Reducing the email bilge bulge and reclaiming your time and energy

ACKNOWLEDGMENT: This material is taken, with a few adaptations, from a presentation I did at the Solo and Small Firm Conference of the Pennsylvania Bar Institute on August 2, 2013. The PBI has graciously given me permission to share it here.

Email is a wonderful tool, but a pile of emails -- even with the junk weeded out -- can make you feel as if you have hundreds of mice nibbling on your brain. In 2012, I embarked upon a five-week journey from an Inbox containing some 12,000 messages to an empty Inbox. I now offer a variety of strategies for corralling the mice. I currently use Outlook 2007, but most of the strategies can be implemented in any full-featured email program.

I love mail. When I was a kid, my first words on my arrival home from school were almost always "Any mail for me?" The answer, sadly, was usually negative.

When I first got email, back in 1997, my Inbox was a lonely place. To remedy that, I ventured out on the Web and clicked here and there with a view toward filling my Inbox. Little did I know what I was in for.

Loving mail does not mean loving every item of mail you receive.

Over the years, I regularly heard the mantra "Empty Inbox." I would look at the number of messages in mine and say "Yeah, right." Then, in late August 2012, I got fed up with the volume -- some 12,000 messages -- and decided to do some reduction. I had no magic formula. I just browsed for messages that were obvious candidates for moving or deleting, then searched or sorted to find similar messages. I created new folders as needed. For new mail, my motto became "Flag it or bag it." "Bag it" included moving a message to another folder.

I reached Inbox Zero on October 1, 2012. I did what needed to be done on the flagged items so that I would be literally at zero. As a practical matter, "empty" now means free of unflagged items. I try to keep the number of flags down to single digits.

I still have plenty of email folders that could use some tidying up, but those can be rainy-day projects. I don't need to apply my going-forward standard retroactively. Where older items are concerned, it suffices that I can find what I need.

The most positive change that has come out of this journey is that I now have the time to pay attention to the actual subject of the message, rather than the subject line, and file it accordingly. On any client matter, the client is the subject. Automatic filtering of incoming messages is preliminary and does not control final destination.

Now, a few ideas about folders other than Inbox. Most folders have storage as their primary purpose, but some can serve reminder functions. These should be what I call "lit-up folders." This is accomplished by going to Properties (last item on the menu that pops up when you right-click) and selecting "Show total number of items." If there is anything in the folder, the folder name will be highlighted with the item count shown.

The Drafts folder is built-in. When you exit an email before clicking on Send, a dialog box will ask you whether you want to save the changes. The choices are Yes, No, and Cancel. Clicking Yes will put the email in the Drafts folder. I use this when I need to email someone but don't have all the information I need for the message. Typically, I fill in the subject line. I may put the address of the recipient in the body of the email instead of the To field; this way, if I click Send prematurely, the email will go nowhere.

Another reminder folder: Events. If I get a message about an event I may wish to attend, I click Forward, change the subject line to begin with the date of the event in a format that will sort chronologically (20130704), and send it to myself. When it arrives, it gets moved to the Events folder. This folder is for optional events, not for court dates. Court dates go into word processing files and into two paper date books. [I now also put court dates, appointments, and deadlines in the Events folder.]

I have a Financial folder. It is primarily for notifications that specified invoices are available online for my viewing pleasure. I retrieve the invoice, save it as a PDF, and enter the information from it in the appropriate tables in my word processor. Once I have done this, the email goes into my Limited folder. I try to keep the Financial folder empty.

The Limited folder is for limited-retention items, such as invoice announcements, payment confirmations, and confirmations of electronic court filings. It can also be used for a variety of items that have a short-term off chance of being useful. Every now and then, items more than 90 days old can be deleted. There is no sense in spending a lot of time staring at one email after another asking yourself "How long do I need to keep this?"

I keep a folder called Bounces. If a message I sent bounces, I put the reject message there along with the original message, fished out of the Sent folder. I don't want to see anything in my Sent folder that didn't reach the intended recipient.

Other than that, very little leaves the Sent folder. It is broken down by year, but beyond that I am reluctant to scatter the contents. The messages serve a journaling function. If I need to reconstruct the entire conversation with a client, I can always copy messages from Sent to the client folder. [UPDATE: I now use the SimplyFile option to copy the outgoing message to a subject folder. This add-on is described below.]

Creating contact files so that you don't have to spend time trying to figure out whose email address you are looking at is a good habit. It is not, however, a good habit that I have always possessed, and I do sometimes pull up an old message to locate an email address. Rather than hit Reply, however, I right-click on the From address. This starts a brand-new, clean email to that address. This is a good tip to pass on to clients or anyone else who sends you email with a subject line from two years ago.

Speaking of clients who do goofy things -- I avoid CC'ing clients on emails to opposing counsel. Instead, after I send the message, I forward it to the client with my opponent's email deleted. The problem with CC is that the client may hit Reply All by mistake or as the result of a sudden urge to send my opponent a nasty-gram.

For some things, your email program is a gateway -- just because something comes in through Outlook doesn't mean it has to live there. Attachments can be saved and then removed from the message they accompanied.

There are a number of formats for saving emails (and groups of emails) outside of Outlook. The menu of format choices that Save As brings up will vary depending on the original format of the message.

Plain text is the simplest and a good alternative for when you are only saving information and do not expect to need to prove where it came from. You can highlight a group of emails and save them together as a plain text file.

Saving an email in .MSG format will preserve its appearance; it will look and behave like an email even though it is now a single file. Links will still work. A reply can be generated.

An underutilized format is .MHT. If you have ever saved a web page in HTML format, and discovered later that you saved a folder of images in the process, you will appreciate .MHT. It saves Web pages as single files that include both text and images. It will do the same thing with emails. It is nice for emailed newsletters. It will preserve both the images and the links.

Finally, a few words about my favorite add-on -- SimplyFile by TechHit. It works with multiple versions of Outlook. It studies your filing habits. Then, when a message comes in, it suggests a folder to store it in. The suggestion is on target the vast majority of the time, and it takes a single click or keystroke to accept the suggestion.

This is how we turn email back into a tool.