My E-mail Management Strategy

Obviously, there are all kinds of methods people employ to stay on top of their e-mail. I’ve tried using context-based folders and a sort of three-folder system, but that didn’t work for me. Here’s what I’ve wound up doing.

Inbox Zero

As a practictioner of GTD I stick pretty closely to the “inbox zero” concept, keeping my inbox as close to empty as possible. Somehow, it’s easier to do at work, since the messages I get there are more immediately actionable than the ones I get in my personal e-mail. And once you see your inbox get to zero and stay there, you wonder how you ever managed otherwise. After getting used to a clean inbox, I honestly cringe when I see other people’s e-mail inboxes full of months (if not years) of messages. It fills me with a combination of anxiety and pity when I see an inbox with more than a dozen messages.

On rare occasions, I’ll mark messages as unread so I can go back to them later if I can’t deal with them now, but I usually don’t go longer than a day or two before acting on them. I know, this practice of putting things back in the inbox is not strict GTD, but it works for me.

One Huge Honkin’ Folder

Image: My Folders in Entourage at Work I tend to take the “searcher” approach, dumping everything into one huge folder named “Processed.” This folder contains everything I’ve dealt with. Once I read an actionable e-mail in Entourage at work, I act on it, categorize it according to the client the e-mail is associated with (even our own company), and put it in the “Processed” folder in case I need to find it again later. This way, my inbox contains only new messages. And when I need to refer to something from last week or last month or even last year, I’ll enter the client’s name into the search box, and poof! all messages related to that client appear. It sure beats drilling down through various folders, especially when a message can apply to multiple categories. (For example, I might have an e-mail containing FTP information, which would go in the “Info” category since it’s general info, but it may also apply to a specific client, which would go under a category that has that client’s name.)

The Google Made Me Do It

Image: The Gmail Labels I Use for Tagging Messages This one-folder system didn’t happen overnight. In fact, it wasn’t until I began using Google’s Gmail a few years ago that I discovered how liberating the one-folder concept could be. Since Gmail doesn’t use folders, it encourages you to label everything and then archive it when you’re done. I transferred this technique to my Entourage e-mail setup at work, assigning Categories to incoming messages before putting them into the “*Processed” folder in the way I stated above. Once I read and tag messages on Gmail, they get Archived. This helps me keep my inbox fairly empty, nice and tidy.


One of the things I love about computers is being able to automate stuff, making them do little routine tasks so I don’t have to. In whatever e-mail program/service I’m using, I apply rules and filters to a number of subjects and addresses:

  • Mail from the contact form on my website gets tagged according to the category selected by the user. If, for example the user selects “Purchasing Artwork” for the category of the message they want to send me, the incoming message is assigned a specific tag in Gmail, which expedites my response. This filter is based on strings in the subject lines.
  • Mail from my wife gets tagged with its own tag, filtered by her e-mail address.
  • Industry newsletters get sorted and tagged based on their domain.

That’s pretty much it! The only really tedious part about it is creating the categories at the beginning, and it took a while to form the habit of assigning categories when I send and receive new messages. But I think it has paid off in the end by letting my messages be easily searched and found. Plus, my inbox always tells me what’s important, because the messages in it aren’t competing with 15,000 other messages. It’s not for everybody, but it’s my system, and I like it.

2 Comments. Add your own below.

  1. Nice article, especially the part with the huge folder. I’ve been thinking about that one, too. Thanks.

  2. Thanks, Flominator! I appreciate it.

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