In my post on getting your email inbox to zero every day, I asked for readers to send in their questions about email and I would post on some of them this week. I’ve received a lot of great questions — thank you to everyone who has emailed their questions or put them in the comments. Now, it’s time to start posting on the questions.
The first question is from a reader named Mark: “Could you go into the logistics of email accounts? I am trying to whittle down to two accounts, one for work and another for personal use.” Mark then goes into some of the problems he’s encountered. Another reader also echoed the same things
Most of us probably have several email accounts, so this question is very relevant.
Here are some the key principles I recommend and which we will be discussing:
- Have as many accounts as you need but as few as you can get by with.
- Bring everything into one interface, if possible.
- When you can’t bring everything into one interface, have a regular schedule for checking all of your accounts.
- Be as disciplined with your personal email accounts as you are with your work email.
After discussing these principles, we’re going to discuss solutions to three problems:
- When an account offers free POP and forwarding, but will not forward spam (hence, some legitimate email gets caught in the spam filter and is not forwarded).
- When an account provides POP only if you pay for it.
- How to cancel an email account while minimizing problems arising from the fact that people don’t always update their address book and that you may have a lot of website usernames to update.
1. Have As Many Accounts as You Need but as Few as You Can Get By With
First, the same principle that applies to inboxes also applies to email accounts: have as many as you need, but as few as you can get by with. Having more accounts increases complexity. So have as few as possible. But having too few can also increase complexity by not giving you the options you need. So don’t whittle down more than necessary.
I think that most people should have at least two accounts: personal and work. That’s probably pretty self evident, so no need to elaborate.
Some people also have a “spam” account, which is an address they give out online when they have to register for something or when they make a purchase and see a risk of getting unwanted newsletters as a result, or of having their address end up in the hands of spammers.
I personally do not do this because I regard the complexity arising from having an additional account to manage as a higher cost than the risk of spam. And I haven’t had any problems. But for those so inclined, I wouldn’t have qualms about having a third address for this purpose.
I wouldn’t see many reasons for having more than three accounts. However, sometimes there are realities that force us into this situation. In my current situation, for the last few years I used Earthlink for my personal email. Recently I’ve switched to Gmail. But I still have my Earthlink account because lots of people and websites have that address. Eventually I’ll phase it out (see below for how I’ll do this).
Apple also gave me an email address when I signed up for my Mobile Me account. I’m not too happy about that (since it increases complexity). But I this isn’t a huge deal, given the next point.
2. Bring Everything into One Interface, If Possible
The second principle is: bring everything into a single interface, if possible. This is really an extension of the previous principle. Just as you want to have as few addresses as you need, you also want to have these brought in to as few places as possible. This simplifies your life.
Let’s say you have 4 different addresses. If you have to go to 4 different places to check those accounts, you are making things hard on yourself.
Instead, enable POP in those accounts and set them to download into your primary email client, or set them to forward to the email address you want to use as your primary personal account.
Most email clients are able to bring in messages from multiple accounts easily. For example, Gmail does this very well. “Gmail’s Mail Fetcher can download messages from up to five other email accounts, centralizing all your email in Gmail.”
With Microsoft Outlook, you can also set up additional email accounts, and then when writing an email you there is a drop-down where you can choose which account you want to send from. Mac Mail also does this very well.
The problem is that there are some instances in which you cannot do this, and some problems that you encounter. Which leads us to our next two points.
3. When You Can’t Integrate Accounts into One Interface, Have a Regular Schedule for Checking Your Other Accounts
The biggest thing preventing people from integrating all their email accounts into a single interface is their situation with their work computer. Many companies do not permit downloading your personal email into the email client you use for work, and many people also have one computer for work and a separate computer for personal use. And there are also other reasons that might also keep someone from integrating all of their personal email accounts into a single interface.
So, I realize that it isn’t always possible to manage all of your accounts from a single interface. What you need to do in these cases is make sure to check all of your accounts on a regular schedule.
That may seem a bit too regimented. It doesn’t have to be. The point is simply that you don’t want to just wait for it to strike you to check one of your email accounts. That is an unnecessary open loop. The goal of a good productivity system, as we’ll talk about in the future, is to make it so that you don’t have to “remember to remember” to do things (especially routine things).
So, for example, if you have a spam account that you still want to check regularly to make sure nothing important is sent there, define a regular time that you check it. It could be once a month or once a week, but just have a set time when you’ll review it. (Ideally, you should group this task with other routine tasks — we’ll talk about the usefulness of this down the road.)
With your work email, my recommendation (as discussed in the article) is to process your inbox at least once a day, and preferably every hour. Each time you process it, process the whole thing. Emails with actions longer than two minutes go into the working folders (or you can put the action on a list), and those working folders should be cleared out once a day.
With home email, you might feel that you don’t need to keep up with it daily. If most of your email volume is at work, for example, it might be sufficient to process through all of your home email every Saturday morning. Or maybe every other night, or every night. Or, if you have it integrated into one interface with your work email, you don’t need to have any processing distinction at all between work and personal email. You have separate accounts, but you process it all at once every hour. (I think this is the best option, but I recognize that it is not possible for everyone.)
The main point here is simply: don’t leave it to chance to remember to check your other email accounts. Have a determined routine to make sure you keep up with them regularly.
4. Be as Disciplined with Your Personal Email as You Are With Your Work Email
This principle is a corollary of the above principle. Not only should you have a regular routine for checking all of your email accounts, but you should apply the same rules of processing to all of your accounts as well.
Here’s the primary thing this means: When processing your personal email, stick to the principle of processing all of it, just like with work email. Don’t conclude that since it is your personal account, you can just process the messages that you are most interested in, and that you can do the rest later. Be just as disciplined with your personal account as with your work account.
5. Here’s How to Handle Problems
The above principles give us the tools for handling some of the main problems that having multiple email accounts creates. The two readers who wrote in with this question highlighted three core problems.
Gmail Offers Free POP and Forwarding, but Will not Forward Spam
The problem is that sometimes Gmail thinks that something is spam when it isn’t. The result is that legitimate emails can get overlooked.
I actually ran into this problem just the other day (I download my Gmail into Mac Mail, and it turns out that this also leaves the spam behind).
There are two possible solutions. First, you can stop forwarding your Gmail to a different account, and instead forward that other account to Gmail. In other words, make Gmail your primary interface. Gmail is excellent, and I would highly recommend it as your primary email interface.
Second, if this is not possible or not your preference, the above principle of making it a routine to check all of your other email accounts applies here. Even though Gmail forwards the email to your other client, to make sure that no legitimate email is caught in the spam filter, make it a weekly routine to go into Gmail directly to check the spam filter. This is not ideal, obviously (hence, my alternative solution in the prior paragraph), but it’s the only other choice.
The main thing here is to not leave it chance to remember to check the spam filter. That will create drag on your life. Make it a routine so you don’t have to remember to do it.
Yahoo Provides POP only if You Pay for It
The problem here is that it costs money to enable POP in Yahoo. My main recommendation for this reader would be to get rid of Yahoo (which creates another problem, on which see below). But, there is probably a reason that he needs to keep that account. The options of paying the fee or switching to Yahoo as the primary email client are probably not appealing.
So this leads back to getting rid of Yahoo, but dealing effectively with the problems it creates to cancel an account. Which is our next point.
If You Abandon an Account, People Won’t Always Update Their Address Book or You Might Have a Lot of Records to Update
This is the main obstacle to just getting rid of your extra email accounts. One reader wrote: “At times, I will decide to abandon extra email accounts, but I will get important emails from old friends or business contacts who have never bothered to change my email address in their address book.”
Another reader wrote of an especially unfortunate instance: “Inevitably, someone doesn’t update their address book (as was the case when I missed notice of a college friend’s unexpected death and then emailed a “hello, how are you” note at exactly the wrong time).”
Along with this, you might have used the email address as your username on dozens of sites, and now that you want to change email addresses, you are looking at a lot of work to update those records.
The solution to both problems is the same.
The governing principle is to phase out the account slowly. This gives you time to catch the people that haven’t updated their address book, but doesn’t stick you with the address indefinitely. Here is what I mean.
First, email your new address to everyone so they can update their address book. (Obviously, make sure to send this out from your new email address.)
Second, don’t cancel your old address yet. Set it to forward to your new account, or enable POP in the old account and set it to download into the email client you use. This way you will still get the emails from those who have forgotten to update their address book.
Third, make sure not to never again use the account that you want to phase out. Obviously this is common sense, but the key here is to make sure that you stop using it completely, no exceptions. Don’t accidentally use it to email a friend, and don’t use it as the username on any websites, because otherwise you will be partially undoing the purpose.
Fourth, whenever someone accidentally emails you at the old address, respond from your new address and let them know to update their address book. I’d give this about 2-6 months.
Fifth, if you have the old email address on file at any websites you are registered at, gradually update your accounts to your new address over the period of a few months. I’m in this situation right now. Dozens of websites have my Earthlink address as my username, and I want to get rid of my Earthlink account. I don’t want to spend 6 hours making all those updates, so I’m just going to do it gradually over the course of a few months. Also any newsletters that go to my Earthlink address will be updated during this time whenever I receive them. The 2-6 month window is very handy for this.
Seventh, after a few months the emails to your old address will probably be few and far between, and it’s time to cancel that account. There might still be some instances of people who haven’t updated their address book, but it will be minimized. The chance of missing an important update will be as small as you could make it, and most people who get their email returned will probably be able to email someone to get your current address.
(Update: Wired has a helpful article on getting rid of your old email address that has some helpful tips.)
The Value of One Computer for Everything
Well, this post turned out to be pretty long. It shows how a simple thing like email easily ends up complicating our lives.
I think that the biggest way to simplify the managing of multiple email accounts is to be able to have a single computer for both personal and work. Having one computer for work stuff and a different computer for personal stuff creates neat and clear lines between home and work, but it is a pain to keep up two computers and keep in both spots the data that you need to access everywhere.
Integrating everything into a single computer saves a ton of time and complexity. I know that this is not possible currently with most workplaces, but this is probably the way things will be end up moving more and more in the future. Life is too complicated to have to keep up with managing two computers.