Saturday, January 4, 2020

Day 4: Organize Your Email Inbox

Email. Funny how a concept that used to excite us only a few decades ago now sends shivers up and down our spines. We once thrilled to the sound of "You've got mail!" and now we shudder at opening our email inbox to find hundreds or even thousands (dare I say tens of thousands?) of messages waiting for us to do something. There has got to be a better way to live.

There is.

Oh, don't get me wrong, I have declared email bankruptcy a few times in my life. If you're unfamiliar with the concept, it's when you just archive your entire inbox just to clean it out, to start fresh. Does it ever work? Yes, it can. Currently, I have 30 items in the inbox for my home and home business (no, we won't talk about the inbox for my full-time job). And there's as many as 30 because the holidays provided a lot of distraction (and a lot of motivation to put things on hold).  But how do you avoid getting back to hundreds or thousands of emails staring you in the face?

As with your physical inbox, the first trick is to delete all the stuff that doesn't matter. This means scanning the list and marking for deletion all the stuff you really don't want, then deleting it with a single click. Well, maybe, but not so fast. Are any of these unwanted marketing items (including newsletters you simply never read, and deep down inside, you know you never will)?  In that case, don't delete these until you have gone into and found that link to unsubscribe. Do this again and again and again and you'll finally start to see fewer and fewer new things show up.

Next up, look for the things that are worth saving for reference purposes (they don't require a reply or any need to take any further action), and take the appropriate actions to move them out of the inbox.  I'm a big Gmail user, and for this, I use tags. In your own email software, this might look more like folders.

I have a tag for DNA (for one example), and a tag for each conference I will be attending in the future. Because I want the future conferences to be near the top of my list of tags, I start them with an exclamation point, followed by the 4-digit year, the 2-digit month, and the 2-digit date of the event, followed by the event name. In this way, I collect together in one place all things pertaining to the conference (registration, hotel, and airfare confirmations). Once the event is passed, I archive the items by changing the name of the tag to the name of the event followed by the year, so that it moves way down in my alphabetical list, moving the next future events further up to the top.

Is that it? Almost, but there are a few more tags (or folders) you'll need for your email, to get it out of your inbox. If an email is about an item you've ordered (let's say, a genealogy book), move it to a tag/folder called !!!Waiting. It has 3 exclamation points so that it's the very first tag/folder right after the required ones. I check the !!!Waiting folder every few days to see if there is anything overdue, and I delete the items that have already arrived or that are no longer needed.

I also have a very small number of tags/folders for current projects, which I begin with 2 exclamation points followed by the name of the project. This puts them right after !!!Waiting and right before all the future event tags/folders.

What does this leave in your Inbox? First, some items that you can deal with immediately, with a quick response. If you can answer the email in no more than 2 or 3 minutes, do so, then archive the conversation or move it to a project or event folder. If it's going to take longer than that, mark it with a red star or flag to indicate that it needs to be addressed at some length, and block out time in your calendar to deal with it. For example, if several different people have asked for your key lime pound cake recipe, block out some time in the very near future to send all of them the recipe at the same time!

There is a bit more that you'll want to do with your email inbox, especially the items that need to be put on your calendar or that require you to do some significant work, but we'll come back to those in the next week or two.


  1. Excellent way to organize those folders in my Gmail! I'm following these blog entries and making progress too. Thanks, Drew!

  2. I have piles of folders on Gmail already, and sub-folders. I place new emails in them immediately, so there are rarely more than a dozen emails in my in-box. I unsubscribe to all marketing, and try not to subscribe to blogs...this blog, for instance, I'm seeing on Facebook, rather than subscribing for email. When I'm expecting a parcel, I sign up with the shipper for email notifications, and place them in Trash. When the package arrives, I delete the notification. I list all such items in an Excel spreadsheet, and track them using the email notifications. So I know specifically what I ordered, and can track them with a single click. For genealogy, I have Family Search (not the website, but my correspondence with relatives), Family DNA, and Family Websites (which includes subscriptions and other paid receipts).

  3. Interesting concept, but my hoarder husband used to store his photos with a similar use of some "Special Character" in front of a folder name to put it to the top of the heap. They soon ALL had several to many of those characters, totally defeating the purpose.

    That's a hoader's mentality, so if you're a hoarder, (& you all know who you are), then just learn to how to make it a habit, to read it now or delete it. Saving it for later when you're getting hundreds of new emails a day, means you will never get caught up. / If it's important, act on it. If it's not, you don't need it. DELETE, DELETE, DELETE.