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I get a couple of hundred emails a day for work. Many are part of an email conversation that spans several days or even weeks, so I'm loathe to just delete them outright, as I might need them for reference at some point in the near future. The consequence is that I have thousands of emails in my Inbox alone, most of which is no longer relevant. I use Thunderbird, so I have some organizing features available to me, but what I really need is a good, overall methodology for email management. Does anyone have any suggestions? Thanks!

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Thanks for the quick thoughts. I wish I could have checked 2 or 3 o the answers; I like the Inbox Zero concept. –  Joe Casadonte Oct 31 '09 at 1:18
    
Interested in GTD? Join Personal Productivity and Organization, we are looking for users & experts... :) –  Tom Wijsman Apr 10 '11 at 11:59
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5 Answers 5

up vote 8 down vote accepted

A combination of various interpretations of the "zero inbox" strategy combined with the Get Things Done (GTD) process.

  1. Self-Discipline: Only view your inbox a few times a day - when you start work, shortly before you finish work and a couple of times in between.
  2. Mailfile organization: Have two "special" folders in your mail file: basket and soft-trash. Then have folders work (and maybe private) with various sub-folders for projects / topics.
  3. Process: Whenever you open your inbox, deal with all mails, starting at the top and not finishing until the inbox is zero. Depending on the amount of mail, go over the inbox iteratively until empty.

Possible actions per mail are:

  • delete immediately to the trash of the mailbox (things you definitely do not need anymore)
  • move into soft-trash folder (things you might need in the short future)
  • move into basket folder (things you want to keep)
  • move into a dedicated folder beneath either work or private folders (things you want to keep and are important enough)

Difference between basket and dedicated folders beneath work

Try to put everything into basket and just use the search feature. But maybe there are certain topics / projects / issues that you want to group together and be able to view in their entirety - so you put them in a appropriately named folder.

Another tip for the basket folder - depending on your mail application - is to use tags for enhanced search features.

What to do with the soft-trash folder

Delete mails from the soft-trash folder regularly, e.g. mails that are older than 3 months. This gives you a certain amount of backlog mails when you find out, that you need that mail that you deleted 2 days ago, b/c you thought you would never need it again...

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Just an FYI- I've been running with this type of setup for the majority of this month, and I love it -- thanks again for the help! –  Joe Casadonte Nov 23 '09 at 16:37
    
Interested in GTD? Join Personal Productivity and Organization, we are looking for users & experts... :) –  Tom Wijsman Apr 10 '11 at 12:00
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I really like the Inbox Zero strategy. Of course, it requires some effort, but you cannot expect effortless handling of email, can you?

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Just accept this answer now, no need to wait, this is the best answer! –  Larry Oct 30 '09 at 14:59
    
@Larry, fact that you think it is the best answer, doesn't make it the best answer. –  Gnoupi Oct 30 '09 at 15:02
    
@Gnoupi True but that's why it's a comment, it just my opinion. –  Larry Oct 30 '09 at 15:07
2  
Gnoupi: it's not only about the fact that Larry thinks this is the best answer. It's about the fact that Larry and me think this is the best answer ;-) –  innaM Oct 30 '09 at 15:07
    
you can say "I completely agree, this is a great method". This is different from "this is the best method, accept it already". Limit between the opinion and the "general truth", simply. –  Gnoupi Oct 30 '09 at 16:14
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Inbox Zero is hands down the best answer, as Manni suggested. After you are done with that check out Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (Paperback)

It will help you refine your new found superpowers

To summarize the GTD process:

When processing a bucket, a strict work-flow is followed:

  • Start at the top.
  • Deal with one item at a time.
  • Never put anything back into 'in'.
  • If an item requires action do one:
    • Do it (if it takes less than two minutes)
    • Delegate it
    • Defer it
  • If an item does not require action, do one:
    • File it for reference
    • Throw it away
    • Incubate it for possible action later

If it takes under two minutes to do something, it should be done immediately. The two-minute rule is a guideline, encompassing roughly the time it would take to formally defer the action.

See the Wikipedia article for more.

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This is a bit extreme/unorganized but what I sometimes do is (in gMail) "Select All" and then glance through and deselect the important ones and then click 'Archive'. That leaves only the important stuff in the Inbox.

I have a lot more unnecessary email than I realize so this works really well for me.

As always, YMMV.

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I quit organizing my email because I felt like I was screwing it up and letting emails pile up and then I just couldn't find what I was looking for because I didn't know what folder I put it in. For what it's worth, I use Outlook 2003 and I get less than 30 messages per day.

Here's what I do now:

  1. I installed Google Desktop because it will let me search my email better than anything else I can find.
  2. I keep one month of email in my Inbox. After that, I move it to a separate archive.
  3. I do have a few folders I use but they are mainly for automated emails I receive and for emails I often reference. Most of these folders have a rule set up that automatically puts the email in that folder and completely bypasses my Inbox.

Good luck!

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