Digital Organization: How can I organize my emails? [A guide for busy students.]

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Digital Organization Part 2:
How Can I Organize My Emails?

Stressed just thinking about email?

If you had asked me a decade ago what I thought most students would want help with, I’d have predicted the usual, time management, procrastination, motivation, etc. What I wouldn’t have predicted was how many students would struggle with email organization and just how stressful and time-consuming this is. At least half of my clients have asked me “How can I organize my emails?”

This seems like an easy question. But, as I taught students my strategy for low-maintenance email organization, I realized that this might be an easy question, but it was not a simple one. Email organization is a 3-tiered strategy. It requires a strong conceptual foundation, a good automation system, and ongoing maintenance. In this article, I’m going to teach you my methods for keeping an inbox under control.

I’m going to assume that if you’re reading this, you’ve already got a bunch of emails and it’s probably in disarray. If you are one of the rare students who have the foresight to think about how you’re going to structure your new student email address, awesome! Keep reading because most of this will still apply to you, you just don’t have to play clean-up like the rest of us.

Oh, and just in case you are wondering these tips on how to organize your email work whether it’s a student or personal email or both, and regardless of your email client (Gmail, Outlook, etc.).

Part 1, File Organization | Part 2, Email Organization| Part 3, Version Control

How to Organize Your Emails, Step 1

Set Up An Organizational Structure

Let’s assume you already have a messy inbox. In one way, this is great, because it’s going to make the organizational structure easier to determine. If you don’t yet have a messy inbox then you can think about what kinds of information and sources of information are going to be coming into your email.

[TIP: All of this is much easier to do in the full-screen web browser so I recommend organizing your email on your computer rather than your phone.]

1a) Importance and Value.

A big part of organizing is knowing what to do with things when you’re sorting them. To do that, you need to identify the importance and value of the information coming into your inbox. To this, you want to ask yourself a series of questions throughout this process.

  • Do I get a lot out of this/these messages?
    • If yes, then it’s valuable information
    • If not, then it’s not valuable information to me
  • Do I need to keep this information for later?
    • If yes, then it’s important information that I need to keep
    • If not, then I don’t need to keep this information for later
    • TIP: If you’re prone to thinking you should keep everything, ask yourself how long it would take to find this information again if you were to search the internet for it. If the answer is 5 minutes or less, then it’s not important to keep it.
  • Do these messages have a time limit for value or importance?
    • If yes, then the message is time-dependent.
    • If not, then the information is timeless

Notice how information can be valuable but not important, important but not valuable, both or neither. Plus, something that was valuable or important at first, may lose that value or importance as time goes on. For example, a sales flyer may be valuable to you but its value is time-dependent. You want to keep these questions and categorizations in mind as you enter the next step, cleaning.

1b) Pare Down Existing Mail

[TIP: If you’re starting from scratch or your inbox is pretty clean, you can skip this step.]

To build a low-maintenance email system, you need to start by paring down what’s in your inbox. You are going to do this using sorts/searches. Sorting is really easy in certain email clients, like Outlook. Sadly, Gmail does not do this. Gmail just had to be different, so you’re going to have to use a semi-workaround. Instead of sorting, you’re going to search.

First, sort/search by the sender. In Outlook, you would go to ‘Filter‘ at the top of your inbox and select ‘Sort By Sender’. This is going to cluster all emails from each sending address together so you can see who is sending you the most emails. As you look at the list, find someone who is sending you unimportant, low-value emails.

In Gmail, you’re going to have to search by sender. Look at the emails in your inbox and identify a sender who sends you low-value, unimportant emails. Once you find one, search for all mail from that sender. The easiest way to do this is to right-click on the email from that sender, scroll to the bottom of the pop-up menu, and select “Find emails from.” You can also use the search bar. Just click on the settings button in the search bar (it looks like 3 lines with sliders), select the ‘from’ field, and enter the sender you want to search for.

The first step of a low-maintenance system is getting rid of the unimportant and valueless emails in your inbox and stopping them from returning. So, pick a message from one of the senders that sends you a lot of unimportant and low-value stuff and click the unsubscribe button. If there isn’t an unsubscribe button, well shame on them. Feel free to block and report them as spam. Be ruthless. This is not a time to be sentimental. Unsubscribe shamelessly! If you find you miss them, you can always sign up again.

Now, delete the ones you’ve already received. In Gmail, you’ll have to select each email to delete and then click the trash can. In Office and many other email clients, it’s actually easier. Select the top email in the list from that sender so that it’s highlighted (not opened), then, hold down the shift key as you click on the last email from that sender. This will select all of those emails and you can then delete them at once.

Keep doing this until your inbox has few, if any, messages from senders that send you unimportant or low-value emails. This can take several hours so don’t get discouraged, it doesn’t have to be perfect and it doesn’t have to be done all at once.

Now, you’re probably looking at your inbox thinking…but there’s still so much! And you’re right. You haven’t finished the actual clean-up. But, why do things manually when the computer can do the work for us? Next, you are going to create a system that will do just that.

How to Organize Emails, Part 2

Create a Low-Maintenance System to Organize Emails

The best systems are easy to maintain but easy to maintain systems are built on a well-thought-out structure. Now that we’ve pared down what’s in your inbox, it’s going to be easier to see and build that structure.

2a) Create a Folder/label Structure

You’re going to see me refer to folders and labels, somewhat interchangeably, but they are not the same and it’s important to understand the difference. My instructions will cover each one differently.

Many email clients, like Outlook, use a folder structure. With folders, emails can be categorized and tucked away so that they are not cluttering your vision or your thoughts. In general, I believe that folders work better for students who are prone to information overload or ‘ooooo shiny syndrome’.

Gmail uses a different system. Gmail uses labels. Unlike folders, an email can have multiple labels at a time, so there’s never a problem deciding between two competing folders. However, this means that the only way to get something out of sight is to delete or archive it. We will discuss how to deal with each.

The first step, regardless of which you use is to look at the types of emails you receive. Students often get messages from the University, their program, for each course they take, from various student groups or academic mailing lists, for each research project they are involved in, for any courses they TA, as well as random mailing lists they signed up for (no wonder you need to know how to organize your email!).

To create this low-maintenance system, you need to decide on a folder/label structure so that your email client can organize emails as they enter your inbox. Already you can probably think of some general categories that apply to your email. Use these to start setting up a folder/labeling structure. Pick one of these groupings to make into a folder/label for a single category of email. It doesn’t have to be perfect. You can (and probably will) rename or refine the structure later.

Create the folder or label you have in mind. If you’re not sure how to do that, you can find instructions for Outlook and Gmail on their respective sites or search the internet for the name of your email client and ‘create folders.’

Once you’ve created the folder/label, it’s time to pare down more by introducing automation.

2b) Set Up Automation to Organize Email

Setting up automation is a key part of making this a low-maintenance system for organizing emails and it’s a part that many students miss. As you create each folder, you’ll want to set up as much automation as possible. You do that by using filters.

Filters (sometimes called rules) are a series of logical arguments that tell your email client how to treat each email that is received by the system. Filters are the answer to how to organize your email and keep it that way. They can be used to identify mail that meets specific criteria and automatically file it for you. However, notice I said that these rules are applied as the email is received by the system. That means they are filtered BEFORE they reach your inbox. This is essential to understand. You don’t want a filter sending an email you need to respond to somewhere you will never notice it. I’m going to talk about the implications of this as we go.

The first step to using filters is to think about how to set up your inbox to work the best for you. Be realistic, the best systems work with your natural tendencies. For example, if you are working with folders, you could set up filters that automatically file almost every single email into corresponding folders. Remember, it’s going to do that before you ever see the email. So, will you realistically check every project folder for important emails every day? If that will work for you, go for it! My personal style is to have any items that could require a response or action end up in my inbox, because I know will miss some folders. I wish that were not the case, but since I know that is my tendency, I need to work with it. That means I’m going to have more manual filing because it’s hard to set up filters that are 100% perfect at filtering out unimportant and non-timely emails without accidentally filtering important and timely ones (maybe someday AI will be able to do this for us). Label users, you actually have fewer choices to get an email out of your inbox, you can archive, delete, or neither.

With all of that in mind, let’s start to automate the process. First, follow the links below (or search online) to learn how to create filters (or rules) for your email.

The instructions for creating filters vary by email client. You can find the Gmail and Outlook instructions here and here, respectively, or you can search for your particular email client’s instructions online.

Start with a single folder or label that includes only emails that do not require you to take action on them. For example, newsletters or sales flyers that you want to have but don’t need to do anything with until something prompts the need for that information. Think about what characteristics those emails have in common. Maybe they are all from one or two senders, have a united keyword, always have the same subject line, etc., or any combination thereof. Filters allow for multiple boolean search terms and you can have more than one filter that funnels emails into a folder/label. For example, I could create a filter that causes any email that comes from a sender (my university listserve) and contains the keywords (tuition) or (financial aid) to be put in a ‘Money’ folder.

As you build filters, give serious consideration to how you might filter emails unintentionally. For example, if I just used the keyword ‘tuition’ in the aforementioned filter, then I might accidentally filter an email from an instructor I’m TA’ing for that mentions tuition reimbursement into the ‘Money’ folder when I need it to go into the TA folder. That’s why I added the Sender specification. When you create a filter, you’ll have the option to run it on already-received emails and that’s one way you can check that your filter is working properly and not catching things you don’t want it to.

As you are setting up your filters, you’ll notice that you have options other than to just file/label an email. You can also mark emails as “read” and/or archive them. If you’re setting up a filter to go into each folder and you intend to check every folder for new emails every day, then the only ones you want to mark as “read” are emails you are keeping for information purposes only, not because you need to act on them. Folders display a notification when they contain unread emails and you don’t want to miss an email because something you needed to act on was marked as “read” inappropriately.

For those using Gmail (or any other client that is label-only), you should create a filter for as many labels as possible. Remember, these filters are just tagging the email with a keyword they are still visible in your inbox. The labels are going to make sorting much easier in the future so use filters liberally in this case. Remember emails can have more than one label. Feel free to apply multiple labels when it makes sense but remember that simpler tends to be better.

For label users, you’ll want to pay particular attention to archiving (conceptually, it’s similar to marking as ‘read’). Archiving hides an email from view. It’s still there and if you search for it, it will display in your search results but it won’t be cluttering up your visual inbox. You want to use archiving for any emails that you want to keep for the information they contain, but you don’t need to act on that information. For example, I may choose to have sales flyers from a store automatically labeled and sent straight to the archive. Then, if I’m planning a purchase, I search for that label and Gmail will bring up the emails with the coupon codes. You can also mark emails as ‘read’ in Gmail, which is one of the display options, so that only unread emails are displayed so consider that when you choose to use ‘mark as read’ or not.

One thing to keep in mind is that filters are never 100%. You’ll always have a few stragglers in your inbox that you have to file/label manually. That’s OK. The goal is to get as many emails as possible to be categorized automatically.

Once you’ve created and automated one category, then go back to the inbox and do another. Keep repeating this process until you’ve made all the folders/labels and filters that you want and a good portion of your email is filed or labeled.

A few notes:

  • Your goal isn’t to file/label everything in your inbox. There are almost always a few strays. You can create an ‘Other’ folder, but I usually just leave them in my inbox. After a while, I will either be able to delete them or I’ll get enough of a similar theme to make a new folder/label for them.
  • It’s normal to think you are done with a folder/label only to find another email that should go in it. You can just manually add the label or file it. However, if there are a bunch of emails that are not being caught up in your filters then you might want to add or tweak the filter.
  • I said earlier that you can rename/label folders as needed. You can also nest existing folders in sub-folders/labels. If you’re spending a lot of time scrolling down to find a folder or label, it’s probably time to create subfolders/labels. Keep the folders/labels you access the most frequently at the top level, while less used folders/labels can be nested. Remember what you learned in Digital Organization Part 1, simpler is better.

2c) Pare Down More

After you’ve created your folder/label structure, it’s time to pare down more. Those of you using Gmail have probably been giddily awaiting this stage, as it’s now time to banish most of your emails out of sight. This is another step that takes some time. You are going to do this one folder or label at a time, which makes it easier to do it in stages.

To start, pick one folder or label you want to work with. For Outlook users and those with similar email clients, sort by a sender or keyword and manually file any emails that were not caught by the filters you created. Once you’ve got everything you want filed, you can optionally go through each file and delete any emails you don’t need anymore.

For Gmail users, use the left sidebar to select the label you want to work with. At this point, most of your emails should have labels. This will bring up all the emails you have applied that label to. Go through the emails quickly and delete any that clearly have no value or importance. Be sure to unsubscribe when appropriate. Now, look at the remaining emails, and archive any that you no longer have pending actions for. This will hide them when you are looking in the main inbox allowing you to focus only on emails that need your attention.

[Email Organization Tip: You can select large swaths of emails by clicking on the first email you want and then pressing shift when clicking the last email you want, this will select all the emails in between and you can drag them to the files or apply other actions to them as a group. Similarly, pressing control while selecting emails will allow you to select multiple emails but they will only select the ones you click on (rather than all emails in between).]

[Email Organization Tip: Sorting or searching by date range can help you rapidly identify older emails that you want to archive. Hopefully, there aren’t many emails from 2 years ago still waiting on a response from you.]

How to Organize Emails, Part 3

Email Organization Maintenance

Once the system is created and your inbox is cleaned up, you move on to the maintenance phase. This is when you manage the stragglers and keep the email organization system running smoothly. Here is what I do to keep my email in check:

3a) Schedule It

Studies have shown that people are more likely to do something that is written down in their calendar, so I schedule a monthly recurring appointment with myself to organize my email (I usually do it as part of my file organization appointment). If I’ve set the system up well, it takes 30 minutes or less. I purposefully schedule it for the end of the workweek because other people don’t tend to want a meeting then and because I’m tired and only want to do low-effort work then.

3b) Manage the Subject Line

To make it easier to sort, file, and find things, be deliberate about your subject lines. If I were corresponding with a professor about a specific class, I’d start the subject line with the class number, followed by the actual subject (e.g., Phl405: Assignment 1 Question). Similarly, if someone emails me and I think this might be an ongoing conversation, I will add the identifier to the subject. Classes are not the only things with identifiers. Each research or writing project can have a short name to use in email subjects (e.g., for an analysis of mental health symptoms in pregnancy, each email started with MHPreg).

3c) Anticipate Email Organization Needs

Whenever you start a new project or class, make one of the first steps to set up the folder/label structure and any automation you can think of. As emails start to come in for the new project, you’ll tweak them, but it saves time and energy to have them set up ahead of time.

3d) Minimize

Email organization is faster to deal with as email comes in. Make it a habit to delete any email you don’t need as soon as you’ve reviewed it. If you have a straggler, label or file it as soon as you’ve completed it. Similarly, it’s easiest to not have to sort emails at all, so be selective about signing up for email lists.

Email Organization Tip: Keep an eye out for online checkouts. There’s often a checkbox allowing them to add you to the mailing list when you complete your purchase. Uncheck that box before confirming payment if you don’t want to be added to the mailing list. You will still get purchase emails but won’t be added to the marketing list.

So, that’s my answer to how to organize your emails. As I said, it’s a simple question, but now an easy one. Executing this process can take a while, especially if you have a lot of emails to organize, but you can do this in stages so it’s not so overwhelming. Just be sure to schedule some time and commit to it. The time and stress saved in the long run is worth it.

Part 1, File Organization | Part 2, Email Organization| Part 3, Version Control

Wishing You the Best in Your Academic Success,
Dr. Cristie Glasheen, Your Graduate Student Success Coach

All for Free!