Ask Me Anything: Keeping Email Under Control

I commented on Twitter earlier this week that I had entirely changed how I organize my email and I got a couple of requests to share how my new system works. It’s been several days and it’s working great, so I’m ready to share how I’m handling emails.

The Setup

There is some technology that I’m specifically using:

You can use any combination of email client, CRM tool and task management tool you’d like — in fact, Gmail Contacts and ToDo lists may let you skip going outside of Gmail at all, if that’s your preference. I use Gist and OmniFocus because they have more extensive features than Gmail’s integrated options and I’m comfortable with the way they work.

The Organization

I’ve been slowly adding folders (or, as Gmail calls them, labels) for several years now. I had one for every long-term client, different groups I belong to — I had well over 80, which made it almost impossible to use the folders to find something quickly. That lead me to rely on searching for any email I needed to find, which works particularly well in Gmail. Since you can search for senders, keywords and even attachments, it makes sense to rely on that feature, rather than building an elaborate organization system. So I deleted all of those folders and picked a few new ones.

I now have just six folders for my email, meant to let me process new emails faster, while relying on the ability to search for any past emails I need. The folders are meant to hold literally any email I receive — there shouldn’t be a single email in my inbox that doesn’t fit into one of these six folders:

  • Bacon: I can’t remember exactly where I picked up using the term ‘bacon’ for a certain class of email, but it works. Bacon is all those emails that you, at one point or another, did agree to receive, like newsletters or mailing lists, but that aren’t a priority to read. It’s not spam, but it’s also not particularly important. It’s a category that, if you’re in a hurry, you can comfortably mark all as read.
  • Client Work: The most important category of email I receive has to do with work I’m doing for clients. Anything in this file is the first to be dealt with when I start reading email.
  • Personal Projects: My blog and other projects that are important have a folder to themselves. I consider the emails in this folder important, but a step beneath those involving client work.
  • Networking: I’m pretty active on several social networking sites, which have a tendency to send out all sorts of updates on a regular basis. All of those get tossed in one folder so that I can just go through and handle tasks like accepting friend requests all in one go.
  • Education: I’m still working on my MA, so all emails related to school need a folder. This is probably the smallest folder I have at this point, but I consider it fairly important.
  • Home: My last folder is devoted to anything that isn’t a work matter — friends and family all go in this folder, as well as emails about my house, health and other topics.

I’ve also made use of Gmail’s filters to make the process as automatic as possible. Just about every newsletter I receive is automatically labeled ‘Bacon’, while each email from a client is automatically labeled ‘Client Work.’ If you’re a Gmail user but not familiar with filters, you can create a new filter by selecting an email and choosing “Filter messages like these” under ‘More Actions”. You can also create filters in Outlook and other email tools.

The Workflow

Each morning, I sit down at my computer and open up my email. I make sure that every email in my inbox has a label connecting it to one of my six folders. I start by reading any new emails in my ‘Client Work’ folder. Unless I can respond to an email in under a minute, I don’t take actions on anything. Instead, I note the appropriate tasks, like ‘Email John Doe regarding edits’ or ‘Research article on marketing tactics’ to my task list in OmniFocus. Side note: I love OmniFocus because I can create a new task using keyboard shortcuts without leaving Firefox.

I go through each folder in the same way. It’s rare that I’ll leave any emails unread, although I may mark bacon emails as read without looking at them if I’m in a hurry. After I read an email and create any appropriate tasks, I archive each email. I’ve discovered that if I leave read emails in my inbox, they tend to distract me every time I log in. If my inbox is empty, I have a much easier time focusing on whatever I’m there to do.

I check my email a couple of times a day, although my goal is to check it once in the morning and once in the evening. I’m working on it, but I’m not too confident that I’ll ever entirely get to that point.

Once I’m done checking my email, I get to work. When I’m working and need to send an email, I actually start in Gist, instead of Gmail. I’ll search for the person I need to contact in Gist, which automatically imports my emails from Gmail. I can see at a glance the emails we’ve exchanged, as well as information like my contact’s recent blog posts and any notes I’ve made for emailing him. I then click on the email link in my contact’s profile, which takes me directly to a new email in Gmail, with my contact’s address already in it.

Why It Works For Me

I know my email methods may seem a little unusual but I had one main goal when I put this system into place: spend less time organizing my email. It’s a matter of seconds now and I’ve got a clean inbox. It used to take me significantly longer to go through my email every day, because I had a lot more folders to try to deal with, or I would get distracted by read emails that were still in my inbox. I’m not saying this approach would work for everyone, though.

If you have an email system of your own, I’d love to hear how you got it set up and what about it makes handling your email easier. Just leave a comment below to share.


  1. Sarah Shaw   •  

    I love this system you set up – seems realy simple and easy to use. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Wow — my first reaction was that I had no idea e-mail could be this complicated! But when I thought about it, I realized that I DO have an email system. Sort of.

    I created about 25 folders for storage — but I view each email as it comes in (without diverting it into folders). They stay in my in-box until I deal with them. Since I hate having stuff in my in-box, I usually deal with emails fairly quickly.

    That’s it.

    Thanks for this post — it’s interesting to see how other writers deal with their emails!


  3. thursday   •     Author

    @Laurie, I think that keeping emails in the inbox until you’ve actually dealt with them works really well for a lot of writers — at the very least, we want to get them out of the inbox and move on to something fun!

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