Please note: This site's design is only visible in a graphical browser that supports Web standards, but its content is accessible to any browser or Internet device. To see this site as it was designed please upgrade to a Web standards compliant browser.
Signal vs. Noise

Our book:
Defensive Design for the Web: How To Improve Error Messages, Help, Forms, and Other Crisis Points
Available Now ($16.99)

Most Popular (last 15 days)
Looking for old posts?
37signals Mailing List

Subscribe to our free newsletter and receive updates on 37signals' latest projects, research, announcements, and more (about one email per month).

37signals Services
XML version (full posts)
Get Firefox!

Managing Email: The ever overflowing inbox

27 May 2004 by Jason Fried

How many non-spam emails are in your inbox on average? I know Mark issued a report on managing incoming email (direct PDF download), but do you have any tips for better handling your overflowing inbox?

38 comments so far (Post a Comment)

27 May 2004 | Mark said...

I find that changing my email address on a regular basis cuts down on a lot of junk.

The former address then gets forwarded to a throw away account (like yahoo) until I can make aware those who need to know it's changed.

27 May 2004 | JP said...

For Inbox wrangling, I use Apple Mail's Bayesian Junk filtering. It's far from perfect, but I've come to enjoy zapping mail with the Junk button.

(As a preventive measure, Dan Benjamin's Enkoder has worked wonders for me.)

27 May 2004 | Brad Hurley said...

I don't think this thread is about avoiding junk mail; it's about managing the messages that you do want to receive.

I try to keep the number of messages in my in-box below 100; whenever it gets above 120 or so I spend some time looking through them to see if I can file anything away.

The only messages that stay in my in-box are those that haven't been responded to or that have tasks I haven't completed yet. Once I respond or finish a task, I move the message to its appropriate folder.

I don't subscribe to many lists, so I only have a couple of filters set up to automatically shunt certain incoming messages into a separate folder. Whenever I've tried that in the past, I always ended up missing things. So I have almost everything come to my in-box, and then I manually sort from there.

27 May 2004 | David said...

I'm getting upwards of 2000 spams per day recently (the misfortune of a catch-all domain email setting that I have to change). A combination of Bayesian filtering and SpamAssassin, provided by my webhost, now filters out nearly all of them. The drawback is that I have to log into my mail server via IMAP and delete my spam before I can use a POP client to download my messages; otherwise, it takes 10 minutes or more just to get everything onto my computer.

27 May 2004 | Chris said...

I use Mailblocks (challenge-response) to keep the spam from ever reaching my inbox in the first place. I've "enkoded" several new email addresses that are on the web and to date (cross my fingers and toes) have never received a spam to them.

As an experiement, I put an unprotected address on my website and it was spammed less than 24 hours later.

27 May 2004 | Brad Hurley said...

Although Mark says you should avoid using your in-box as a to-do list, that's pretty much what I do (see my post above). It's weird, because I also create "tasks" in Outlook by dragging messages from my in-box to the task button, so in theory I could always review my to-do list in the task window. But because I spend most of my time with my in-box staring me in the face, I like keeping those messages in the in-box until I've dealt with them. Otherwise I think I'd be lulled into a false sense of security!

27 May 2004 | Jason said...

I really had no idea as to the number of legit vs. spam emails I was receiving until I signed up with Sentinare Messaging to handle our mail filtering. The filtering worked wonders and the real time stats showed on an average day I would get 100 emails, of those 80 were spam!! But post filtering, now I don't have to worry about dealing with the excess since the filters catch 99.8% of the spam. The time I save pays for the service I figure. Less then $3/month

27 May 2004 | Anthony said...

Apple's Mail App does a decent job for the run of the mill Sex and Viagra messages but I use a combination of a few things.

1) JunkMatcher
It uses flexible regular expressions to match anything you want and it also uses meta patterns to simplify pattern writing. Works pretty well.

2) I also set up some of my own rules in Mail. I now get absolutly no spam in my mail box... (it all gets filtered into my Junk box) i used to get 15+ a day. It just takes some time to build a the rules, but once you do... it works like a charm.

27 May 2004 | Randy Peterman said...

OK, so I'm on 'the inside' as I work for the company that makes MDaemon, a Windows based email server. Granted I think that Jason et al use Macs for probably most everything, I'll say that we get so much fewer spam messages than we used to. [I get 2-3 filtered into my spam folder a day, compared to when I started 3 years ago 25-30] Why? For the following reasons:

  • MDaemon has SpamAssassin integrated

  • SpamAssassin has Heuristic learning, if one slips through I tell the program to learn, if one gets marked that shouldn't I tell it to learn that it's "ham" [not spam]

  • Messages with a spam rating above X [an admin level setting - 13 or 14 usually] spam score are outright rejected at the server level.

  • As mentioned we have IMAP filters that pre-filter the messages for you if you'd like.

  • I've seen statistics that say that 85% or more of messages that flow through mail servers are spam. If that's the case I'm really lucky as I get so few messages. The best part about running this sort of system (as it's available to different platforms with different programs) is that in a group setting (office/business use) different users get different types of spam that might slip through but they submit it to get learned and then it's covered for the other folks who never see it then.

    My email address is posted all over my site, but it has not been a problem with good server side filtering in place.

    27 May 2004 | Mark said...

    I use rules as well to seperate certain email into certain folders in Outlook - the problem is that it doesn't always run the rule for some reason.

    27 May 2004 | Darrel said...

    People...the topic isn't's about the GOOD emails.

    For good email, judicious use filters work well for me.

    27 May 2004 | Bart N. said...

    I have a catch-all account and simply use a different emailadres if I need to signup on some website.

    1) it helps figuring out where the spam actually comes from.
    2) simply block the spammed adresses and keep using the rest.

    I've been doing this for about a year and this has been very effective ... I still get spam once and a while but that's because friends keep using my emailadresses in forward-mails.

    27 May 2004 | Bart N. said...

    Oops, just realised this isn't about spam ...

    27 May 2004 | Don Schenck said...

    I treat email like regular mail: You only touch it once. Respond, file, toss.

    27 May 2004 | Anthony said...

    Wow... man. Spam is really embedded in my brain.. totally misread the post.. hehe

    Non spam in my mailbox: Most of it is sorted by rules into folders. (friends, design, subscriptions and so on...) Ones that dont make the cut are usually in the Inbox for no more then a day or so. Never gets above 10.

    27 May 2004 | methodman said...

    i just create rules and seperate folders for all my clients and then by projects. As time goes by, I organize them by year. All of my Basecamp notifications go into one folder. My mom and one of my friends share one folder because they like to forward me several inspirational messages every day. Mail.apps search "entire message" function helps me out whenever I am in a jam.

    27 May 2004 | Blake Scarbrough said...

    I really like the approach that gmail has taken with email. I have a google account and love the way it functions. First, you don't ever have to throw away emails. And when you want to organize your inbox, you just archive your messages and google does the rest. Then you do a simple search when you want them. Plus reply's and forwads are all grouped into one email in the inbox, which makes it tremendously easier to manage. It really is different way thinking about email, but I think google hits the nail on the head in managing email.

    27 May 2004 | RS said...

    For Inbox wrangling, I use Apple Mail's Bayesian Junk filtering.

    fyi-- Apple's junk filter isn't Bayesian.

    27 May 2004 | pb said...

    As Gmail is, it still seems a pain to use a web-based service for day-to-day emailing.

    27 May 2004 | Brad Hurley said...

    I bet Windows and Mac users tend manage their in-boxes somewhat differently. Even though MS Outlook often feels like it was designed in the Stone Age (even the much-improved Outlook 2003), it is an amazing tool for managing tasks and calendars. Whenever an e-mail comes in that requires me to do something, I just drag it over to the task button and it creates a task, allowing me to set a deadline and a reminder. Whenever an e-mail comes in that schedules a meeting, I drag it to my calendar button and it does the same thing. And depending on how Outlook-savvy my correspondents are, an e-mail message can even create a calendar entry or assign tasks and deadlines semi-automatically.

    I've never tried Entourage on the Mac, so maybe it does the same things, but the combination of standard Mac OSX Mail and iCal doesn't come anywhere close to the efficiency and integration of Outlook. Outlook is one of the main reasons I do most of my work on a PC and use the Mac mainly for personal stuff.

    I do find that filtering incoming messages works better for me on the Mac than in Outlook...all my various folders are clearly visible in the Mac Mail app, whereas they aren't necessarily visible in Outlook and I can miss important incoming messages if they get directed to a hidden folder.

    27 May 2004 | Jason L. said...

    I recently took Robert Scoble's advice and read "Getting Things Done" by David Allen. It's really a detailed and highly structured system for organizing everything in life - including e-mail. I haven't implemented the system 100% yet, but the e-mail system seems like a no-brainer after you read it. My inbox rarely has more than 5 messages in it anymore. Everything else is "processed" - if it could be done in under 2 minutes, it was. Otherwise, it is added to one of my lists or my calendar if it is time-sensitive.

    It's worth checking out.

    27 May 2004 | Thomas Baekdal said...

    How many non-spam emails per day? About 15-25 emails. It used to be 100+, but I managed to change how people email me.

    In the past I used to have my email client open all day, and people just started to bombard me with emails all day long. Most emails were from people who just asked without thinking. Like silly questions and half made status report. Many emails were also emails with me in the CC.

    So what I did was two things:

    1: I changed my email behavior. Instead of having my email client open all day long, It is only open a few times each day - when I come to work, in the middle of the day and about a half hour before I go home.

    This really solved many of the irrelevant emails. People quickly stopped sending my all kinds of questions, because it took way too long for me to respond (about 1-3 hours). I get few more phone calls these days, but only about very important things - people do not call about non-important issues (but they used to email them too me).

    2: I created a number of rules to automatically process incoming emails. Periodical emails is now automatically placed in specific folders, status reports is moved to the project folders and CC's is places in an "information" folder.

    This way I have clean inbox. The emails that do come into my inbox are those who require action (about 5-10 per day).

    I keep the inbox clean by always either moving an email to the Tasks (if it is something I cannot do instantly), by filing it under the right project or by deleting it (I only delete non-important emails).

    BTW: My very aggressive spam filter removes all spam emails (about 60-80 per day) I only get non-spam emails. It works by only accepting emails on my white list. You can bypass it by adding a specific word to the subject.

    27 May 2004 | sarah gilbert said...

    I use IMAP so I have tons of filters set up to sort things into folders before they even arrive in my Inbox. It takes a long time to get going, but now that it is, it's so efficient I can't believe it's really me ;).

    It requires lots of storage, though, and a good IMAP server. I use Big IMAP, they have mailboxes up to 3 GB.

    27 May 2004 | Mike P. said...

    I'd have to say that using Opera's M2 mail client has really done it for me.

    You don't have to manage your e-mail; create your filters and away you go. Mail comes in, mark it 'read' and the mail goes away into one giant db of mail.

    Revolutionary. I believe that's why they call it their 'revolutionary e-mail client' ;-]

    As for dealing with lots and lots of legit e-mail? I hear that some people take either the 'when it comes in deal with it right away approach' and others set a time to blast through it all.

    I like Thomas' approach in msg 27.

    27 May 2004 | One of several Steves said...

    I make liberal use of a folder system. Anything that I may need to reference later, goes there. The only things that stay in my inbox any length of time are urgent matters, or things I need to take action on (responding, following up on other info, etc.).

    In a perfect world, my inbox has no more than 5 messages in it. Most of the time it's between 10 and 15. If it ever reaches full screen length, then I know it's time to get some stuff in folders.

    28 May 2004 | Ian Firth said...

    Magic Mail Monitor

    I view all my email on the server (4 accounts, 20 addresses, 50-200 emails a day) and delete the spam and viruses there. It's very easy to tell what is bad and what is not. I haven't had spam in my inbox in 6 months.

    I am the filter, and I don't make mistakes like software. :)

    28 May 2004 | Ian Firth said...

    My humble apologies for not reading the question slower :)

    About 50 on average.

    For handling them, folders, lots of them (48 currently) all based on project or client or topic. Just about everything in the in-box gets filtered to the appropriate folder.

    28 May 2004 | Matthew Roach said...

    I think Mike Rundle has one of the best ways to cope with spam have a LOOK for yourself

    28 May 2004 | Lacy said...

    I use rules extensively in my inbox - pretty much every single email that comes to be is filtered to an appropriate folder where it will remain "UNREAD" until I've handled it. That way - I can know in a second if I have a new email from my boss - or if i's just an email from a friend that isn't a priority.

    28 May 2004 | ak said...

    I set up a strict set of guidelines that I follow...
    + my work account for work only
    + my hotmail account for personal use
    + a second hotmail account for spam-testing
    + (recent addition) gmail account for all mailing lists

    I really like the gmail conversation feature that keeps all the mailing lists grouped together. 1GB let's me ignore the box for ages until I feel like I need to get back to them.

    I've also found that I use email less that before. I would use it send details about get togethers. I've switched to a nice smartphone that lets me "unplug" from an LAN! :)

    Much like the radio, the more crap the less I use it.

    28 May 2004 | ak said...

    oh... the whole thing about inboxes: I only have the emails I haven't gotten to yet. Any important information I print out and file inside my physical folders.

    28 May 2004 | Don Schenck said...

    ak -- more about the Smartphone, please. I'm interested.

    28 May 2004 | alex said...

    I keep all my email in the inbox within many many folders.

    At the top level I currently have 19 emails and on average there are 5 or less. I keep emails that I haven't responded to or as reminders in my inbox. Everything else I deal with immediately.

    The emails I keep as reminders never stay longer than a couple days. I take care of them and delete or archive them (depending on the info).

    I also use my sent-email box a lot to review correspondance over the week.

    Once a week, usually friday afternoon I go through all the inbox emails and clean it up.

    29 May 2004 | Mike said...

    Thanks for the link-up Matthew :)

    Overflowing inbox? Well the vast majority of my email comes from the WAI-WCAG and CSS Discuss mailing list, so I use Apple's Mail to filter those messages into separate folders.

    Other than that, I try to read what people send me as soon as I'm able to. Works pretty well.

    29 May 2004 | Matt Henderson said...

    I try not to let the inbox grow larger than 50 messages. When it exceeds 50, I take time to go through the inbox, and process *every* message, leaving nothing in the inbox. Any message relating to an unclosed issue that would take more than five minutes to resolve generates a todo in Life Balance, which may be even of the type "look for reply from John to our request for more information of 2004-05-24". (If it can be resolved in less than five minutes, I resolve it immediately.)

    This procedure has always worked for me, but what I'm finding these days, as the in-flow of messages grows increases, is that the time it takes to simply process them is really eating into my available working time. (And I don't even scan my spam folder any longer, even though I *know* a small percentage of good mails are there.)

    I'm convinced that the processing of emails is a major killer of production/performance these days, and that this topic really deserves some end-to-end analysis.

    30 May 2004 | Sharad said...

    Thomas Baekdal has made some good suggestions. It is good addition to Mark's report.

    31 May 2004 | Jon Gales said...

    I use Mailsmith (from the BBedit people), which handles large quantities of mail pretty easily. I sort incoming messages to various mailboxes (based on mail goes to the MacMerc box, the CarbWire box and so on).

    For some accounts I go a level further... I get a lot of press releases so I have a submailbox for some of my mailboxes for "PRs". That way when I sit down at my desk I can see that I have 4 new Mac related PRs, 2 carb related and no mobile phone related.

    I don't delete messages unless they are spam or automated alerts that are time sensitive (crontab updates, and such). SpamSieve keeps out the spam, I just have to go in and delete every once in a while (deleted 15K spams today--it had been a few weeks).

    02 Jun 2004 | Stefan Seiz said...

    The easyest way for me to help track emails is:
    Do not mark your emails as READ until the task (in the email) is done! Or if you use IMAP, you might as well just flag it.

    A better approach is to use MS Entourage, where you can LINK any amount of mails to Calendar Items such as Tasks etc. Very convenient - including Alerts, bells and whistles! Apple's is just not good enough for professional use.

    Then again, being 37signals, you might as well make sure to add all your projects/clients to your BaseCamp, to come around email totally - at least concerning projects/clients ;-)

    This directly brings us to a nifty new feature for basecamp. Add capabilities to have basecamp accept emails, parse them and add them to a corresponding project. Email is just sooo convenient and without tying it into basecamp, project management might well be broken - for the email part at least.
    If you consider something like this, have a look how ticketing (helpdesk) systems do this. A very good one is RT.

    Comments on this post are closed

    Back to Top ^