Make Email Suck Less (Why wait for Google Wave?)

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Like so many geeks on Twitter, I’ve been shamelessly begging for a Google Wave invitation. I’ve heard numerous tales of the product’s rampant bugginess, but email feels so broken in the wake of the initial demo that I can’t help but pine for its modern, collaborative goodness.

Google Heartbreak

In spite of this, I realize my wait will not end with Wave’s arrival. The service will likely taking many years to establish itself as the ubiquitous standard it aspires to be. I can’t just ditch email and twiddle my thumbs until that happens.

Here’s how I attempt to thwart email’s crappiness and continue to maintain that Merlin Mann nirvana that is Inbox Zero.

Gmail iconStep 1: Gmail

The setup begins with Gmail which, despite the handicap of our dilapidated email standard, still manages to rock 90% of the time.

I choose Gmail for its massive (and ever-expanding) storage capacity, the ability to send email from my personal domains, the versatility gained from “tagging” messages with labels, and the freedom to access all that cool stuff via POP3, IMAP and Google Sync for free. No competitor even begins to compare at this point and, even if they did, Gmail’s the easiest to escape from should you ever wish to switch.

In accordance with Merlin’s inbox makeover article, I immediately move every email I receive out of the inbox and into an action label after a brief skim. This protects me from workflow disruptions and insures that Gmail’s inbox and archive are used faithfully (for unsorted and archives items).

I prefix my action labels with an underscore so that they’ll be at the top of Gmail’s labels and any folder view in another application. They are:

For items that require some sort of action or task on my part before I can respond.
For items I'll want close at hand in the next week or so (login information, URLs, attachments, etc.).
For items requiring a short message from me without any major tasks or required research.
For items which will likely require action once the sender has responded.

For added goodness, use Gmail’s Multiple Inboxes (enable it in Labs) to put these front and center:

My Multiple Inboxes setup

I then follow Adam Pash’s lead and organize all other labels into Contexts and Projects, abbreviated to ‘C’ and ‘P’ respectively. Contexts might be something like “Events” and “Appointments,” whereas Projects refer to things like “New Web Site,” “The Big Account,” etc.

Once all your conversations are nicely organized and you’ve got a great bird’s eye view of your actionable items, Firefox users may want to install FaviconizeTab and Gmail Favicon Alerts for at-a-glance incoming mail alerts without additional applications.

Two mail apps on the iPhoneStep 2: iPhone

If you set up Gmail on your iPhone using Apple’s baked-in, shiny logo button for the service, you’re missing out on the best experience.

I highly recommend using Google Sync, which gives you push mail, calendar and contacts from Google’s services. There’s nothing quite like the warm, fuzzy feeling you get having incoming messages pushed directly to that red badge on your home screen.

If you must have full multiple label goodness on your iPhone, or if you already have an Exchange ActiveSync account associated with the device, you should definitely use Gmail through mobile Safari. It does nearly everything the desktop version does (including offline support) and trumps the default mail app in numerous ways.

Postbox iconStep 3: Postbox

I’m somewhat of a zealot when it comes to having a local backup of my email on a hard drive. Call me skeptical, but cloud solutions are too new for me to have complete and total confidence in their archival potential. I was a happy Thunderbird user for years, but Mozilla Messaging has moved forward at a snail’s pace.

Postbox is Thunderbird with super powers. The interface is much more polished and boasts great features like tabs, attachment aggregation and social network integration. In many ways it’s the email client I wish Thunderbird was (and hopefully will be).

Setting up Gmail in Postbox is a snap. The big “archive” buttons acts as you’d expect, conversations are threaded, and the search accepts Gmail-like arguments (such as “from:Mom”).

Unlike Thunderbird, Postbox is a commercial application that’ll set you back $39.95 for a single license after a 30-day trial. Luckily, they’re nice enough to give purchasers a discount to hand out to friends, so the first ten people who purchase using this link will get ten bucks off that price. You’re welcome.

Why are we doing this again?

Because email is a beast, a sickly mutant beast that eats at your productivity and requires specialized care no matter how you access it. This is what it takes to make me happy with it. Using this setup allows me to access the same email everywhere, maintain a local backup on my home PC, and receive new email notifications no matter where I am on my iPhone. My conversations are threaded, helpfully organized and quickly searchable from anywhere.

But I still wouldn’t mind playing with Google Wave. I’ll even trade you a Typekit invite. Anyone? Update: Thanks to Ryan Williams and Chris at Studio 625 for the invites! I’ll publish a reaction to Wave soon.