How I Email: Simon Owens, Journalist

Interview by Jaclyn Schiff

Email is a non-negotiable part of everyday life. For some, it’s an unruly time suck, but enlightened email users have systems to ensure they’re not a slave to the inbox. We’re asking smart thinkers to give us a peek inside their inboxes, share tips, ideas, gripes, and everything in between.

In this interview with independent tech and media journalist Simon Owens, we discuss how his freelance background helped him control his inbox habit and what he’s doing about spammy marketers.

Do you have a system for managing your inbox?

Sure, so I don’t know if this is the default now, but I use Gmail’s Priority Inbox, It allows you to have basically two separated inboxes. You can mark things as important versus the normal inbox.

If I’m logged into Gmail, I have the important emails on top and then the category called, Everything Else. A lot of people talk about whether you’re an Inbox Zero person. Well, if you just count the Priority Inbox, then yes, I’m an Inbox Zero person. But if you also include Everything Else, definitely not because I have thousands and thousands of unread messages because any kind of email that’s not marked as important, I don’t even bother opening it.

I’m very judicious about training Gmail to recognize what’s important to me. So I always make sure if something ends up in the Everything Else inbox [when it should be in the Priority Inbox], to mark it as important. The next time I receive an email from that address, it goes into the Priority one.

Email is usually the first thing I check every day, and I respond to all emails at once. If you send me an email later in the day and it’s not something that’s urgent, I am not going to respond until the next day.

In addition to answering emails, that’s also the time when I go through all my various newsletters. I subscribe to Niemen Lab, Digi Day, Recode Daily, Hot Pod, and a few others. I’m really into health care policy for some reason, so I subscribe to Sarah Cliff’s VoxCare.

You’re not tempted to check email throughout the day? Or are you checking throughout the day and just not responding?

Yeah, yeah, I’m constantly clicking into my inbox and seeing what’s coming through and just not responding. If you send me an email, I’ve probably seen and read your email soon after you sent it to me or at least scanned it, but I’m not going to respond until the next day.

Did you have to train yourself to not respond right away? Because, you know, so many people just feel the need to instantly respond especially with smartphones.

Before I created this system, I would get an email that needed a little bit more time and energy [to respond to] and I would just delay answering — and too much time would pass. So now it’s like pulling off a Band-Aid. I’m getting them all done in one fell swoop.

What was the impetus for you coming up with your email system? Do you remember?

I think being a freelancer … juggling multiple clients, you’re just getting so much crap at all hours of the day, like requests and stuff like that, and I think that can get really unwieldy … if you’re answering emails at all times of the day, especially if you have to put aside long, long stretches of time to write [like I did].

Overall, do you feel like you have your inbox under control?

Yeah, I think so. It does get unwieldy [at times]. Some mornings I wish I could get to actually start working or start reading the news or whatever.

One thing that I do is if I read the most recent version of a newsletter, I will not read other past versions of the newsletter that have piled up. Does that make sense? So for VoxCare, I’ve already read the most recent issue and I have at least two or three other issues that have piled up. I’m not going to bother to read those other issues.

As a person who covers tech and media, do you think there’s anything about Gmail specifically — or email in general — that the average user might not know?

Well one thing, I don’t know if it’s what the average user might not [know], but as a marketer myself, I get annoyed by bad marketing that’s super spammy. I don’t know if you get this, but I get tons of emails from really bad marketers offering to write guest posts on my blog and they make it seem like it’s almost like they’re doing something personal for you, but you can see they’re just doing a copy and paste job — especially considering that they don’t even bother to find out what I write about, and they’re offering to write guest posts that are completely off-topic. I want to punish those people! [laughs]

So I want to train Google’s algorithm to treat those people as spam, so I’m very judicious … if somebody sends an email — especially if they get me to open up the email and it turns out it’s just one of these spammy, I want to write a guest post for your site [messages] — I make sure to [flag it] so I can train Gmail to treat these people as spam and so I can make the Internet at least a little bit of a better place.

What kind of features would you like to see added to Gmail? Or what kind of changes would you want?

I guess like I’d like the old Gchat back, like they’ve revamped it so many times and it used to be that basically any time you emailed with a person several times, it would end up in your Gchat box. Then they’d somehow rejiggered to where it’s just choosing the people you speak to the most often. I don’t know. There used to be a feature that if someone messaged you directly while you were not logged in or had your tab opened it would send it as an email so that you could restart the conversation. For some reason, it just does not update me anymore about someone that sent a chat when I was not logged in.

You know what I would like? I’m constantly paranoid that my email is being designated as spam so, I would like some kind of notification that if it is going into someone’s spam box, [it would] just let me know so I could do something to rectify the situation.

Do you mean with your newsletter or for personal emails?

Even my own personal emails — I mean 99 percent of the time, it’s paranoia when someone doesn’t respond [quickly]. As a marketer, I email a lot of people asking for interviews, but I also used to do PR, so I pitched a lot through email. I’m less paranoid now, but back when I was doing a lot more pitching, I was worrying that Gmail was somehow designating me as a spammer because I was using a lot of similar language, so I was always paranoid that my emails weren’t actually reaching the journalists.

It would have been nice to be notified if your email wasn’t delivered to the person’s inbox, if it was marked as spam. Although, I guess if they did that, it would alert spammers and teach them how to get around it.