April 30, 2012

The "Archive" Button Can be Your In Box's Best Friend

You practically can't open your RSS reader or spend a day on a social network of your choice without running into complaints about email. Nobody likes it. Everybody says they have too much of it. People gloat over mass deletions of unread items, or sporting a full in box four or five figures deep. Some people take vacations from it or swear they'll pound through their to-read list in what could be an eventually futile journey toward the improbable in box zero. But for many of those people, it's likely the impenetrable in box is symptomatic of something else - the inability to make a decision the email requires, or the option to escape a discussion and call it complete.

When I joined Google last fall, I anticipated my corporate in box exploding. A notorious information-driven company with cool words in the lexicon such as "centithread", I imagined finally crossing over from my "I'll get to every single message, I promise," mentality, to accepting defeat. But this hasn't been the case. As I had before I joined, the email box has been no bigger a challenge than handling one's updates in Google Reader, or seeing all mentions on Google+ and Twitter.

This is helped by having a practical "always on" schedule, enabling messages to be consumed or responded to from the nearest Android phone or tablet, and the laptop is practically another limb, but the best tool for making sure I don't get lost in a torrent of email, beyond discretion in consuming tangential mailing lists, is the "Archive" button in Gmail.
The "Archive" button is pretty straight forward. If you have determined that an email message or its resulting thread no longer needs any action from you, and shouldn't take in box attention, you just hit the button and it is moved out of your in box. It's not deleted outright, meaning the thread can pop back up again if a new message arrives, and it's still discoverable in search, so you don't have to worry about being able to find it again if you change your mind later.

About 18 months ago, I talked about how one has to hone their stream in what is being perceived as an "attention" crisis, and that the onus is on us to read fast, process fast and decide fast what requires action and what does not. Information overload can be overcome with filtering what you take in, and where you participate. When to archive threads and when to extend threads requires that same level of precision. Guess rightly and you are able to get the right information to the right people at the right time with the smallest amount of effort. Guess wrongly and you could find yourself distracted by off-topic content and miss the important information amid a sea of comparable noise.

If you're a Gmail user, you probably know Google bumped up its storage capacity to more than 10 gigabytes apiece, so the issue of how you manage your email is less about can you store it all, because you probably can, but if you can manage it all. Using the archive button well is a key part of email in box survival.

Disclosures: I work at Google, and naturally, I use Gmail at home and at work.

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