Oftentimes I speak with clients who have hundreds of e-mail messages cluttering their inboxes and they either spend hours sifting through them or ignore various messages and miss important things that are lost in the pile-up. If this scenario sounds familiar, consider taking some time to create an organizational system for processing and storing your messages. Step one is to sort through everything and step two is to create folders for archiving. What follows are some tips to make each part of the process as quick and painless as possible.
Just like any organizing project, the first step is to look at everything in a space and decide what to keep. Ideally, the inbox is for the most important things that you need to act on now or soon, much like an electronic “to-do” list, so the goal is to have as few possible messages waiting.
Stephanie Winston, author of “Getting Organized,” acknowledges that the difficulties of handling documents often arise when one must choose which have value and which do not. She identifies a person’s fear of trashing essential items as the emotion that is holding him or her back from organizing. In other words, one of the main reasons that a space becomes disorganized is because the owner has chosen not to make decisions about what is important enough to stay and what can go. If this is you, I suggest that you push through the fear and work towards the satisfying feeling of reclaiming your e-mail system for good.
Look through the messages and decide what you want to do with each one. Leave what requires action and delete or file everything else. Jeff Davidson, author of “The 60 Second Organizer,” recommends a “triage” method for effective e-mail management. As Davidson explains, triage is a method of quickly poring over a variety of items and allocating them based on what needs to be handled immediately, what can be handled later, and what can be ignored.
You can start with the older messages first, or the newer messages, or sort by the subject or sender. I like to sort by sender because I often find that there are numerous messages from the same person and that all of the earlier messages can be deleted because the rest of the conversation is attached to the bottom of the most recent one. Depending on how many messages you have, sorting can take some time but you can always break the project up into smaller sections and do a little bit of work each day until you are done.
The key to de-cluttering your e-mail inbox is to create an organizational system that works in the same way that a filing system does with stacks of papers. Online folders in your e-mail account store much more data and have a search box to quickly locate items. The goal is to keep only what you need and file it away so that it can be easily retrieved. Think about why you are saving a message and where you would probably go looking for it later. Sort the remaining messages into broad categories and create folders and subfolders that are labeled so the subjects of their contents are clear. You can also add filters so that certain messages already land in the correct folders when they arrive.
If I want to archive certain information in a message but the subject heading does not seem to suggest what it is, I resend the information to myself and change the subject line so that I can find it for future reference. For example, a message that included driving directions might be labeled “Party Tonight” but I would re-send that to myself as “Directions to Dawn’s house.”
One of the best ways to deal with clutter is to stop it before it starts. In the case of your e-mail, this means minimizing the amount of unwanted messages. Some helpful strategies are to give your address only to the senders that you want to hear from, de-select the boxes on sign-up forms that ask if you want to be enrolled in future communications, click the unsubscribe link or ask to be removed from a mailing list, junk unsolicited messages, and consolidate newsletters and updates into a weekly digest whenever possible.
After your new system for organizing e-mail is in place, try to spend a few minutes each day de-cluttering your inbox as well as your folders. The same two-step process is helpful for organizing computer files, pictures and music. If you get stuck or want personalized advice, contact a professional organizer like myself for help. You can also send your feedback about my articles to firstname.lastname@example.org.