How Do You Organize Your Email, Aliza Sherman?


Organize email? I must confess I use the term “organize” loosely. As I examine my own system for sorting and filing emails in Gmail, I cringe.

For many years, I used Eudora as my email client. I loved it. I could back my emails up easily, and I could create folders, and folders within those folders, and could further nest folders as deep as I wanted them. So for example, I could have a “Clients” folder and, within that, have a folder for each client, then within each client folder, have one for each project I was working on, and then also have an “Archival” folder to dump past project folders. I felt so organized.

gmailinboxmay2009I recently saw a presentation at Ignite Anchorage by photographer Oscar Avellaneda about email organization using Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu principles. That presentation rocked my world while I watched it, but putting his incredible tips into actual practice feels like climbing Mount Everest to me. It ain’t gonna happen in this lifetime, no matter how much I dream about it.

Since adopting Gmail several years ago, I’ve found that its drawbacks are almost equal to its benefits but am now too entrenched in the habit of using it to change (see my post about trying to adopt Postbox, a nifty email client that I probably really should be using). For me, the biggest drawback with Gmail is the label/folder system. I know there is some funky way of nesting folders, but I just can’t seem to be able to figure it out.

So I now have all the labels sitting on one level, instead of being nested, which makes for a terrifyingly long list of folders in which to file my emails. I put asterisks in front of the folders that I want to rise to the top of my label list for easier access. I also move archival folders — about a dozen of them — to the bottom of the list by putting a “Z” in front of them.

Another big struggle for me is importing emails from some of my other accounts into my main account. If I import them using POP3, they automatically get put into one of the folders instead of my inbox, and I sometimes end up missing them.

My scariest folder is labeled “Read This!” That’s where I have my favorite email newsletters and RSS feed subscriptions go. Right now there are 2,097 unread emails in there. I shudder to think of it and do occasionally delete a few pages of the oldest ones in a fit of panic over the huge amounts of information I’m just unable to consume.

For clients, I struggle with adding more individual client folders because of the unwieldy length of my folder list, so many client emails are relegated to “Client Misc,” for no other reason than I’m trying not to create any more new labels right now.

I’m open to any ideas, suggestions, and mind melds to shake myself free of these bad email organizational habits. And I have to confess, I’m so glad this isn’t a series called “What’s In Your Inbox?” With 9,743 unread emails in my Inbox, I’m paralyzed with fear. 9,744. 9,745…

How do you organize your email?



Good filtering is the key. Everyone gets tons of stuff that’s not vital, so filter it and automatically label it, mark it as read, and archive it. I use ‘read’ and ‘dealt_with’ labels and go through those emails when I can be bothered. There’s no point being nagged by unimportant stuff.

It’s also worth knowing that * alphabetizes between _ and •, so tiered labels are easy.

Michelle / chelpixie

You are not alone.

There are many people that are behind you and need the same help! Here’s some good tips I can give as a virtual assistant/project manager.

1. If you use FF3, download Better Gmail and activate Folders4Gmail. Use this to create a list of folders that collapses.

2. Sart with general labels, then add in specifics. I do Clients -> Client name. (Sounds like you’ve gotten so far on that, the collapsing should make it easier to see.)

3. Archive everything more than 2 weeks old. Just DO this. Don’t think about it, don’t worry about it, just do it. Gmail will save it to be searched if you need it, but you probably won’t.

4. Once you’ve gotten the old stuff out, focus on getting the rest cleared. Be ruthless, delete, archive and label pages quickly. How?

Set up labels (which you’ve already done), change your Gmail settings to show 100 emails on each page, then use your keyboard shortcuts ( to first mark everything that can be deleted. One round trip through all the emails to delete. Back to the first page and then another round trip to archive everything you don’t need to see or put on a to do list.

Once you’re down to the emails you need to act on, act on them. Respond to anything that will take less than 2 minutes. Delegate anything that will take longer to a to do list. Archive them as you go. (Another trick? Use the Send and Archive button for Gmail, Gmail Settings -> Labs -> Send and Archive.)

5. After you’ve gotten this organized, stick with the routine. Get into the habit of checking email, archive, respond as necessary, add to dos as necessary and keep the inbox clear as possible.

I currently do all of the above and have done so for clients to get them organized so they can move forward with a new email process. The first steps are paralyzing until they’re done.

Try these things and see if it helps. Also, as an aside, I enjoy OmniFocus and Batchbook but you can use any project manager to keep track of the to do list.

Please don’t crucify yourself if you have 10 or so emails in your inbox. Inbox zero isn’t the ultimate goal here, taking away the stress of looking at your inbox is.


You should use inbox zero techniques, and abuse of the archive button…

Meryl Evans

Gmail changed the Thunderbird iMap process. It used to be if you had the following folders in TBird:

– Apple
– Orange

That it would do the same in Gmail. Now Gmail does this:


You have three labels in the same hierarchy instead of having apple and orange below Test only. Make sense? The / didn’t work. TBird wouldn’t let me use it.

George Entenman

Like David I was going to suggest labeling with slashes: for me Thunderbird (imap) does a beautiful job of making hierarchical collapsable menus of them. I used it all day today.

I still like the web interface, however, because it can apply multiple labels to the same post.

Perhaps having multiple paths to email, by client, by priority, by topic – all of them – might help?

Dave Robb

I agree with GTD Inbox – but unlike the other commenter – i use the status labels religiously. Every email is either Action, Waiting On, Calendered, or Finished. Zero Inbox every day

I integrate this with Gmail tasks for creating checklists for going away and so forth. I also have a single list in Gmail Tasks called Do in the next hour . ..where i can quickly assess my Actions and hit shift T on those i wantto list for immeidate action.

I really don’t understand why someone wants nested folders in Gmail. I have minimal folders – the whole point of Gmail to me is to stop using folders and use its awesome search capability. You can enable Quick Links in gmail to create the same functionality as folders on the fly =- if you really feel you must have some of your groupings saved for easy reference.
I’ve been running with Gmail and GTD inbox for two years. and the best part is i have stopped looking for alternatives…i really think its the go!

Meryl Evans

@David, that doesn’t work anymore. It did for me a while ago — but not anymore. I found it by accident when I was using IMAP between Thunderbird and Gmail.

Or maybe it only works if you have sub-folders in Thunderbird (or other email app) and Gmail.


Add a “/” between the folder label and the subfolder label to nest them


I was about ready to ditch Google Mail until I could do sub-labels, which meant better organization and that accessing Google Mail with IMAP and Gnome Evolution is easier. I like using an offline e-mail application because there are some extra tools (like search folders based on unread messages, or messages from particular people, regardless of the folder they’re in) to help me stay on top of the messages.


Try Gmail Multiple Inboxes in combo with Filters. It will probably not solve your issue but should ease the pain. I use 3 additional Inboxes:

1. Starred – these are starred by me and by some Filters – the most important emails, which means to follow up

2. Project Management – this contains emails coning from workflows

3. Accounting – these are invoice related

You can have up to 5(five, cinco, пять, fünf)!!! inboxes

I think Google jumped on this web 2.0 tagging wagon and I don’t know if this will pay off in the long run

Meryl Evans

Aliza, I have two folders for newsletters…

* NewNewsletters
* Research

NewNewsletters are my must reads. The ones I never want to miss. This is kept manageable with 5 to 15 new messages per day.

Research are the newsletters that come in handy for my work assignments. So if I am working on client’s newsletter, which covers management issues — I go to the Research folder to look at the newsletters covering the topic. That folder can get as big as it wants. I delete anything older than a month.


Hands down the best organization system that I’ve found for GMail is GTDInbox. I don’t currently use any of the task management features it provides (although I used to), but I still tag my emails by project & context. In addition, following zero inbox (processing all e-mails so your inbox is always empty), makes it really easy to keep organized in GMail.

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