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

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.

How can I use folders to organize my email?

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 “School board.” 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 e.g. 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, 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. 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. And if you’re sure you won’t need it down the road, delete the email immediately.

Using this method won’t take you to Inbox Zero, but you will ensure that your inbox mostly only contains emails that need follow-up and that important emails are archived where you can easily find them later.

Pro-tip: When you archive email in folders, most email programs will allow you to customize how long you want messages to be saved – so it is worth exploring these options. For example, 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.  

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 – and immediately move incoming emails into the appropriate folder. 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.

In this method, you keep your inbox mostly empty and check things off your to-do list by deleting each email from its folder once no more follow-up is required. 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.

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 you 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 here. To set up email rules in Outlook, go to Account information > Rules and Alerts.

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

Images: 1&1/GettyImages

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