've found.
At home, I was using sorting rules at home to sort friends' mails, e-store mails, regular newsletters, etc., into folders, only to have those folders grow with unread e-mails. I adopted the same GTD folder system and removed every rule. Every scrap of new mail now goes to my inbox. A lot can be read and deleted/archived immediately ((things like all the Facebook notifications or follow-ups on blog comments), and now e-mails waiting my reply no longer get forgotten in a separate folder. Seeing at a glance what needs my attention every time I look at my inbox, and having the incentive to deal with it now has kept my e-mail inbox at home empty, too. Currently an e-mail from a friend and a couple of e-store specials are waiting for me to make a decision.
In order not to forget deadlines or dates, I have started to copy such e-mails into my calendar (Notes at work, iCal at home). Then I can tuck the e-mail away in "Deferred" or delete it, and still have a reminder with necessary information.
I ordered the dead tree version of Allen's book. I have to be able to read, think, take notes when it's about learning something (I'm a visual learner). That arrived today, so now I'll be able to start building on what I've been doing so far.