Email Organization – How To Organize Your Inbox

Email organization greatly improves professional productivity in two ways: structure (how you sort emails) and behavior (what you do when processing emails)

Email organization teaches how organizing your inbox (all of them) can help you be more productive professionally. If you are one of those people that spend a lot of time searching for information and browsing your email in order to find that email with instructions from the bank, then this topic is definitely for you. If you are satisfied with your current email system, but you are curious to find out what other people do, then read along.

But if you seldom use your email, or if you are more of a talking kind of person, then this article is not for you.

Time to read

Time to read: 14 minutes (based on 150 wpm)

Only tips (no introduction): 7 minutes (150 wpm)

Communication preferences

According to the subject of Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), there are three types of communication preferences: watching, hearing and feeling. Your communication needs and preferences are often influenced by your type. How to find your type is beyond the goals of this post. Leave a comment below if you want me to share more about NLP and its application in business in the future.

Watching communication

Those are the people that prefer to type and read. Typically writers fall into this category. They use more often than the other types words like: look, keep in sight, scan, spot, illuminate.

Hearing communication

There are other people that prefer to talk, converse and listen. They might use the following phrases: listen to me, hear me out, sounds fine, I am all ears, ask.

Felling communication

The people that prefer feeling communication neither talk, nor write. Typical words: develop a feel for, dig up, wrapped up, strikes me.

Email communication type

It is fairly obvious that the people obsessed with email communication most probably fall into the visual type (watching). If you are not that kind of person, you probably do not communicate mainly with emails and letters and your email box is cluttered with correspondence. Although you may not benefit that much from that article if you are not a visual type, I urge you to read on, try some of the practices and share your opinion.

Email correspondence

Email (and any other form of written) correspondence differs from the oral communication in several aspects:

  • Unilateral direction: After we send an email we do not receive a confirmation that the recipient has received and read the email. Unlike oral communication where we have the body language to decipher what the other party thinks.
  • Record: Typically many corporations prefer written over oral communication because it leaves a tangible record.
  • Cost: Written communication is usually more expensive on both sides: the sender has to design, write and proofread the letter and the receiver has to read, decipher and understand it.
  • Flexibility: Written communication is less flexible.

Email communication dimensions

First of all, the email communication has several dimensions (just like a normal conversation). Those dimensions depend on the intent of the correspondence, its content and recipients.

Tasks vs Information

Email organization in this dimension sorts emails by their content. Emails with tasks usually require us (or the receiver) to do a task and (usually) report back. Tracking emails with tasks for you and tasks for the recipient is one of the benefits of email organization. Examples of emails with tasks:

  • “Honey, please pay the gas bill!”
  • “Mr X, could you send me the report from January 2015.”
  • “Dad, I need money.”
  • “I cannot find the numbers for 2016. Could you send them to me.”

Emails with information most often give us a specific information that we need at the moment, but it is also possible that we will need this information in the future. Examples:

  • “Login details for the shared server: …”
  • “These are the latest entries in your search category.”
  • “Invoice for January.”

Both cases require tracking and organization but in different directions.

For you or for the recipient

In addition you can differentiate emails (mostly with tasks, but not only), by the intended object of the task (or information). Does the email instruct you to do something? Or have you instructed someone to do something for you?

Email organization in this dimension means sorting emails into categories like:

  • “To Do” and “Awaiting Action”
  • “Should Reply” and “Awaiting Reply”
  • “Should Read” and “Awaiting Acknowledgement”

Object of consideration

Most probably you receive emails for each project you work on, from different departments, concerning the different objects in your life (car, apartment, vacation). Categorizing each of these emails can greatly help reduce the clutter in your Inbox. Usually you do not need to see the rent invoices every day, so they can be sent into another folder and still remain accessible.

Priorities and deadlines

Finally, the different emails carry different priorities and deadlines. You should know which emails with tasks should be done earlier than the others. A “to-do” list with 9 “priority 1” items is just as good as the same list with no priorities. And also a priority 1 item with 2 months deadline is different than a priority 5 item with 1 hour deadline.

Email Organization schools

And last but not least, there are two “schools of thought” for email organization: “Folders and structure” vs “Searching and labels”.

This article (and its author) fall more into the folders and structure school. I cannot say which of these is better, but I have chosen an email organization approach inclined to structure with some of the best items from the other.

Email Organization - How To Organize Your Inbox
Describes how to structure your email and how to organize your time when processing emails.

Improving email organization structure

Structuring your email could greatly decrease the time it takes to find an email, but also could increase the time required to sort new emails. Feel free to use the functionality called rules to automatically assign labels and categories to the incoming mail.

1. Categorize

One of the most obvious and fairly easy steps you can take is to define categories for all emails. This also means dividing your emails by object of consideration. You could also go a few levels deeper and add categories and subcategories.

Corporate email by project

An example with corporate email divided into projects, roles and people:

  • General
    • HR
      • Mrs X
      • Mrs Y
      • Mr Z
    • Management
      • Mrs A
      • Mr B
  • Project 1
    • Developers
      • Mr C
      • Mrs D
    • Testers
      • Mrs E
      • Mrs F
    • Contractors
      • Software
        • Company AAB
        • Company BBA
      • Hardware
        • Company BCC
        • Company D11
  • Project 2
  • Project 3

Personal email

Another example with personal email and objects of consideration

  • Personal
    • Family
      • Honey
      • Mom
      • Dad
      • Brother
    • Friends
      • Joe
      • Bill
  • Work
    • Company 1
    • Company 2
    • Customer 1
    • Customer 2
  • Invoices
    • House
    • Corporate
  • Orders
    • Personal
    • Corporate
  • Travel
    • Hotels
    • Tickets
  • By Object
    • New York
      • Official communication
      • Bills
      • Contracts
    • LA
      • Official communication
      • Bills
      • Contracts
    • London

Sorting trick

There is a little sorting trick that you can use and that works on every system:

  • Name your most important category with 0 before the name: 0. Work
  • Name the second most important with 1 before the name: 1. Personal
  • And so on
  • You can also nest the orders with 0.1. or 1.1.

This way Work will always be in front of Personal on any device and any app.

Rules

You do not have to do all the sorting manually, but you can define rules (MS Outlook and Gmail support them) that would take care of that. On top of that you may even define different alerts for the really important emails.

People

I usually prefer to nest my categories down to a single person (with a name). This way I only have to remember who sent a certain email and this is something I easily do. But it could be a bit of an overkill in every situation.

Feel free to experiment with different levels, if your memory does not work in the same way as mine.

2. Labelize

Even though this word does not exist, you get the point. You need to filter out the important stuff from all the emails that you receive, so that you can filter quickly. If the categories are the X-axis, then the labels could be regarded as the Y-axis of the structure cube.

Type of action

In order to further perfect your organization skills, you need to learn to divide the email by type of action.

  • To Do – these are emails with specific tasks, personally for you
  • Awaiting Action – when you have requested an action and wait for the result
  • Should Answer – special kind of To Do task, where you need to answer
  • Awaiting Reply – when you have requested information and wait for the response
  • Should Read – sometimes the longest emails, should be postponed for later
  • Awaiting Meeting – when the email is about a scheduled meeting

Types of content

You could also label emails by their content. This would help you find all accounts that one of your customers has created for you.

  • Important information
  • Account information
  • Address
  • Email
  • Contact person

3. Prioritize

And last but not least, comes the third dimension in the cube: the priority. Do not be afraid to use all priorities available (1-to-9) or the follow-up flags in excel (today, tomorrow, this week, next week).

4. Multiple accounts

Following the first three rules, you can organize your emails into a nice cube that can be sliced from every dimension. For example if you open the category “1. Work > Company 1”, then filter by “To Do”, you should get a list of all emails that require you to do something. And finally you can order the resulting list by priority.

But sometimes this would not be enough and you should consider splitting your emails into several accounts (e.g. personal, work and spam).

  • Personal account – this is the account that only your friends and family know
  • Work account – this is obviously the account on which you receive work emails
  • Spam account – this should be the only email that commercial sites and companies receive

If you go into that direction and in order to remain as productive as possible:

  • Turn off the notifications of all account
  • Remove the personal and spam accounts from your phone
  • Only check personal and spam when you have enough time.

5. Zero inbox

The inbox folder is where your new emails and the ones that have no category or label will land. Those emails should be reviewed and sorted on your next scheduled time for that.

Besides those emails, the inbox folder should only contain the emails that require an action (whether from you or from the recipient).

Email organization behavior

You have your emails sorted and organized into categories. And you have them labelled and prioritized. The next steps is to learn how to control the email flow and only keep the important emails

1. Unsubscribe

Remember those emails that you immediately delete after you see them? If yes, then just unsubscribe from that newsletter or notification service. If you think that you may need them in the future, just create a rule to move them to a dedicated category and mark them as read.

Fight the so called “fear of missing out” (missing a discount, or a special order). The advertising companies rely on that fear and utilize it.

2. Schedule a time on your daily agenda for email

Set aside enough time each day to review the new emails and categorize, labelize and prioritize them. Review the old emails and add tasks for the day based on them. Follow-up on the emails that you sent and that require action from the other party.

3. Get to go inbox zero every day

Process all new emails and review the old emails marked for action every day.

4. Learn to delete

You could create a label called “Do Not Delete” and use it only on those messages that are really, really, really important. Then delete all old messages without that label. The time period depends on your personal choice, but the emails from two, three years ago, could probably safely be deleted.

5. Respond quickly

Remember that the email communication is unilateral? Learn to reply to the emails if only just to acknowledge that you have received them. If possible provide time frame for the action that is expected of you.

The 2-minute rule

If an email requires you to do something, that could be done under two minutes – just do it. It takes more time to mark the email as “To Do” and then come back to it later.

The 5-sentence rule

Keep your response below five sentences. If it is more than that schedule a call or specify it in the beginning.

Summary

Email communication has become an integral part of life. Whether it is corporate communication or personal communication, most of it is usually stored as emails. It is easy to get lost in the clutter and start forgetting tasks, emails and information.

Email organization can be improved in two directions: organizing your email better and organizing the time that you spend reading and answering emails better.

Feel free to share your results below or on our Facebook and Twitter pages.

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