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Organizing Your Inbox

How many emails do you have in your Inbox?

Everyone has some sort of system by which they organize their emails.  I have seen everything from storing thousands of messages in the Inbox, to using the Deleted Items folder as an archive (not recommended), to expansive folder structures.

Myself personally, I am a filer, perhaps a bit excessively. I enjoy organizing everything into folders and subfolders and having dozens of filters moving emails to particular folders and flagging or tagging them automatically. But what tends to happen in these situations is an eventual backlog of emails that need to be properly placed within the system, resulting in the same overflow as someone who keeps everything in their inbox.

If you are like me, when faced with a large pile of data, there is this nagging in the back of your head hoping that you have not missed anything important. A person can spend a lot of subconscious mental energy keeping straight in his/her mind which emails still need to be dealt with.  Some items get started or categorized, but most of us trust our memory to recall what needs to be dealt with.

At some point I realized that when I needed to refer to an email, I did not use my filing system to find it. I used the search tool, searching something like "from:joe@company.com" or "date:01/15/13 project X". Rarely did I scroll through the piles or files. My elaborate filing was not a time saver. An advanced search was far more effective in accessing my data.  So I changed tactics.

Yes I am still a filer.  The only difference is that now I only file away stuff I know I will need later, not the stuff I think I might need.  For example, the tax receipt that I will need at tax time will be filed. Filing what is important, and archiving the rest, means that I can spend far more time being productive and much less time dealing with emails, either organizing them or trying subconsciously to keep track of them.  

Archiving is faster then filing, but the shortcuts vary depending on the program.  For example, in Gmail all I do is select a message (or messages), then press 'y' and the message is archived.  In Outlook, I have an archive folder and just drag anything into it that does not need further action or reviewing.

To take it a step further, email is a communication/messaging system.  It is not a to do list.  If anything is actionable it should go on a to do list and then the email can be archived.  You can always refer back to it later.  

Everyone will find a system that works for them and it will probably look different under different circumstances. Identifying both priorities and shortcuts can save time and create peace of mind.

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