Dealing With Email From Oldest to Newest

A few days ago, David Brown at Techstars wrote a great post titled “Staying Organized with Workflow” about how he stays organized. Brown and I work across the hall from each other and interact regularly. Often he’ll send me a note about something and I’ll just wander over and talk to him. He’s always available, super responsive on email, and very good at having a three minute meeting that results in a decision.

There was one thing in his approach that was something I used to do a long time ago, but stopped doing when I started using Gmail.

“Email Order. I process my email from oldest to newest. Yes, I cheat sometimes and answer a new one, but I try not to. It’s harder in Gmail because you can’t sort chronologically, but I just start at the bottom.”

A long, long time ago, in a galaxy far far away when I used Outlook, I processed my email in chronological order – oldest at the top. Gmail doesn’t let you reverse the sort order from newest at the top, so I just got out of the habit of this. But when I get behind on email by a few days and end up with 100 or more to grind through, I always go to the bottom and work backwards.

When I saw Brown’s note, I thought “duh.” Often, I have an almost empty inbox (as I do now – there is literally one message in it – read, but not responded to – right now.) So, even when there are 17 brand new emails, just clicking on the bottom one and reading backwards works just fine. In fact, it’s even better in the current world than my previous Outlook galaxy because of conversation mode.

Unlike Brown, I don’t use tasks or filters. I find that when I move things to a task list, I’m literally exiling them to the land of never-get-done. The only exception is longer form writing that is not urgent, which I just star in Gmail, archive, and periodically grind through my starred folder.

Regardless of the process you use, contemplate reverse the order of response from oldest to newest. If you aren’t going to do something with an email, just archive or delete it – don’t let it sit there. And, if you want some additional good tips, go read Brown’s post Staying Organized with Workflow.

  • Evan Patronik

    Honestly, working from newest to oldest (other than a quick scan for anything ultra critical), is the best safety net for letting things slip through the cracks. If you’re not a consistent “zero-inboxer” and don’t ALWAYS get your inbox to zero, that means the oldest emails, the ones at the bottom, stand the greatest chance of just never being seen or dealt with. Every day that passes pushes them further and further from your field of view, losing novelty and luster until 3 months later you realize you ignored the email from the lawyer of your recently deceased uncle Geoffrey, concerning your inheritance of $15million but needing a response within 2 months and 28 days to secure said inheritance.

    I could really use that 15 mil, so I always go bottoms up in Gmail. Thanks for the reminder that I’ve got the right idea!

  • I work from oldest to newest. Don’t get near the email you do (my assumption). My largest goal is to unsubscribe from email lists….

  • Oddly never done this even though I operate under inbox zero. Seems to make sense. Do you revisit groups of emails very often by topic? Even though I tag and filter things, I’ve found I rarely go back to them and wonder what other people do for non-link containing emails that might still be relevant later.

    • Almost never.

      • Yeah that’s what I thought. Wonder if there is a business in there e.g. some offshoot of Conspire type thing.

  • Doing things just like this, did my Starred grind yesterday and it felt almost as good as workout at the gym.