I gave up trying to keep a clean email inbox years ago. Everything I had read said that I should sort anything I needed into folders and keep my inbox clean, but I finally just gave up.
I finally decided on keeping anything that might be slightly important in my inbox where I can search for it. It turns out that, for me, this is far more productive than trying to move things around and categorize them. It was very liberating, and I found that nothing bad happened by keeping older emails in my inbox. In fact, I discovered it was easier to find things, because it only required a simple search instead of trying to find the folder where I had filed something.
However, there is a downside. It can be very easy to forget about something you need to act on later. Since I do consulting, forgetting to act on a small email request from a client could lose me several hundred dollars on that particular request and several thousand dollars on future business.
To deal with this, I’ve found that creating an email “to-do” folder for each of my clients helps me stay organized without trying to sort through thousands of messages that I need to keep just as a reference. The “to-do” folder gives me a simple place to check to see if there is anything pending and allows me to focus on a particular work context as needed. Once I’ve completed the task, I move it back out into my general inbox, where I can find it easily if I need to reference it later.
Originally published April 17, 2007.
I like to have a empty inbox, so once an email is read it goes straight to a archive folder. I only have one archive folder for all my mail – I agree that with desktop search tools now available trying to keep an ever growing hierarchical folder system is a waste of time. I use outlook 2003, it allows me to flag emails if any follow up is needed. I then use search folders set up for each of my clients to show me any flagged emails form each client. Each search folder is very quick to set up and saves the bother of moving emails back and forth between folders.
You’re right that the heirarchical folder mess that most of us have been using since we only got a few dozen emails a day just doesn’t scale. But you are still archiving your emails to folders by having to remember to put them in a ToDo folder.
I’m lucky enough to use a Mac for all my desktop computing needs nowadays, and as such use the excellent MailTags plugin for Apple Mail, like this.
I used to be a folder junkie, putting every old email into the appropriate folders and having lots of those.
Ever since gmail introduced me to labels, I’ve found it alot easier to tag and “put away” the email with all others in one place (called Archive).
For emails I have to act on, starring or flagging it would do the trick. I can bring starred emails even if they’re archived away.
Ron Larson says
Gmail is perfect for this. You just tag the mails with the client name. You can flag action items with a star, then unstar them when you are done dealing with it. I find it much easier than moving things to folders.
@Rob – The search folders sounds like an excellent idea. I’ve started using search folders to keep track of incoming bills and it seems to be working well.
Keeping a single archive folder sounds like a good idea. I may have to try that. When I was on an exchange server, I had a .pst file that I would move everything older than 6 months into. My laptop was synched with the most recent 6 months and if I needed anything else I could get it off the terminal server.
@Gaz – I put things I need to do in the to-do folder. Once they are completed I move them back into my main email list–it is kind of like tagging emails. I use Apple Mail as well, so I’ll have to check into the MailTags plugin.
@AL – I really like GMails, label concept. It would really do exactly what I need. Unfortunately I haven’t made the switch to using non-client based email all the time. I still like having it actually running on my computer. Part of this is because I frequently use very slow or high latency connections where using the web is painfully slow.
I’m going to look into the MailTags plugin that Gaz mentioned to see if it might work for me. It would be really nice if it would sync with Gmail labels.
@Ron – I’ve been impressed with Gmail, but I’m not quite ready to give up IMAP and go back to POP. But I agree, the label and tags idea is probably the best solution.
Hi Mark, good post – I’m with you 100% on keeping as much as possible in your inbox for quick searches. I’ve found flagging to-do messages to be priceless, having ‘smart searches’ set up to quickly find those flags works great.
On a side-note, I keep all Excels, Docs, and PPTs in a big folder as well. Once you come up with your personal file-naming structure, you can find your files amazingly fast, and not have to worry about where you ‘dropped’ it.
Michael Raia says
Not a lot of people using Outlook realize you can drag and drop e-mails from the Inbox to the Tasks icon on the left. This automatically creates a new task using the subject line of the e-mail as the task name and the body of the e-mail as the task body. Then you can quickly assign it a date with a reminder and save it. The original email stays in the Inbox. I use this all day long and I couldn’t get things done without it.
@Michael – Great tip! Thanks for sharing it. I haven’t used Outlook for several years, so I didn’t know about that. There is supposed to be something similar in Apple Mail in 10.5, but I haven’t looked very closely at it.
One tip I could offer, I flag my emails in Outlook and put a little note as to what needs to be done. Then you can choose your fields on your inbox so it shows the text of your flag. This has helped me tremendously, so I have a one word reminder as to what needs to be done w/ a particular email.
Julian Schrader says
I use Apple Mail as well and like to keep a clean Inbox to immediately spot new/pending mails.
Once I process my Inbox, I read and decide which one of three actions I do to each mail:
1.) Delete (best one)
2.) Archive (contains information I may need again)
3.) Apply GTD
…whereas option #3 means: If the “2 minute rule” applies, get it done and delete or archive, if not, create an item in Things.app (Ctrl + Option + Command + Spacebar) with the mail’s subject & archive (automatically creates a link back to the e-mail).
Lori Krolik says
I like your thinking, but another suggestion be Michale Linenberger of Total Workday Control is to transfer all of your processed mail to a “processed mail folder” that you can search as needed. Only keep in your inbox messages you need to act on. You don’t even have to create folders for filing messages. If you use the sorting function or have a good search tool, like yahoo desktop search you can easily find whatever message you are looking for.
Mark Shead says
@Julian & Lori – the problem I ran into with keeping things in another folder is that it makes it harder to find if I’m on a different computer or my Blackberry. I’m also experimenting with moving any ToDo items to OmniFocus and so far that seems to be working pretty well.
I tried using Apple’s Todo, but it made a mess of things on my Exchange server. With the better Exchange integration in Snow Leopard I might have to try it again. Thanks for the suggestion.
Jeff Miles says
Michael Hyatt (The CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishers) wrote this blog entry (http://michaelhyatt.com/2008/06/yes-you-can-stay-on-top-of-email.html/) about how he handles his email and he embraces the 1 folder concept. I tend to agree with him. There is a lot of mental baggage associated with having a busy inbox where if you move them to a processed folder you get the search benefit you mentioned but the clean slate benefit as well. I like your idea of To-Do folders though and might have to give that a shot.
I went with this system a couple years ago and haven’t looked back. One twist is that I have a mail rule that takes all my inbox mail and moves it to another “home” folder. That way, my replies stay in the same folder as well. Any messages I create still go to my Sent folder, but they are easy to drag back to the Home folder until the topic is dead. Then all the various messages can easily be dragged to the archive folder (one folder per year for ease of pruning to an archive file when I run over my mailbox limit).
I delete very few messages anymore. It wastes too much time deciding if I should keep something or not.
Someone else mentioned this as well. For meeting request emails, I drag them to my calendar, then just have to enter the date and time particulars. For emails that require action on my part, I drag them to my Task folder. All I do there is put the next day I intend to look at the task as my followup date. My tasks are sorted by followup date, so they are sorted by priority.
It’s not perfect yet, but it’s about as simple as I could make it in daily use.
Bill Bennett says
I take a similar approach. It’s like email zero except I leave todo items sitting in my in-box, rarely more than five or six items. That’s not enough to become a problem and an automatic reminder every time I read my incoming mail.
Yay for Gmail’s “Priority Inbox” now! :)