Disney Week is over, so let’s get down to business. And I’ll pretend I’m not hearing the music from Mulan in my head…
This week, I’m going to share an idea to organize your emails and clear your inbox with only three folders. And here’s the best part: you can use this system for nearly all your paper documents and files as well.
By the time I left grad school I had four email accounts, and each was loaded with hundreds of reference emails. I’d be looking for a past message from a professor or a flight confirmation, and, while the search function helps, it can be time consuming. I frequently lost tasks within the inbox black hole too. Plus, it’s been proven that our minds get stressed by information overload, whether or not we think it affects us (and in my case, I’m well aware that it does). So I decided to find a better way to handle emails.
I looked through my inbox and realized we get the same types of emails as we do standard documents: things to respond to, things to do, things we’re waiting on, and things we’ll reference later (oh, and trash, but you should know where to put those). So I decided to set up three folders:
- Action – Things I need to do
- Hold – Information I’m waiting on (ex. need a response, short-term reference)
- File – Information I’ll need to reference later
As for the things I needed to respond to, I took care of it in one massive batch at first. But now, if it will take me less than two minutes, I respond right away (a habit I learned from the popular GTD system). Otherwise, I consider it a task and it goes in the Action bin.
Here’s how the system works:
Action: This is the most important folder in your work email, in particular. Any task/response that will take longer than two minute goes in this folder and is added to my master to-do list. When I’m looking for the tasks that need to be done I sort by “From” or “Subject”, depending on the subject. If I get a new response through an email chain (and the prior emails are still at the bottom) I simply replace the older email (typically it gets deleted or put in the file bin). When a task is done, I either delete the emails or file them for future reference.
Hold: This one’s kind of a mixed bag, but it really comes in handy. It’s for information you’ll need to act on or for reference in the near future. For work this usually contains tasks I can’t act on yet (either due to time or needing a response) and information related to future events. At home this is the spot for travel reservations and order confirmations. The trick with this folder is to review it frequently to determine if the contents should be moved to the action or file folders (or can be deleted).
File: So this may be where I stretched the truth on only needing three folders, but technically I still consider this part of my inbox system where the actual reference folders are part of my general email system (it’s like your inbox vs. your file cabinet). Any emails I think I’ll need later on get put in the file folder. This requires some real discernment, because, like a lot of people, I get tempted to keep everything. Only keep the emails you’ll really need in the future; it will save you a lot of time and space in the long run (even virtual storage isn’t endless). Once a month I go through my file folder and empty it into the appropriate reference folders. With my work email I even skip the file step and drop emails directly into their reference spots as they come in. The key here is to make sure you’re actually filing these and not letting them pile up!
I’m not going to lie: it took me hours to get all those emails sorted at first. But now my inbox is empty, and stays empty continuously. When I get the day’s emails I simply handle them according to my system. And because I’m only dealing with a few at a time, it’s easy to determine which are really trash and which are important. Another great help has been Unroll.me, which showed me all of the useless subscription lists I had been on and let me remove them in minutes. Now all of the sales emails I only need to see when I’m shopping are rolled up into a single daily email.
This has helped me keep on top of my emails so well that it’s been implemented on all of my accounts. Here are a few more ways to take advantage of it:
- Use it for your incoming mail (bins like this or this are great for it)
- Use it for your paper work/home inbox (a file cabinet helps for reference documents)
- Modify it for spring cleaning (ex. clothes: action = needs tailoring/repair, hold = seasonal, file = put away)
- Remember, if it doesn’t fit in any of the three categories it’s either something that can be done immediately or it’s trash. Handle it accordingly.
- Schedule a date with yourself once a month (or week, depending on quantity) to empty your File folder. Use this time to also scan your Action and Hold files for content that can be moved.
- Set your inbox folder to show you how many emails it contains, not only the unread ones. This notification can remind you of your goal to keep it empty. Do the same with your Action and Hold files to stay alert to how many tasks you’ve got on your plate.
- Use an email management program like Microsoft Outlook to access all of your accounts in one place.
I hope this can help you spring clean your inbox and gain some sanity. Let me know how it works for you. As I test out new organization systems I’ll be sure to pass them along, so be sure to sign up for my email list to stay up to date!