The 333 Email System

Like most people, I struggle with email every day.

Wow, that sounds a lot like an infomercial. I mean, I guess this kind of is? Long story short, I got tired of a lot of the systems out there for managing my inbox because:

  1. I am my own man with my own hangups about people telling me what to do.
  2. I get a lot of email.

I tried Merlin Mann’s Inbox Zero method, which is a great concept and for a while, it worked okay. I didn’t adhere to it as strictly as some, but I did take away a few things that have helped me cut down on what was sitting in my inbox.

That said, I needed something a little less…formulated. The problem with systems like Inbox Zero, or David Allen’s Getting Things Done, or even Ryder Carroll’s Bullet Journal method is that they are systems. They are prescriptive, despite their creators insisting you can "do it your own way."

So, I tend to pull bits and pieces from each, leaving me with a piecemeal conglomeration of half-solutions. I haven’t gotten around to reconciling my analog/digital note-taking problems, so I’ll hold off on the whole Bullet Journal thing for a while. Same goes for GTD.

But email? Email I can fix.

The concept is simple. I call it the "333 System."

  • Three questions.
  • Three folders.
  • Three seconds.

(I added the folders bit to make it sound like a complete "thing," but really it’s up to you how you organize your emails.)

The whole thing hinges on the three questions and three seconds. I’m not the kind of person who can set aside time to review my email at specific intervals throughout the day, especially at work. Unfortunately, I work at a company where the primary form of communication is email. It’s gross, but it’s how we do, so I need to be ready to jump in at any time.

That’s where the three seconds comes into play. I have three seconds to decide what to do with that email, which is why I ask myself three questions, which I refer to as the "three I’s":

  1. Immediate? Can this email be dealt with right now? If it just needs a quick reply or to be filed, I can take care of that and get rid of it.
  2. Information? Does this email contain information I’ll need for later? I can keep that info in a running Google Doc, or a Draft, or a note and delete/archive the email away.
  3. Item? This was the closest word I could get to the concept in my head that would give me the last "I" I needed. Basically, if this can’t be done right away, can it be added to my to-do list for later so I can process the email itself out of my inbox?

These questions are the first things I ask myself when I get a new email notification and they’ve been working. I’ve been able to be more productive and get in and out of my inbox more quickly because of them.

As for the three folders, this part of the system is completely optional. You can use as many folders as you want if you’d prefer to organize your messages differently, but I like using three. Mainly, I hate long sidebars full of folders.

I use a service called Sanebox, which automatically filters my email based on type into folders like "Later" for newsletters/retail alerts, and "Blackhole" for emails I no longer want to receive. There’s also my general "Archive" folder for things I want to keep, but don’t necessarily need to have categorized.

For work, I have folders for specific projects because I might need to find something from six months ago in a short amount of time and I don’t feel like using Outlook’s search function to sift through thousands of messages. The key is the time spent in deciding what to do with the email and where it’s supposed to go, not how many folders I use to organize it all.

But for personal email? I really only need:

  1. An Archive folder
  2. A Later folder
  3. And an Unsubscribe folder

If you don’t use something like Sanebox, you can manually drag your newsletters and retail emails into the Later folder and save them for processing completely when you have some downtime.

Same goes for the Unsubscribe folder. You can give yourself three seconds to decide if this is something you no longer want to get delivered to you and add it to the folder so you can address it when you have more time.

The Archive folder is really for email you’ve already handled and need to file away. Stuff you probably won’t need to go back to again after you’ve replied or taken the information out of it.

The biggest thing I try to remember is that it is not about eliminating the email from my inbox as quickly as possible. I mean it is, but it’s more than that. It’s about processing the email I get in a meaningful way so it’s not weighing me down later. A hastily deleted email I might need later is just as burdensome as one still sitting in my inbox.

And that’s it. That’s my email system. Pretty simple I think. It’s been working for me and I figured I might share it for anyone either drowning in email or struggling to use an existing system for triaging new messages.

Hope it helps.

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