Email organization: Two effective strategies for organizing your inbox

Do you sometimes feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of emails in your inbox? Occasionally forget to follow up on a message because it has slipped too far down on the list? Find yourself asking “What's the best way to organize emails?”

Whether your goal is Inbox Zero or you’d just like to feel more on top of things, we show you two strategies you can use to organize mail in your inbox– and keep it organized!

Stack of files and documents on messy desktop, PC monitor in background
Can’t find anything in the mess? Try one of these effective email management methods.

Email organization strategies

There are lots of email management strategies out there – like Inbox Zero, a strict approach to keeping your email inbox almost empty at all times, or the OHIO method of “only handle it once.”

However, you won’t be able to stick to any clean-inbox method if it’s not right for you. Your main goal should be a system that will let you sort through and prioritize incoming email messages and find them when needed. This means getting to know the organizational features of your inbox, like folders, filters and flags, and applying them effectively.
Good to know: What is the Inbox Zero method?

The phrase “Inbox Zero” was coined by Merlin Mann in 2006. It refers to the amount of time your mind should be in your email inbox. In other words, it’s a method to keep an employee’s attention focused on doing their best work rather than spending all their time dealing with floods of messages.

This might mean setting aside certain periods of the day for processing email and keeping it closed the rest of the time. When the time comes to focus on your inbox, if an email can be dealt with in two minutes or less you should handle it immediately. This keeps clutter from building up. Mann also encourages people to be ruthless about deleting they emails they don’t need to keep or to respond to.

How to use folders to keep a clean inbox

Method 1: Topic-based email folders

Take a look at the type of messages you receive. Whether you are sorting through your work emails or personal inbox, you may find it most useful to create folders based on a specific topic, like “Titan project,” “Sales meeting” or “Schoolboard.” When incoming emails arrive relating to one of these topics, check to see if they require any action on your part or contain useful information you will need later:
  • If you need to reply, delegate or carry out a task, perform that action immediately – and then either delete the message or archive it by moving it to the appropriate folder.
  • If you don’t have the time or other required resources to deal with a message immediately, but believe it is important, leave it in your inbox but mark it with a flag or a star (depending on your email program) so you remember that it needs your attention.
  • Set aside a block of time each day for following up on the starred emails in your inbox, and archive or delete them as soon as the task is completed.
  • If there is no to-do in an email but you still need the information it contains, save it by moving it to a topic folder.
  • If there is no to-do and you’re sure you won’t need the email down the road, delete it immediately.
Using this method won’t take you all the way to an empty inbox, but you will ensure that it only contains emails that need follow-up and that important emails are archived where you can easily find them later.

Method 2: To-do folders

If you are the kind of person who uses to-do lists to keep organized, consider tweaking the method by setting up to-do folders. Instead of starring or flagging incoming emails that require action on your part, you can sort them into folders based on when follow-up is required:
  • Create 3 to 5 to-do folders called “Today,” “This Week,” “This Month,” “This Quarter,” “Long-term” – or whatever divisions of time work for you
  • Immediately sort incoming emails into the appropriate folder.
  • Treat each folder as your to-do list for that period of time: At the end of the day, your “Today” folder should be empty; by Friday evening, everything in the “This Week” folder needs to be taken care of, etc.
  • Check things off your to-do list by deleting each email from its folder once no more follow-up is required.
In this method, you keep your inbox empty because you immediately sort incoming emails to the appropriate to-do folder. However, you will probably also need an archiving system for emails that contain important information even when no further follow-up is required. A single “FYI” folder may do the trick for you, but most people prefer to create several archive folders to organize these emails as well. Categories such as “Work Email” or “School” will make the archived information easier to find.
Pro tip: How long should you keep emails?

It depends! If you are a lawyer or a small business owner, for example, there are probably regulations governing how long you have to keep records, including emails. This could range from three to ten years based on your profession and the type of information contained in the email. This is why it’s important to consult with an expert who is familiar with the laws in your location.

As for your personal emails, how long you keep them is a personal choice! Obviously, you can delete one-line responses to questions immediately, and invitations to parties or sales coupons as soon as the event is over. If you think you will want information later, the best policy is to archive the email in your inbox folders.

The good news is, when you archive email in folders, most email programs will allow you to customize how long you want messages to be saved – so this is a hack you can use to keep your folders nice and tidy. To limit the amount of time old emails should be kept in a folder in your inbox, open the settings by clicking on the wrench symbol. In Outlook, you can right-click on a folder name and click Properties to customize your email archiving options. 

Now that I have folders, how do I keep my inbox clean?

Once you have your folder system set up, you may find it effective to let your email program take care of the filing! Most email services have settings to automatically move some incoming messages into folders. Many incoming mails are relatively easy to classify – emails from your mom always go to the “Family” folder, for instance, while messages from an important client need to be dealt with “Today.”

In clear cases such as these,  setting up “rules” can save you time and make sure that important emails always end up in the right place. Email filter rules can perform a specific action based on conditions such as the sender or subject line of an email. So in addition to moving an incoming message immediately to a specific folder, you could send an automatic reply or receive an alert.

Instructions on setting up email filters in your account can be found in our explainer: Automatic filter rules: Let sort your emails. To set up email rules in Outlook, go to Account information > Rules and Alerts.
Bonus explainer: How do you declutter thousands of emails?

Has your email inbox filled up with thousands of emails and you are dreading the thought of sorting through them? You could simply draw a line and decide to delete all emails that have been sitting in your inbox for longer than a year, for instance, on the grounds that if you haven’t needed them up to now, you’ll never need them. Alternatively, you could use your inbox search function to select all the emails from a specific sender and delete them all or move them to an archive folder.

We hope this life-hack will make it easy to keep your inbox organized. Please leave us some feedback below!

This article first appeared on February 27, 2022, and was updated on February 23, 2024.

Images: 1&1/GettyImages

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