Organising Your Emails

This article is for people who:

  • Are overwhelmed by too many emails (spam or otherwise – what is spam?)
  • Want to be more organised with their emails

A common request I get is to help people organise their emails. There are two main ways to organise emails. The first one, which I call Zero Game, is for people who need to be highly organised (often a business user or for people who enjoy high levels of organisation). The second method is called Folders and Tags.

What are Emails?

As well as being a method of digital communication, emails are really just information of some kind. Information should lead to some form of action.

Types of Information

  • An appointment – this is information that has a location, a date and an action (example a doctor’s appointment has a location (doctor’s surgery), a date and an action (you need to do something when you’re there, in this case see a doctor)
  • A to do list item – an action with no specified date it needs to be done on (it may have an optional location, such as a specific shop to buy printer inks etc).
  • Filing – information that you might need to retrieve later but has no obvious action, date or location. It is pure information that may have a future action. One example is pension information, you don’t need it until you change, update or claim your pension. Car insurance documents (or copies of them) might be another example.
  • Delegate – Information that is not actionable or relevant directly to you (you need to forward the email to someone else, or phone them to tell them about it)
  • Transitory – information that needs to be read in this moment, but doesn’t need to be filed or acted on in the future. You can either do the task immediately or it is just information that you will remember (an example might be a joke or a weather report). You don’t need to take any action and you don’t need to store the information in your filing system.
  • Spam – information that is useless to anyone. A common example is a nefarious or intrusive piece of advertising that you didn’t sign up for. See what is spam? for more details
  • Waiting – you need to wait for some external event to occur (this might be that you are waiting for someone to get back to you or for something else to happen). Once the external event occurs you can then process this properly.

Most email systems have what is know as an Inbox. This is the place where all emails arrive (unless you have an email filter (also known as an email rule) set up. This is similar to the in-tray used in offices. Someone will place documents and letters into you in-tray ready for processing. This is also the intention of an email Inbox. The idea is that after processing emails you then have none left in your Inbox. They are either stored in an email folder or they are processed in another way (see the two methods below, namely Zero Game and Filters and Rules.

Zero Game (Expert Level)

As the name implies the idea is to have close to zero emails in your email system. This is a digital equivalent of the tidy desk policy some offices utilise. A tidy desk policy is where at the end of each day you should have a completely tidy desk (it implies that everything is in it’s rightful place ready for the next day’s work). As previously mentioned this method is more for businesses or for people who enjoy being highly organised (due to having a lot of emails).

Here is an overview of what to do with each different type of email you receive. Note that almost all emails are deleted (except the type of email known as Waiting).

Type Example Description Action(s)
Spam Advert A useless advert or some other nefarious advertisement Mark as spam
Transitory A joke or weather report Information that only needs to be read once in this moment (it doesn’t need to be stored) Read + delete email
To Do Someone has asked you to do something An action with no date (an action with an associated date is an appointment – see next) Add to your to do list + delete email
Appointment A meeting request An action with a date Add to your diary or calendar + delete email
Waiting Email reminder from a friend to organise a Christmas meal A request to do something but you can’t do it until some other task (by you or another person) is completed Put in a waiting folder (either in your email, or some other suitable place)
Filing Car Insurance Documents Information which needs to be stored in the medium to long term File (in electronic form, e.g. Evernote or print out) + delete email
Delegate Someone emailed you something but it was intended for someone else This has nothing to do with you but is important to someone else Forward email to someone else (or tell them in another way) + delete email

If you want more information on this then contact me or leave a comment below. An organisational system that can be used well alongside this method is called GTD (Get Things Done) which was created by an organisational expert called David Allen.

The above method can feel like overkill for some people’s needs. We discuss a more common and easier system below:

Filters and Rules (Intermediate Level)

Most email systems have folders, and some have tags (sometimes known as Categories, e.g. in Outlook). Tags are better if they are available, however folders are still useful. You can create folders and tags such as:

  • Business
  • Friends
  • Family
  • Bills etc

Email Graphic

You can sort emails manually by moving them to the folders, however a more efficient method is to utilise email rules (sometimes known as filters).

Rules and Filters

A rule tells the email system how to process a certain email when it arrives. Certain actions are taken dependent on certain attributes of the email. Some attributes might be who the email was sent from, or certain keywords in the subject line.

Here are some example rules:

  • If email is sent from ‘fred@hotmail.com’ then move to the Folder called Friends
  • If email is sent from ‘annoying@gmail.com’ then delete it
  • If email subject contains the words ‘meeting’ then move to the Folder called Meetings

When your email system receives a new email it will check to see if any rules (or filters) you have set up are applicable. For example if you receive an email from fred@hotmail.com then the system will automatically move it into the folder called Friends. In this way your emails are automatically processed and sorted. Any emails that don’t match one of the rules will remain in the Inbox for you to manually process (i.e. you can manually move an email from your Inbox to another folder, or you can delete it manually).

As each email system implements this differently it’s difficult to have a generic tutorial for all emails systems. I would therefore recommend Googling something like the following in order to find a tutorial that guides you how to do this on your particular email system:

Again let me know if you’d like to learn more about how to organise your emails. I’m always hoping to make people’s lives easier. Although there is a learning curve with the above methods, it should benefit you by helping your email to become more organised.

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