The Art of Organizing Your Email: Declutter Your Inbox and Your Life

OCTBeing an organizational psychologist does not necessarily make one organized, but it’s true that organization systems can increase productivity, efficiency, and even happiness. I’m a particularly good organizer of email; colleagues often ask me for older documents or information because they know I can find it quickly. It’s become a bit of a point of pride for me to see how quickly I can locate a given piece of information. I’ve compiled a few of my top strategies for organizing email so that it’s easy to sort, find relevant information when you want it, and impress colleagues and friends with your incredible document-hunting powers.

Create folders that make sense for your work. I have an extensive series of folders in both my work and personal email accounts. For my work, my folders correspond to projects I’m working on. For the most part, the folder name is the project name. For larger projects, I may have sub-folders that refer to a specific aspect of the project (e.g. “Sales Proposal” or “QA Testing”). I also discovered that it helps me to have an “Internal Products” folder with sub-folders that correspond to various areas of our products. I store emails here that include release notes or any more general information about our products that could come in helpful for future knowledge. Finally, I have more general folders for “Administrative” (policies, access instructions, etc.), “Company Information” (announcements, mostly), “Financial” (anything related to compensation or expense reports), and “Miscellaneous” (fun stuff, things that truly fit nowhere else).

A colleague of mine is also a fan of using folders for organization, but has a much different system. He is in sales/business development, where relationships are key, so he has folders for different people. This system works well for him, but would fall flat for me. This underscores the importance of finding a system that works for you.

For personal, I have far fewer folders, since I tend to use that email for a much narrower range of activities. Folders include “Friends,” “Family,” “Financial,” and “Running.”

Move emails out of your inbox.¬†The purpose of the folders you’ve created is to keep your inbox full of only emails that require current or upcoming action (I’m not as hardcore as the Inbox Zero folks who want your inbox to be ever-empty). As soon as you’ve handled an email–that is, you’ve read the information and there’s no further action, or you’ve completed whatever action the email requires–stash it in the appropriate folder. If you are diligent about this, your inbox comes closer to becoming a to-do list, since any emails there require future action from you.

Save really good sent emails in project folders. I don’t save all of my sent emails forever, but when I write one that will be useful later, I use the function in Outlook under “Options” to “Save Sent Item To” and put it in the corresponding project folder. Examples of sent emails that I do this for are emails where I’ve summarized project status, attached a key document, or answered a set of questions. Anything I send that I might want to refer back to goes in its project folder, not the general sent mail folder.

Rapidly file from your inbox using “sort by” tactics. Even an organizational master will fall behind sometimes, especially if you’ve been away from email during time off. A rule of thumb for keeping your inbox organized is that you should only have the most recent email in a thread in the inbox (Gmail does this for you automatically). In Outlook, you can achieve the same result by sorting by subject line, then moving all emails except the most recent into their project folder. The exception to this is if earlier emails have attachments you need to read; then retain those particular emails in the inbox as well.

You can also use “sort by” to mass file emails from the same person (for example, if a colleague has sent multiple communications about a single topic under different subject lines) or to locate files that have attachments.

Become a master of the search function. Ctrl-F is not just for websites! To be fair, the search function on most email clients is NOT Ctrl-F, but the same concept applies. In Outlook, you can search emails by using either Ctrl-E or the little search box at the top of your email screen. In Gmail, searching is accomplished via the search bar at the very top. When you want to find an email, I recommend starting in the folder where you think it might be and then doing a keyword search. Good keywords include:

  • The last name of the person who sent the email
  • One or more words related to the subject of the email
  • If there is an attachment, the file extension (e.g. “.pdf” or “.doc”)

If your search turns up empty or doesn’t grab the right item, you can expand it to additional folders. In Outlook, there will be a small link at the bottom of the search results that lets you do this, or you can redo the search manually from a different folder. In Gmail, you can delete the text in the search box referring to the folder name.

Use Outlook’s Notes function to pin often-used information. Outlook has a notes function which you can access through Ctrl-5 or by hitting the little Post-It icon on the bottom of the screen. I like this function to save information I use repeatedly, like the codes to dial in to my conference line. Going back to the Notes function is a lot quicker than searching for that information in my email (where I know it’s stored in my Administrative folder).

So now go forth and organize . . . and please share your best email organization tips back!