Strategies for Managing Your E-mail

I know I’m not the first person to say this, but e-mail has gotten out of hand for a lot of us. E-mail is here to stay, and it’s not going away anytime soon. It can be great, but it can be annoying. It’s easy to become overwhelmed by it, since a lot of people get too much of it too quickly. There are many people who get hundreds of real e-mail messages a day, not counting spam or junk mail.

So what to do about this onslaught of mail? Well, the number one key is to empty the Inbox as often as possible, dealing with everything appropriately. Avoid leaving loose ends. Don’t leave anything in your inbox that you’ve already touched — you only want to touch it once. That will make you efficient, productive, and confident. It can be a little scary at first, but it’s well worth it.

Several Strategies to Choose From

There are a number of strategies available, depending on your style of working. You might be an organizer with an elaborate system of folders within folders, or you might be a searcher with everything all in one big searchable folder. Here are some of the strategies I’ve come across.

File everything immediately into designated folders, categorized by project or sender

Some people like to use a folder for everything. You can automate this with Rules or Filters, depending on what your mail service/software calls it. (Same thing, different name.)

  • Set filters to check subject lines for certain words or phrases, and put those messages in a specific folder
  • Filter by sender, whether by specific address or domain (everything after the @ symbol) and file accordingly

Flag items for follow-up at a future date using the Flag feature

This is a feature I haven’t really used before since I usually act on e-mail right away (or otherwise file it for reference) but I can see how it would be useful to remind yourself to follow up on something.

Keep everything in one huge, honkin’ folder

Some people like to dump everything into one enormous folder, applying tags or categories to everything. These categories can be color coded. If you’re disciplined and specific with your tags/categories, messages can be easy to find, since you don’t have to go through five different folders to find that one e-mail. The no-folders approach is the one that Gmail has had from the start, and it takes some getting used to at first.

The GTD “Three-Mailbox System”

Use three folders (“Mailboxes” if you’re using Apple’s Mail.app) to sort things into one of three broad but concise categories:

  • Act On Contains e-mails that require action, but you can’t act on them immediately. (The ones that required immediate action were acted upon as soon as you got the e-mails, right?)
  • Waiting For This folder contains e-mails that you can’t act on without some sort of additional information
  • Read & Review For lower-priority messages that aren’t necessarily actionable or that you can read when time permits — perfect for newsletters and the like

Gina Trapani has discussed a similar system at great length on Lifehacker in her post Empty Your Inbox with the Trusted Trio.

What’s Your Strategy?

So how do you cope with e-mail overload? Feel free to share your own strategy for dealing with e-mail in the comments.