A man pumping a GTD dumbbell with a thunderbird tattoo on his bicepYesterday I wrote about the process I went through to migrate from multiple e-mail accounts to just one übur inbox. The new system is definitely an improvement, but there were a few snags that kept me from reaching a true state of e-mail bliss. The chief snag has been my archive and after attending GTD|The RoadMap seminar, I got fired up to do something about it.

The Problem
Part of migrating all of my accounts to one account was also migrating my archives as well. Being a big fan of hierarchies, I continued my old habit of nesting folders within folders. It’s just the way my brain works and it just makes sense to keep all of my NPUG e-mail in one folder and all of my Clients e-mail in another.

Of course sub folders have problems too. Thunderbird doesn’t allow you to search globally across all folders and it also makes it tedious to archive mail, as you can see in this image (opens into a new window). In addition, I read the 43Folders series Inbox Zero. Those series of articles, as well as my own frustration, led me to believe that there had to be a better way.

The Influences To A New Archive Model
The Inbox Zero articles were definitely the spark that started me on this new path towards a new archive, but I came across another article that really put the image in my head of what I wanted. Matt Henderson wrote an article on the MakaluMedia Summit blog entitled “E-mail Nirvana“. In the piece, Matt details how he migrated his nested folders into a GTD driven approach. With the help of a few plugins, he has streamlined his e-mail and loves the results. The only problem I ran into with Matt’s solution is that he’s on a Mac and I’m still on a PC.

I was loaded to the hilt with the theory of how to make the change, but it wasn’t until I attended the GTD|The RoadMap seminar in Atlanta last Friday that everything gelled into a plan of action. I could write a whole article, and probably should, about the seminar, but suffice to say that it was like adding fuel to the fire. I’ve been trying to come up with a better system so that I’m more productive and focused in everything that I do. I’d read the Getting Things Done : The Art of Stress-Free Productivity book and have been in the process of reading it again, but it wasn’t until the seminar when everything clicked into place. I had more “ah-ha” moments than I could shake a stick at, so when I got back home on Saturday, I took the time to put a plan of action into place and re-organize my e-mail.

The Solution – Make The Archive One Folder
One of the cornerstones of GTD is how you capture and process information. The inbox is not a storage container, but a staging area where you evaluate and sort information, so having hundreds, or thousands of e-mails sitting in your inbox is not a good thing. The key is to create folders that allow you to review and complete tasks as needed. Hot from the GTD seminar, I opted for three primary folders.

  1. @ Action
    These are e-mail that require action on my part. These are tasks and/or project items.
  2. @ Waiting For
    These are e-mails in which I’m waiting on someone, or some event in order to proceed.
  3. Archive
    E-mails that I want to keep all contained in ONE folder

Prior to Saturday, my inbox had been my todo list of sorts, so I created the “@ Action” and “@ Waiting For” folders and then moved my e-mail into the proper folder. Next I created the “Archive” folder and then proceeded to move my previous archive, labeled “Filed” into it.

To move the archive, I did a drag-and-drop of all the e-mail in a particular folder into the “Archive” folder. Once all the e-mail were moved into the new folder, I compressed the old folder and then un-subscribed from the folder, thereby removing it from my e-mail client. The last step was to remove the folder/file from the server via FTP, which was pretty easy. Tedious, but easy.

I did fine with most of the folders, but when I came to my Palm folders I paused to re-consider what I was doing. Should I really move all of this mail into one general folder? Having a mild case of panic, I could hear David Allen’s voice in my head from the seminar. He was talking about having a general paper filing system and not color coding it. In my head I heard, “Green folders are for clients and blue folders are for personal. Oh, but if I have a friend that is a client, it’s in a blue and green striped folder, but if they’re also in my church, then it’s in a plaid folder…” You get the idea. So I put aside my silly need to sub-divide my data and moved all the NPUG e-mail.

The Final Speed Bump – Client E-mail
Forging ahead, I made quick work of all the other folders until I reached my client folders — the final speed bump. E-mail from my clients are my most important e-mail. Lumping it in with all my other Archived e-mail just didn’t make sense. “What if I need to pull up all the e-mail from a particular client?” I thought to myself. Wouldn’t having them in separate folders make more sense?

I took a break and mulled it over. In my heart-of-hearts I knew that I could perform a search of my archive and find just about any e-mail I was looking for, but there’s just something about knowing that all e-mail from a particular client lives in a THAT folder. After clearing my head, I sat back down and did a little more research. That’s when I found the magic of what Mozilla calls Saved Search, that I was finally able to make peace.

Instead of having to have physical folders, I could use the powerful search capabilities of “Saved Search” to sort through my Archive folder. Not only that, but I could save the search as a simple pull down from the “View” window. I can also save the search as a virtual folder, but the pull-down was enough for me.

Satisfied that I wasn’t going to lose any e-mail and that I could easily access them from any conceivable way I wanted to, I moved the last of my e-mail into the “Archive” folder.

Tweaks and Helpful Tools
Now that all my archived e-mail was in one folder, I noticed that it took a while to open the folder. Looking more closely, I realized that I had tens of thousands of e-mails all contained in one folder. So I created several archive folders for each year. I then sorted all of my archive by date and moved big blocks of mail, by year, into their respective folder.

I took the archives a step further by also moving my Sent e-mail by year as well. So now I have all e-mail from 2005 in the “Archive 2005” folder. This not only makes it easier to manage, but it keeps the entire “conversation” of an e-mail discussion in one place.

With all the dragging and dropping I did to migrate my archived e-mail, I was envious of Matt’s method of filing his mail by keyboard shortcuts using the Mail Act-On plugin plugin for Apple’s mail. I didn’t need a keyboard shortcut per se, but I did want a faster solution. What I found was a Thunderbird extension called Buttons.

The “Buttons” extention allows to add custom buttons to your toolbars that allow you to quickly access certain features of Thunderbird. For example, I can now label an e-mail, or turn on/off HTML within a message, all with the push of a button. What I was most excited about finding however, was that I could add a button for “Archive!”. Within the “Buttons” extension, I can set what folder(s) is/are my Archive. Once set, I can now move any e-mail to my archive with one-click. Such a small thing, but it makes such a difference.

The End Result
It’s only been four days that I’ve been using this new structure to my e-mail, but I have to say that I LOVE IT!. Several times throughout the day, I look in my inbox and process my mail. Here’s how I do it.

  1. If there’s no action to take, I either keep it by sending it to the Archive, or I delete it. Surprisingly, I’m finding that I’m deleting more e-mail than ever.
  2. If there is an action to take, and I can do it in 2 minutes or less, I do it and then Archive the e-mail.
  3. If the action is going to take more than two minutes, I send it to the “@ Action” folder and complete it when I have to time to focus on the task at hand
  4. Any e-mail, including my Sent e-mail, that I’m waiting to hear back from goes into the “@ Waiting For” folder. At least once a day I review this folder to see if I need to send a reminder, or follow-up.

That’s all there is to it really. It sounds simple, because it is, but it makes dealing with my e-mail SO much easier than before. Instead of having an inbox littered with e-mail of various types and having more and more e-mail flood into it, I now have a weight station where I can process my e-mail quickly and then easily shift to the “@ Action” folder to focus on work that needs to be done.

If you’d like to see what my folder structure looks like now, you can do so at this link (opens into a new window).

Continued Refinement Down The Road
Although I feel like I’m 90% of the way there, I know that I’m not done yet. There is still plenty of refinement that needs to be done, so I’ll continue to refine this system to make it better-and-better.

Some of the things on my radar include:

  • Integrating Gmail – I wish I could integrate my Gmail account into Thunderbird so that when I use Gmail directly in the browser, my inbox looks the same.
  • Better Filters – I can cut down a lot of SPAM by generating a few custom filters. Thunderbird catches most of them, but I still have to wade through them when deleting the “Junk” folder.
  • Import My Pre-Thunderbird E-mail – I migrated to Thunderbird from The Bat! in 2003. I still have all my old e-mail archived in The Bat! and I need to import it into my Archive folders. That stuff goes back to 1997 I believe, if not further. 😛

In the meantime, I’m actually ENJOYING using my e-mail client again and I’m excited about the progress I’ve made thus far. Even if I progress no further, I’d be happy with the changes I’ve made thus far. 😀