10 Tips for Organizing Your E-mail

E-mail. No matter how immersed we get in RSS feeds, Flickr, instant messages, texting, Twitter, and all the other new ways to communicate, for most web workers e-mail remains the prime method of dealing with work – and one of the biggest challenges. If the relentless ding sound of the inbox delivers 300 messages a day to you (not an unusual load for any long-time web worker), then every year you can end up with around a hundred thousand messages to wade through. This is an especially overwhelming problem when you have the need to go back and find a particular message. If you have a decade-long archive of a million e-mails, where do you begin?

Fortunately, a lot of thought has gone into this problem, and although nothing is perfect, there are plenty of tools and systems to choose from. Here’s a selection of ideas to get you started on turning your e-mail archive from a disaster area into a useful resource.

What’s Your Style? – Broadly speaking, people fall into three groups when it comes to organizing large amounts of information. Searchers opt for minimal work up front on the grounds that they can use tools to find what they’re looking for later. Filers believe that everything has a place and that it should be in that place so they can find it instantly. Taggers are somewhere in between; they depend on search, but like to sprinkle hints around to make it easier for the search engine. You need to know which group you’re in to know which tools will be best for you. Searchers won’t be happy with systems that expect them to do lots of filing, and taggers aren’t impressed with just leaving everything in a heap. The good news is that there is software to support all of these usage patterns by now.

Make Your Folders Work for You – There’s no single structure of folders or mailboxes that works for everyone. If you’re hardcore anti-filing, you can get by with just leaving everything in your inbox forever; I’ve known some very successful e-mail users who have done just that. At the other extreme, you can build up a baroque structure of hundreds of filing folders, which can be great if you actually use it. If you’re going to build up a folder structure, take the time to think about what’s the most important dimension of e-mail recall for you. One failing of most current e-mail applications is that any given message can only be filed in a single folder (well, you can make copies, but who wants to go to all that bother?). So think about what you’re most likely to remember when you want to hunt up a message in the future. If it’s the sender, you should build your hierarchy based on people. If it’s the project, then a set of project folders makes sense. Avoid starting to build a system where you have some folders for people and some for projects; when you get that first e-mail from your boss about the Shoofly project, you’ll be frozen in indecision as your eyes dart back and forth between the Boss folder and the Shoofly folder.

Beef up Desktop Search – If you’re on the Mac, you’ve got Spotlight, but PC users aren’t so lucky. Searchers on the PC will benefit from installing one of the many applications that will index their e-mail for faster finding in the future: Copernic Desktop Search, Google Desktop, Windows Desktop Search, and X1 are the leading contenders in this category. You’ll want to try more than one to see which one appeals to you most, as they differ in the flexibility of search, their ability to show incremental results, and the usefulness of their previews.

Use an Organizer Layer – Programs like Nelson Email Organizer and Omea Pro (both for Microsoft Outlook) provide an indexing and filing layer on top of your regular e-mail application. Typicaly these programs add features such as the ability to file a single message in more than one folder (remember the Boss and Shoofly?), more thorough indexing, faster searching, and their own system of applying metadata to messages. ClearContext IMS Pro (also for Outlook) combines automatic project-based filing with a GTD-like automatic prioritization system for incoming e-mails.

File Your Sent Items Too – If you’re a filer, don’t neglect that huge folder full of sent items. It might make more sense to create individual Sent Items folders for each client or project, and file the appropriate messages where they’re easy to find. You can even set up rules to do the filing for you.

Tag for Organizing – If you use del.icio.us or flickr, you understand the power of tags. You can apply that same power to your e-mail with add-ins like MailTags (for Mac Mail) or Taglocity (for Outlook). Once you start tagging your mail, you gain the power to search and group by tags, giving you the power of filing in multiple folders without the bother of actually creating the folders.

Use Virtual Folders – Mail calls them Smart Mailboxes. Outlook calls them Search Folders. In either case, the idea is the same: you can set up a folder whose contents depend on criteria you set, rather than messages you file in it. Obvious uses include folders for unread mail, old but unanswered mail, mail from particularly important people, and newsletters identified by subject line. Virtual folders are another good way to create the illusion that things are filed in more than one place.

Let Your Rules Do the Walking – You’ve got a rules engine in your e-mail client; use it. If you file every single message from Joe in the Friends folder, set up a rule to do this for you and save pointless seconds of dragging and dropping. Combine this with a virtual folder showing unread mail and you can have the rule clean out your inbox as soon as the mail arrives.

Use a Filing Assistant – If you have lots of folders, dragging and dropping messages to file them can get to be, well, a drag. It’s worth your while to find and use an application that streamlines this process. Examples include SpeedFiler for Outlook and Mail Act-On or MsgFiler for Mail on the Mac.

Throw It Away – The simplest tip of all is the most radical: stop saving all that e-mail! Oh, sure, there are some messages related to active projects that you need to keep, and mail from your sweetie, and the stuff that the tax man may want to see any time in the next seven years. But those daily newsletters? The meeting notices? The office jokes? The spam? Why are you saving all that stuff, anyhow? Any message that you can bring yourself to delete is one less message to file, one less message to slow down your searches, one less message to fret about in the future. If you can actually develop the fortitude to start taking out the trash, all of the other strategies for organizing are easier and faster as well.

How do you organize your own e-mail after you’re done with it? What tools and systems work best for you?


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