Email. It is a necessary evil in this day and age. Everyone uses it, which means that it is all too easy to become quickly overwhelmed by incoming messages. Then, incoming messages soon become old messages, and an entirely different problem rears its ugly head.
Does this sound familiar? Email should never be something to dread, and my method for keeping it organized makes sure that I never lose a message or fail to respond. Even though I can get one hundred or more emails a day, my in-box is empty at the end of each day because I have found a way to conquer the in-box. Here is how I tackle the dreaded in-box!
1. Folders, folders, folders
This seems like such an easy thing, but I cannot tell you how often people neglect this simple tool. I have folders for everything. I have subfolders for my folders. I have subfolders for my subfolders. This may seem excessive, but I am here to tell you it works. The trick is in the names you choose. Some are no-brainers. Dance emails go into the dance folder. Blog information goes into my blog folder. At work, it can be a bit trickier. Inventory is one large element of my job, but there are a lot of nuances to inventory. I could put all messages about inventory into one folder, but that would just be perpetuating the issue. Instead, I have subfolders for adjustments, price changes, new inventory, write-offs, audits, and so forth. Then, when I am finished reading and responding to a new message about a price change on a part, I can file it into my price changes folder. Easy, peasy!
2. Keep the last email in an email chain
People love email chains, don’t they? It is far easier to hit Reply (or Reply All) than it is to start a new message, so often, you can have an email conversation that could make up twenty or so different messages. This is one way to quickly clutter an in-box.
The best solution I have to that is to only keep the latest version of that conversation. You don’t need to keep everyone’s individual responses because they are already part of the email chain! Win-win for everyone!
I even do this with my gmail account. If there is a message I want to keep, like a book solicitation for which I want to remember the sender, I will delete my response to that email and keep the original. It keeps my in-box tidy, my sent box tidier and still allows me to maintain the important information I want.
3. Read and respond. Repeat as needed. Then file.
It would be so easy to read and file an email immediately after making a mental note to respond later. In fact many people do that already using rules that automatically places new messages directly into selected folders. Actually, I used to be one of those people, until I got burned one too many times for failing to respond to a message in a timely fashion.
Now, my rule is that all messages go directly to my in-box only. Then, a message stays in my in-box until I have responded to it. Here is where it gets interesting. I then delete the original email after I have responded to it. Remember my trick of only keeping the most recent version? Well, the most recent version of that email is now in my Sent folder, so that is the one I keep. If I am waiting for an answer or need further information, that message sits in my Sent folder until I receive one. Then, I delete the sent message and keep the newest version now in my in-box. Make sense?
This goes on until the situation in the message is resolved, meaning I have a satisfactory answer or I have satisfied all requests/answered questions asked of me. Once I consider an email subject finished, only then do I file the last version into a folder. That way, the only thing that gets put away in folders are things that do not require any follow-up. No untimely responses, no missed deadlines. These are archived issues to use as reference in the future if necessary.
I know that it sounds complicated, but it really is not. I have all “active” emails – those that require an answer or for which I am waiting on answers – in either my Sent folder or my In-box. The key is either-or, not both. “Inactive” emails I file into one of my many folders or delete if possible. (I keep almost everything at work because you never know when an old issue will come back to haunt you.)
4. Make the time.
We all get so many messages daily that it is easy to consider email a nuisance and it has the added benefit of being something that you can easily ignore. Shut down the program so you do not have to listen to the notifications as new messages arrive. Hide your phone for the same reasons. However, as with everything else in life, attending to messages in short bursts helps you stay on top of everything and keeps your in-box at a minimum. The key is to make time.
I tend to read all of my email in the morning while sipping my first cup of coffee. I respond to the urgent messages and keep the rest until I have more time to properly respond. Then, I consider those messages when writing out my to-do list for the day. That way, I can incorporate new projects or requests into the list of things I need to complete that day.
I also read emails after lunch to see if anything important has come in since the morning and determine whether I need to amend my to-do list. Then I check my messages once more before I leave for the day. In this, I am not answering them so much as getting an idea of what I will have to do on the morrow. I have found that most messages require very little time to respond, so setting aside those three times a day to check my messages keeps my in-box from becoming terribly full.
Of course, these are only my go-to suggestions. It is what works best for me because I work best when I do not have a lot of messages staring at me in my in-box. Everyone deals with their in-box differently though. How do you tackle your in-box? Please share your helpful hints with the rest of us!
Some great ideas! One of my biggest problems is that I check emails on my phone during lunch and delete the things I’m not interested in keeping but I prefer to respond off my computer and I often forget to go back nightly and do that. “Making Time” is the key thing I need to work on!
Ah, I understand that. Making time is the key to almost everything in life, and it can be so easy for some things but so difficult for others. I can keep my in-box empty but cannot make time to exercise. It is all about priorities.
One thing I do, for emails that are going to cause me some hassle to respond to (like, I need to ask another coworker a question before I can answer it, or order something, or go through musty files, or whatever), is that if they’ve been sitting in my inbox for a minute, I’ll put them in a special folder called “FIRST THING AM”. And then I deal with those emails first thing the next morning. It’s a good way to remind myself “yes, do this, stop procrastinating.”
That’s a good idea. My preference is to keep those types of emails as unread in my in-box. That way I know they require a bit more time to resolve, and the fact that they are unread is enough to prevent me from procrastinating because I cannot have unread emails. It’s an obsession.
Totally agree with Brandie about getting lazy about deleting emails. I get so paranoid that I’m going to need them at some point!
Still, these are great tips, and I could stand to be more organized about email. The folders really do help, particularly when you have things that you don’t want getting lost (for instance, I’m fielding job applications right now, and I really don’t want to lose track of them!).
Exactly! For my personal email, I keep emails about things I have ordered, books I have requested, login information, and the like. When I was looking for a new job, I also had one for applications sent. Then, when I receive my order, read a book I requested, or delete an account, I delete the email associated with it. I honestly do not keep much long-term in my personal email folders. My work though is a completely different subject. There, I keep almost every single one. I figure I am not paying for storage, and it is better to be safe than sorry when it comes to old work messages!
I can honestly say that I follow these same exact rules!! Folders are so important, I have them in my personal and work emails. I hate having emails in my inbox – drives me crazy. So if I can respond right away, I will. I only keep emails in my inbox if I’m awaiting a final response for something.
Where I get lazy is deleting old stuff I don’t need anymore. I need to clean out my emails more often than I do. But at least I know I have what I need saved somewhere.
It always surprises me that more people do not use folders for email. And the thing is not to auto-file in the folders. Otherwise, it is too easy to forget to open the folder and check the unread messages.
I periodically check my personal email for old messages I can delete. I do it probably once a week or so. The work stuff I almost never delete. I have it all archived, so I know it is not taking up space on the work server. I have been in a few spots where I have deleted a message that I needed later, so I try to avoid that as much as possible.