Does your email situation totally bum you out? As it turns out, organizing people's inboxes is a challenge that excites me, so I like to think that my own inbox is in pretty good shape. So I've outlined my email inbox organization techniques for you to implement in your own inbox so you don't totally dread opening your email!
Why is it important to have an organized email inbox?
Having a disorganized inbox takes a toll on your peace of mind, happiness, productivity, and creativity. Clutter, whether physical or digital, "competes for your attention, resulting in decreased performance and increased stress" and "erodes your ability to focus and perform creative tasks" (Life Hacker).
Here's my thorough structure for decluttering and managing your inbox:
Step 1: Mass unsubscribe and delete!
I love the idea of subscribing to certain newsletters to receive great content, promotions, and so on... but the occasional 10% off promotion isn't worth the cost of my sanity when dozens of emails go unread every month, taking up valuable real estate in my inbox. Wouldn't you agree? Plus a lot of retail stores send an email every day, which is way, way too frequently in my opinion.
So for this first step, be honest with yourself about which newsletters you actually read and unsubscribe from the newsletters that don't make the cut. Use the online app Unroll.me, which compiles a list of all of your subscriptions so you can quickly select the ones you'd like to unsubscribe from. The app then unsubscribes for you so you don't have to do it manually. The best part? It's free to use!
B. Delete, delete, delete
Once you've finished unsubscribing from any unnecessary newsletters, delete all past newsletters that are currently taking up space in your inbox by searching for the email address of each individual newsletter, selecting all of the emails that show up, and moving the emails to the trash. Repeat this process with each newsletter. I'll bet all of these old newsletters alone take up half of your inbox space, if not more.
Step 2: Treat your inbox like a filing cabinet with folders and subfolders
Think about what kinds of emails you need to keep on file, such as client communications, event information, emails from your landlord, etc. and create the same folders for these categories as you would for a real filing cabinet. Your mail system will automatically organize these folders alphabetically, so if you want the items listed in a certain order, preface the name with 1, 2, 3, and so on. Create subfolders for sections with different kinds of content to organize such as Accounting -> Bills, and Accounting -> Financial planning.
You may want to create a "Read later" folder for newsletters that you'd really like to read but know you won't have time to in the next couple days (this system works as long as you remember to regularly keep up with this folder). You should also create an "Upcoming actions" folder for items that will need your attention soon, but do not require immediate action. Keep in mind that you can always add or remove folders as your needs change.
Once you've finished establishing your folders and subfolders, start to move the remaining emails in your main inbox into these folders — except for emails that require an action this week, which we'll get to in the next step. You can do this as a mass move as well by, for example, searching for your accountant's email address, selecting all of the emails that show up in the search result and moving them into the Accounting folder. If in this process you come across more emails that don't need to be kept, move them in to the trash right away. This part of the process may be time consuming, but once the overload of emails have been sorted, maintaining this structure will be a breeze in your day-to-day.
Step 3: Handle action items — this is KEY
As mentioned in the previous step, what you should be left with in your main inbox is only current action items. By main inbox I mean the page you land on when you first open your email browser or app, and by current action items I'm referring to any emails that require an action from you this week, whether it be reading the email, responding, forwarding it or sending a file.
To start, star or flag all of the emails for which the action hasn't yet been taken. Then once the action has been completed, either delete it, move it to the designated folder if it needs to be kept on file, or un-star it and keep it in your main inbox only if you're waiting on more information, a reply, an action from someone else, or if it needs to be kept there as a reminder for a different action. In other words, only keep an un-starred action item in your main inbox if your action is complete but the item itself isn't complete. You can also customize your settings so that the starred items show up in their own section, followed by everything else below so that it's totally clear what your action items are.
Step 5: Manage it!
Give yourself some adjustment time to get used to this system, commit to it and get into the habit of unsubscribing, deleting, filing, and/or starring. Never go back to leaving emails unread for weeks... it's not worth it!
The new email protocol
As a refresher, after you've taken the above steps to get your inbox to a manageable and organized state, here's what to do when a new email comes in:
- Read it
- Decide if you can...
- Delete it (if you won't be needing it),
- File it in one of your folders (it's important but no action is required at this time),
- Star it and keep in the main inbox (if an action by you is needed this week), or
- Keep it un-starred and in the main inbox (if the item needs to be complete this week but you're waiting on an action from someone else).
Finally, here are a few more tips for keeping your email organized:
- Regularly empty your trash and junk folder.
- If you get busy and your inbox starts to look scary again, dedicate the same day and time each week to sift through the clutter and get back on track.
- Search for an email within a specific folder, or by a specific email address, so that you have less to look through.
Header image via unsplash.com