Sunday, December 15, 2013

On email (or inbox) management

No, I am not the most appropriate person to ask for advice on the way that an inbox is organized; you should better ask other colleagues of mine who are experts either on organizing their Mozilla Thunderbird inbox or on using the Gmail colorful tags. I just try to create some basic structure in Thunderbird (e.g. per project and sub-folders per Work Package in some cases), so that my inbox does not get cluttered. On top of that, I have started using some color codes for defining emails requiring attention, including interesting information and so on. This post mostly refers to the management of the physical archive of an inbox, as a set of precious files and the ways to keep it safe.

As you can imagine, for people like us who spend a high percentage of their daily routine communicating with colleagues and partners all over the world, keeping the e-mail inbox safe is really crucial. Not only a lot of unique information is included in such emails, but there are also files attached and ideas that may not exist anywhere else.

The story behind this post is that a colleague of mine had her laptop stolen at a metro station, during a recent business trip in Paris. The story itself is rather complicated but typical for those of us who tend to travel to places we are not familiar with, so we may get confused, stop in order to ask for information on how to get to our destination, leave our stuff here and there for getting some rest etc., usually carrying more than our luggage and our backpack with our laptops, hard disks and other tools of work. In this case, my colleague only realized that she didn't have her small laptop bag with her after a while and it was too late; the bag was not there when she got back. The bag contained not only her laptop (with all her work and emails) but also her external disk in which she kept a backup of her emails (among others). This left her with a brand new, but totally empty laptop which she has started populating with her documents (which were hopefully backed up in another disk, some days ago).

The issue is that her emails are not available anywhere anymore; the corporate server is emptied every now and then and all emails were downloaded to her local Thunderbird installation. Only a part of them were available in her Gmail account as she was using both the corporate and the private email addresses but with no forwarding between them. This means that a lot of emails (and we mean A LOT of them) are now not available anywhere; to me this sounds tragic (as I heavily depend on email communication).

What could have be done in another way?
Well, now it is too late, but still there are some things to consider:
  1. Never keep your luggage unattended! Travel light, and do not carry a lot of stuff in your hands, especially if you are not familiar with the place you visit and you keep going back and forth, asking for information. It will come natural to leave something behind if you have a lot of things in your hands (e.g. handbag, coat, plastic bags with gifts etc.).
  2. Never keep your back up with you. Any external hard disks you use for backup should always be in a different physical place, in order to minimize the risk of losing all your staff at the same time.
  3. Keep online backups: There are free services that offer a significant amount of free space to use however you want; make use of this space for storing at least the core of your work. On top of that, there are free services like DropBoxSugarSync and Skydrive which automatically sync your folders with the cloud; just imagine that these folders in this case was your inbox... you would have an online, secure backup of your emails.
  4. Frequently back up your inbox (and other files). I believe that a weekly backup of the inbox (if a more frequent one is not an option) would provide a safety net in case you happen to lose all your emails. I have a weekly plan (that I don't always follow) but so far it seems to be working well).
  5. Forward emails to another account. I have colleagues who forward all emails from the corporate account to another, web-based one for safety (and convenience) reasons. It may come handy to be able to use e.g. Gmail for retrieving information/emails when you do not have access to the corporate inbox (for any reason)

  6. I am using a rather simple approach myself, but the post is getting too big already even without it; let's just stay on the tips for the time being!