No matter where you sit on the spectrum of organization, both the color-coordinators and clutter-friendly folks can agree that an unruly inbox is stressful. Luckily, there are plenty of ways to organize your email inbox to make it more manageable. We’ll walk you through four methods that busy people are using to wrangle their inboxes for a saner workday.
This method is the ultimate in simplicity. If you primarily use a project-management platform such as Asana or Basecamp and have it integrated with your inbox, this method will take care of all those disparate emails that don’t neatly fit into any project.
Create a folder called Waiting. When an email comes in, if it doesn’t belong in your project management system and you don’t need to respond right away, file it into your Waiting folder.
This method also works well for those who spend a lot of time in the inbox and who need to reply immediately to many messages — it allows you to triage quickly.
Adam Wickliffe, VP of Technology at Resolve Software Development, recommends using the snooze function, which integrates well with this method. He says, “I like to use snooze to help maintain Inbox Zero. I snooze personal project emails to show back up in the evening, and there are times where I snooze low-priority emails, kicking the can down the road until I finally get to them.”
Rules are a valuable tool for organizing your inbox, especially if you are managing messages from several clients (as an account manager, for example). Using filtering via rules will automatically organize your inbox, so you don’t have to spend time moving messages manually.
With this method, you’ll create a series of folders or tags — one for each client. Next, set up a rule for your contact at each client company so that each email that comes in from a client immediately gets filed to the appropriate folder/tag. You can also set the rule to have emails skip the inbox to clear them out of your incoming mail.
This method works best if your clients have varying levels of priority so you know which folders/tags to focus on when you’re working through your messages.
If you live and die by your to-do lists, this method is ideal for you. Create five folders or tags, arranged by the time in which you need to deal with the messages they’ll contain. When a message comes in, assign it into the appropriate folder/tag based on when you need to take action on it. For example:
Today — emails you need to work on immediately
This week — emails that should be addressed this week but aren’t urgent
This month — emails that are low-priority and can wait
FYI — things you need to reference at some point but don’t need to take action on at any specific time
With this method, you know exactly what you need to work on right now, and you have confidence that you won’t lose track of emails that you need to work on later. However, if you deal with a lot of emails, this system may not provide enough flexibility. If this is you, keep reading!
Folders and tags aren’t the only tools you have in your email management toolbox. Craig Priestley, Operations Manager at Hewn Group, shared a ninja method with us that he uses to stay on top of his myriad responsibilities. This method takes advantage of Gmail’s Tasks functionality, but you could translate the basic workflow to any email/task tool combination as long as you can link them together.
To start, create a separate task list for each of your main “buckets” — maybe a task list for each client or each message priority level. Then, when you open an email, you can click Add to Tasks and put it into the correct task list. In this way, task lists are similar to tags or folders since you can organize messages using any of the methods you would use to organize a folder or tagging system. But there are three significant advantages to using task lists over folders or tags.
First, you can assign a specific date/time to each task and get a reminder when the due date arrives (and sort by due date). Craig shares, “This is particularly helpful for following up on messages I’ve sent to clients or colleagues but haven’t received a response to. There’s nothing worse than sending a message to someone and then forgetting to follow-up with them until you discover that message weeks or months later in your Sent box.” Second, you can add subtasks to any task, so you can get granular with your task hierarchy. Finally, you can use task lists in combination with tags, giving you even more control over how you’re organizing your messages. Craig says, “This method lets me get to Inbox Zero quickly, immediately find any email I need, and be reminded of emails at the exact time I need to deal with them.”
No two people have the same responsibilities or needs when it comes to email, so there’s no perfect method for everyone. But each of these four inbox organization methods provides an efficient starting point that you can customize — and use to keep your inbox under control.
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