If you’re like me, then your email Inbox can sometimes get out of control. I have tried several different methods to control my Inbox. For example, I have created sub-folders in my Inbox based on topic or who the email is from.

Step 1

However, this often fails as a solution because there will be emails that don’t fit into a particular folder, or worse, fit into multiple folders. Another method is using sub-folders that are named based upon a temporal scheme such as month, fiscal quarter, or year. Neither of these solutions works in the long term.

Step 2Fortunately, there is a better way. To define a more efficient work-flow with emails, let’s imagine how we currently work with emails and design a work-flow that works with how we naturally handle tasks. First, an email arrives in your Inbox. It is marked as unread and usually sits at the top of the email list. Sometimes, the list of read and unread emails can be in the hundreds.

Then, if you are like I used to be you skim the email and the other unread emails in your Inbox looking for anything that needs to be responded to right away. You respond to several of the emails. You may or may respond to all of the emails that should be responded to. Lastly, after a while you may delete or archive some emails. Some emails are kept because they may be needed. Some are kept because they are reminders for you to take further action.

Step 3With that work-flow in mind, let’s define our new email work-flow in a way that work with, instead of against the normal tendency for people to thing in terms of lists. First, an email arrives in your Inbox. It sits there until you have a chance to read it. When you read it, you move it to one of the following folders (see Step 1):

  • Archive – This folder is the ultimate destination folder for all email that isn’t deleted. All email systems provide search. This ensures that all emails in the folder remain search-able and findable. Therefore, any email that has ever had any importance to you should eventually find itself here. Don’t worry, you won’t lose it because computers are very good at searching.
  • Deleted – Any email that will never be needed or of absolutely no use, ever, should be deleted. Typically, this is only used for spam or the latest jokes email from that one person that every office seems to have.
  • Waiting – Sometimes, I send an email to someone and I expect a response at some point. When I send such emails, I CC myself. Any emails that I CC myself and I am waiting for a response gets placed in this folder. An alternative to CC’ing yourself is to move them from the “Sent Items” folder to the Waiting folder. In any case, this folder serves as a place to store emails to remind you of communication where you are expecting someone to reply to you.
  • Follow Up – This folder contains email that require you to follow up on and take some action. However, it does not include emails you have sent to other people and are waiting on a response. In a way, this folder is your to-do list. It is email you need to take some action on.
  • Quick Reference – This folder holds emails you may need in the near term for reference. For example, a travel website sends you a copy of your plane itinerary. Place it in here for quick reference. When the flight is complete, move it to the archive folder.

Step 4Once you have read and moved all email to its proper folder, you email box should be empty. Some of the emails will have been moved to the Follow Up folder. Others were moved to Deleted, or Quick Reference. Now, go to the Follow Up folder and read each email closely (see Step 2). If it requires a quick response, then do so and move it to the archive folder. If you are waiting for a response to your response, place the email you sent into your Waiting folder. I described two methods of getting a copy of the sent email above. It is important to use the email that you sent, not the one you responded to because it will contain information about what you asked the recipient to do. This is very useful when you forget what you sent and why.

After you have completed reading all of the emails in the Follow Up folder, move to the Waiting folder. Read each email in the waiting folder and determine if it can wait for longer, the recipient should be reminded to respond, or the issue is closed and it can be archived (see Step 3).

Lastly, move to the Quick Reference folder and quickly scan for any emails that can be moved to the archive folder (see Step 4). Repeat as many times per day as needed. Since I am a software developer and email is more of a work interrupter, I tend to only do this once in the morning and once in the afternoon.