Lately I’ve been especially focused on analyzing and tweaking my processes for doing a lot of different things and trying to simplify and optimize them. Email was one of them.
I’m going to talk briefly about personal email, but mainly focus on all of the commercial email I get from online shopping and services I sign up for. Because of the extreme volume of this commercial email I do not want it in my personal inbox. Basically, I want an easy way to manage and filter all of the commercial email I get.
My previous solution and it’s problems
For a several years I used a product Colin Anawaty turned me on to called Other Inbox—http://www.otherinbox.com. It was a remarkably simple and elegant idea; setup an on the fly unique email address for every service / company you interact with. So for example I was able to setup firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
I could create any email address I wanted on the fly @goto.otherinbox.com. The service would then break all of those emails down into individual folders. So spotify@ would become a spotify folder of all the emails I received to that address. If someone sold my address or started spamming me—as Toms Shoes did—I could just block that entire address.
Here is what that looked like…
It didn’t scale that well to accomodate the number of folders / address I had, but it was a really nice system and I was happy with it—and I was paying for it. Unfortunately, it was tailored to power users so the company wasn’t able to find much commercial success. So at the end of 2010 they decided to shut down the service in lieu of a new product they had been developing for integration into Gmail or YahooMail.
When I found out they were shutting down I was pretty annoyed because I had invested a lot of time in setting it up, and all of my services were registered to emails tied to @goto.otherinbox.com. I tried to use their new integrated Gmail product which was basically meant for people to install as a filter on top of a personal account—like benbarry at gmail.com. It would then attempt to redirect incoming commercial emails into predefined categories like “social, shopping, etc…”, but it was a pain in the ass to manipulate the categories or control the filtering mechanism. It also only understood well known products like Facebook, Amazon, iTunes, etc… and didn’t understand more specialized things like Typekit, or AIGA. So for me it didn’t add anything I couldn’t already do better and have more control over with Gmail’s filtering system.
So that lead me to setup my own custom solution…
What I did to solve it
I bought the domain name separateinbox.com and registered firstname.lastname@example.org. I setup a catch all email on separateinbox.com and forwarded all of that email to the Gmail account. So I could still create things like email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org on the fly and they would land in the Gmail inbox. Then because the one to one email address to folders didn’t scale well in Other Inbox I decided to create my own categories to filter similar types of emails together—inspired by their new filtering product and how I was already using my personal email in Gmail. For example donorschoose@ kiva@ and kickstarter@ are all Charity related and I don’t interact with them THAT much so it makes sense to have them all filter into a Charity folder. Still, for some things I use a lot like amazon@ or zipcar@ it still made sense to have a 1 to 1 relationship so I can quickly access all of the email from those services. So I created all of those categories and started setting up filters in gmail to automatically sort incoming email.
I suppose it was inevitable since OtherInbox was shutting down, but I did have go through and change my email address on ALL of those services. I’m fairly meticulous in documenting everything I sign up with in a spreadsheet on Google docs so it wasn’t a huge deal, it just took some time. Fortunately it was over Christmas break so I had a lot of sitting around on the couch time to do it. It was also a great insight into email change flows on various websites. Ebay for example SUCKS in this regard.
The other HUGE thing that I found out while I was setting all of this up was that you can actually link Gmail accounts together. Initially I thought I was going to have to log out of my personal Gmail account and then log into the separateinbox one to check my mail, but you can actually give permission from one account to access the other. So now benbarry at gmail.com there is a dropdown in the top right that lets me switch into separateinbox anytime I want. It makes it even easier to access and use than when I used to check OtherInbox.
So here is what my personal email looks like and the drop down in the top right…
That launches a new tab instance of my separateinbox@ account, you can see the categories I’ve established…
Here is an example diving into one of the categories…
Here is the filters page…
When I sign up for a new service I have to setup a filter manually, but it’s fairly easy. The initial work of adding everyting was painful than the infrequent time that I have to do it going forward. Unfiltered emails just land in my inbox so it’s easy to know when I need to add a filter. If someone starts to spam me I can just block their address—and rely on Gmails robust spam filtering.
With my personal email I don’t have any automated filters, and far fewer categories. The volume of email is much lower but the senders are more varied, so I just manually sort things as they come in. I try to keep my inbox zeroed out, but as you saw I’m a little behind.
I’m really loving this system. I was happy with OtherInbox, but having been using this for a month and a half or so now I can’t imagine going back. It was incredibly important to me to be able to mentally separate this kind of email from the person emails I receive so reduce the switching costs by only having to check it when I know I am expecting something. I also know that I could have used Gmail’s +whatever system to create email aliases like email@example.com, but having a custom URL is so much cooler and adds one more layer of security / removal. The grouping of similar types of emails and the ability to link the Gmail accounts was a huge factor in making this an awesome easy to use solution.