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Zach Peters
Zach Peters

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My method of organizing email

Today I wanted to share a quick email organization tip that I've refined over the years.  Ideally, I try to pull every piece of relevant information out of email as often as possible and stick it into Evernote or an org-mode notes file. Getting information out of email and into an information system of some sort gets you 90% of the way, but there will always be that bit of info you missed in the flood of new emails.  To deal with this I follow the process below to increase my ability to find the information I need.

  1. The first order of business is to get information out of email. Email is a great tool for communication but it was never intended to be an information repository. Search will almost always be cumbersome and even if you find the email you were looking for it can take a great deal of cognitive effort to reconstruct what the train of thought was or way that email was important.  Email generally doesn't allow for meta-data so by capturing and "editorializing" the information in your own note-taking system you can add in the relevant context

  2. Practice Inbox Zero.  There are really only three "states" that email should live in.  By practicing the art of quickly classifying emails in these categories you can quickly "deal with" large volumes of email rather than letting it build up:

    1. "New" - email that you haven't seen yet
    2. "Actions" - something you need to do
    3. "Archive" - something you need to hang on to
  3. Here is my modified version of "Inbox Zero" with the different folders I have found fit my work-style feel free to improve on this.

    1. 0-Action - Emails that are requests or reminders of things i need to do.  If there is a specific task/deadline I will generally remove this to my "official" todo list in a different application and archive the email.  Generally what is in here are reminders or items I need to do sometime.
    2. 1-Hold - Informational emails that i need close at hand but do not represent a "todo" item.  This should be a temporary holding place for "favorites".  An example was a code that I needed for access to a system.  I knew I'd only need it for a short amount of time so I moved the email there and then moved it to 2-Archive after a week.
    3. 2-Archive - This is where you put everything that isn't in another folder.  Storage is cheap.  Save Everything.  Rely on good search abilities in your mail client to retrieve anything that you haven't deemed important enough to add to your notes.  If you spend more than three minutes searching for something add it to your note-taking system for the future.
    4. 3-Feedback - This is where I keep positive (and negative) feedback to refer back to periodically.
    5. 4-Awesome - Funny emails, pick-me-ups, etc.  It's good to make time during the day to stop being so serious and enjoying work
    6. 5-Templates - If i write the same email or answer the same question more than once I create a blank email and use it as a template

What organization systems do you use to keep the flood of email/information manageable? Please let me know!

Top comments (1)

ferricoxide profile image
Thomas H Jones II

I've never understood the whole "I can't keep up with my email" thing: I've been using automated filtering since getting my first email address on a Unix-based mail system back in 1989. All these years later and it's still hard to beat piping all your mail through procmail.

And, while email clients don't typically afford you good ways of adding metadata to email, use of email aliases is a partial substitute. If you give everybody you communicate with either a wholly unique email address or just add "+" to the recipient-name, you can then use pretty much any mail client to filter things for you. Having everything go to specific folders is a great way to keep mail manageable.

Note: I've had the same email address September of 1995. When your address is that old, automating your inbound email organization is the only way to keep the address usable.