On my mind

Email laundry piles

19 April 2024

Listening to Amantha Imber’s interview with Laura Mae Martin, author of the newly released book Uptime, was a revelation to me. Martin is full of efficiency hints that I haven’t considered before. Specifically, she has me rethinking email and the state of my inbox.

Many people aspire to Inbox Zero, which can be misinterpreted as having no emails in our inbox. But Inbox Zero isn’t about the number of emails in your inbox, but rather a productivity strategy—how to spend less time in your inbox while attending to the tasks that the email generates. If you want to dig into the history of the concept, start with the person who is attributed with coining the phrase, Merlin Mann of the now-defunct blog 43folders. Watch him talk about Inbox Zero in this Google Tech Talk.

Now, back to Laura Mae Martin. Of course, since she is employed by Google, Martin’s suggestions for managing email naturally play to Gmail’s strengths. But the analogy she uses is seared in my mind and is independent of Google’s influence on email. She calls her productivity strategy for dealing with email the “laundry method.”

Here’s her laundry analogy of the typical haphazard approach to email:

  • Open the dryer and pick out one shirt. Fold the shirt. Walk that folded shirt to the bedroom.
  • Head back to the dryer.
  • The next item is a slightly wet pair of pants. Although everything else is dry, throw that pair of pants back in with the rest of the clothes and run the dryer cycle again.
  • Now you pull out one sock. Take the lone sock to your bedroom and put it away.
  • Go back to the dryer for the next item.
  • Repeat throughout the day.
  • And here’s my addition: if you don’t finish that load of laundry, leave it in overnight. Start the washer in the morning with a new load. Throw the wet clothes in the dryer after it’s finished and hit the start button.
  • Restart the dryer process from the day before.

This inefficient approach to laundry makes me cringe. Why would anyone put away items one at a time? Imagine how long it would take to put away one load of laundry. This analogy resonates with me because I began delegating laundry to my kids when they were young because I found laundry to be a never-ending chore. And I hated sorting through a huge pile of everyone’s socks.

In a burst of efficiency, I decided to separate the kids’ laundry from mine and my husband’s clothing. This helped streamline the sock sorting. Then, one day, I said to myself, “Why am I the only one doing laundry? Even a 6-year-old can sort socks.” After that brilliant insight, I turned the task of doing laundry over to the clothing’s owner. My rule: whoever wore the clothing washed the clothing, even though my kids were 7 and 8 years old at the time. If you’re a mom with kids, I want you to know that this is one of the best parenting decisions I ever made.

Now, back to Martin again. After describing the inefficient way to deal with laundry, she goes over what we should be doing instead.

  1. Take everything out of the dryer (Inbox Zero = Empty Dryer)
  2. Sort the emails into specific piles by using multiple inboxes in Gmail. (Why Gmail? Because she’s Google’s Executive Productivity Expert). Here are three piles/inboxes she suggests:
    • To-do pile
    • Waiting-for-more-information pile
    • Read-but-no-action needed (newsletters, etc.)
  3. Address each pile at different times of the day, or later in the week, depending on the pile. For example, the read-but-no-action-needed pile doesn’t need to be gone through every day. But the To-do pile should be turned into tasks daily.

I don’t think I’ll ever look at my hunt-and-peck approach to email in the same way again. Who would want to open a dryer door fifteen times for the same load of laundry or put away one sock at a time? This image is going to stick in my mind for a while, and maybe, eventually, I’ll implement Martin’s system with my own tweaks. I’m waiting for a moment of brilliant insight to strike again.