In an IM message the other day, Scott Hanselman asked me what my "DL strategy" was (DL = distribution list, a high-falutin' name for a mailing list). After I responded, he suggested I post it to my blog. Since I live to serve the Hanselcause, this is a slightly expanded and re-worded version of my e-mail to him.
When you first start at Microsoft, in New Employee Orientation (NEO) you are told the e-mail system is a fire hose, and to drink carefully. That's laughably understating the case. The entire company works on e-mail (and to a lesser degree, IM).
As was suggested to me, so I suggest to new Microsoft hires: look at the Address Book entries for people you know and work with, and look at what kinds of mailing lists they're subscribed to. Subscribe to more than you think you can handle, and just remove the ones that end up not providing enough value.
In order to deal with the e-mail volume (probably on the order of 1,000 messages a day), I needed two skills: subject skimming and folders. I started by putting each DL into its own folder, but you soon find out that that fails past a dozen DLs or so. Instead, I ended up with four broad categories of filtering:
1. Meeting Invitations. These stay in my Inbox, regardless of their origin; otherwise, they're easy to miss (and they might not show up on the phone).
2. Immediate team DLs (ASP.NET and smaller). These stay in my Inbox. Exception: Checkin e-mails go to a Checkins folder where they will get perused perhaps once or twice a week.
3. Internal DLs. Sorted into two folders: High and Low. Everything in High I should (or want to) read at work, while things in Low can wait if it's a busy day. Most of the DLs in High are low traffic, too; if something that I consider important becomes high traffic, I'll probably end up shifting it to Low.
4. External DLs. Sorted into two folders: Insiders and ASP.NET Forums (I have a mass forum subscription for MVC and Dynamic Data). Those are the only external DLs I am subscribed to with my @microsoft.com e-mail address. Everything else goes to Gmail, which by definition is low priority at work. (I also use labels to filter in Gmail, but grouped by message subject -- Agile, Mac, Windows, Personal, etc. -- with very little staying in my Inbox.)
I use Outlook Favorites and collapse the folder list so I only see what I want.
I keep very little; almost everything is read and deleted. Anything that I want to keep long term I shove into an Archive folder and let indexing help me find it later. On any given day, my folders should have virtually nothing but unread messages in them. I feel no guilt mass deleting filtered things if I've been gone away from e-mail for too long to catch up.
Lists that usually end up in my High folder talk about:
Technology brown bags and guest lectures; design patterns; unit testing, XP, and other agile topics; DLs that are team-related, but have a wider scope than the team; and, mentoring opportunities.
Lists that usually end up in my Low folder talk about:
Technologies I like but aren't necessarily related to my day-to-day job; cool things about the company; hobbies like home theater, home automation, gaming, poker, etc.; Music, movies, and other media; and, alpha level software and hardware testing (tons of opportunities for this at Microsoft).