tips to organize and keep your email inbox under control

I apply some basic principles to keep my inbox under control that I’ll share with you in this post.

Of course, they are not meant to be the best solution for your specific situation but they do work fine for me.

I’ll start with what I do NOT do.

I do not use my Inbox as my « to do » and « follow-up » lists. I use paper for these and find it most effective after trying many electronic versions. It may be because I memorize better when I write things manually, and it is also a routine to  prioritize for the day tasks that are urgent, important and those than can wait.

I do not copy xillions of people on emails, only the ones who absolutely need to know in Carbon Copy and the ones who need to take action in destination « To: ».

I try not to send too many emails. The more you send, the more you receive.

Instead of systematically using email, I try to select the best communications media based on purpose. Instant messaging is way faster for short exchanges, questions, checking availability… Phone, conference call or physical meeting is best to resolve issues and address complex issues.

I do not mix professional and personal mailboxes. I try to totally separate work related emails from others. I never give my professional email address on any web site, social tools, registration forms… This way, I receive very few spams in my professional mailbox and I can easily handle private emails in a separate time window (most often early morning or lunch break).

Now, let’s see with what I actually do.

I have created folders on my hard drive with the same hierarchy as Microsoft Outlook folders for each project and key activities.

I detach all Outlook attachments to these directories using the « Attachment Remover » add on. This way the size of my mail file on the server and local disk remain reasonable (i.e. within our internal company limitations that are quite low).

I use 5 Outlook preferred « folders »: Inbox, Flagged , Unread, Sent, All Mails (for search). It’s an easy way to see at a glance how many new messages came in the Inbox, how many are flagged (Red, Yellow or Green, I’ll explain this further down the list), how many were automatically filed but unread (Unread – Inbox), how many I sent that may need to be filed for reference or future usage. I did surround the word folders above by quotes because « Unread » and « All Mails » are « search folders » rather that traditional filing folders.

I use rules to automatically file messages coming from specific email accounts or containing specific keywords in their title. This is especially useful for company news, admin items (expense claims, HR, newsletters, « comité d’entreprise »…). A count of the unread ones appears in the favorite folder called « Unread », so I can check them when I have time and they do not fill up my inbox. Once read, I usually delete these.

I usually read every e-mail that is not automatically filed within 24 hours

To get back to the topic « to do » and « follow up is required » emails. I use flags as follows:

  • All « to do » emails receive a red flag (until they are completed) and are filed in the appropriate folder for the project of activity they relate to.
  • All « follow-up is required » emails are flagged in yellow and are filed in the proper folders.
  • All « To Read Later » type emails get a Green flag and are then also filed in the proper folder.

I use Gmail Labels to do the same on my private inbox.

I review all red flagged e-mails daily and yellow ones at least weekly to ensure progress.

If the message requires a response (i.e. I’m on the to: list, or I really want to add something): I immediately respond when I think that it won’t take me more than a few minutes. The reason is that it is very time expensive to read multiple times the same email and put yourself back into context to answer. And I then file the message and my answer. When the response will take longer, I flag the message in red and file it in the appropriate folder based on the topic or project. When the response is to forward the message to a colleague or team member and follow up, I flag the message in Yellow,  forward it with a note to explain why I am forwarding and file it in the appropriate folder.

I file or delete all other messages that do not require a response. The file or delete choice is arbitrary and, as a matter of facts,  I tend to keep more that I delete (probably too much based on how often I need to retrieve such messages).

I do use mobile mail and I have it set up with manual synchronization. This allows me to read and respond to emails via the handset when it is an appropriate time for me rather than suffer constant interruptions.

As you can read, nothing fancy but it does work for me. What works for you?

3 réflexions sur “tips to organize and keep your email inbox under control

  1. Ping : La liste des choses à NE PAS faire « Dantotsu PM

  2. Ping : checklist pour le courrier électronique par Seth Godin «

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