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Organizing Your Email

About 4 months ago, my e-mail Inbox reached mission critical here at Simple Station. I was getting probably close to 100 e-mails a day, a good number of which needed urgent responses, and I was having difficulty keeping track of everything. E-mail is one of those things that everyone gets, but very few people know how to handle correctly. What do you do when you start getting a ton of e-mail? It shocked me a little during one of my latest consulting stints in the U.S.A. to find that a good friend of mine had close to 200 unread e-mails in his Inbox.

One of my favorite podcasts at the moment is produced by Merlin Mann of 43 Folders. His site, and his podcasts are all about personal productivity, life hacks, and simple ways to make your life a little better. I think what I am about to divulge was something that I may have picked up from reading one of his articles and is certainly not an original concept of mine. The following comprises a great solution to dealing with monstrous amounts of e-mail.

So where to start, let’s say you’ve just been away for a number of weeks on vacation and you return to find the golden horde has descended into your Inbox. You think to yourself that Genghis Khan would surely throw up his hands in defeat if he returned home to his yurt and found so much e-mail. However, there is a solution.

The first step is to create a folder titled “Action Required.” The second step is to create a folder titled “Awaiting Followup.” This should look like the screen shot below.

Organizing Your Email - Creating the action required folder.

Once this is done, it is important to follow a very strict process with your email.

  1. Do not check your e-mail more than 3-5 times per day. Try to answer your e-mail in batches, rather than doing it as it arrives. Devote 15-20 minutes every few hours to respond to e-mail.
  2. Write clearly, concisely, and briefly. Don’t try to write a 6 paragraph response to everyone who e-mails you. If someone is asking a simple question, provide a simple response.
  3. Once something arrives into your Inbox you do one of 3 things with it:
    1. You read it and delete it
    2. You read it and archive it in a folder
    3. You read it and move it to the “Action Required” folder.
  4. Move onto your next e-mail. Do this until there are no more e-mails left.
  5. Then go into your “Action Required” folder and respond to as much e-mail as you can.
  6. Once you have responded to an e-mail, either move it into the “Awaiting Follow-up” folder, or archive it. If you send someone a response (and you need one back from them), the “Awaiting Follow-up” folder is a perfect solution because it will keep track of who you are waiting to hear back from.

By the end of the day, your goal is to have nothing in your Inbox. You should have everything filed into archives that has been read (and you don’t need to respond to) or it should be deleted. The “Action Required” folder should contain all the e-mails that need your response, but to which you have not yet replied. And the “Awaiting Follow-up” folder temporarily holds all the e-mails you are waiting to hear back from people on.

I’ve found this system works really well for me and has helped me get through much more e-mail in much less time. It takes a bit of getting used to, and a bit of discipline, but it’s proven its weight in gold to me.

Organizing folders for emailOne last note before closing – I have often got the question about how to archive e-mails. While everyone has their own individual solution this is what has worked for me. I create a couple of top level folders.

These match with specific categories that broadly fit a wide range of emails.

  • Business Stuff – Contains the subfolders Accounting, Domains, Invoices, Receipts, Government, and Travel
  • Contracts – Contains a folder for each company/individual I deal with through my business. Sometimes these are broken down further with folders within each company folder for different departments etc.
  • Hosting – Contains all logs, errors, and communications with network operations.
  • Of Interest – This folder is for e-mails that are of particular interest. Things like links to very interesting web sites, and e-mails from important people like Warren Buffet, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates (I wish).
  • Personal – Just random personal e-mails which I found worth saving. They also contain subfolders for mailing lists, or clubs I join (such as Underwater Hockey).

So that is the synopsis of how I’ve learned to organize my e-mail. Remember the end goal is to have an empty Inbox by the end of the day, if you can do this it truly will make you feel like you’re in control of your Inbox.

5 Responses to “Organizing Your Email”

  1. Gillian Rees says:

    you make me feel soooo inadequate! i read every email, but then get scared to delete it, even after it is actioned!!

    i am so ashamed.

    i will put these great tips to good use!


  2. Jobie says:

    Wow! Thanks for the tip. This will help me out in a MAJOR way. Wheeeew!


  3. patricia peterson says:

    i need to learn how to organize my mail box and how to type a message to send to several different people without retyping it every time.

  4. Thanks for the tips. I’ve been looking for a system for email organization and am going to integrate this with some other ideas to improve my productivity.

  5. One click later I found this, today I will sleep in peace, thank you for writing this.