Email Organization

Most of us use email for communication purposes only.  I use it this way, too, of course.  But I also use it as an extension of my to do list.  Now, most productivity experts will tell you not to do this because it takes away from the communication part of email and because it results in two (presumably) places where task items live.  Generally I don’t want more than one place for tasks.  However, in this case, the to dos in my email are non-important things, digital-only items, and items that must be dealt with via computer/tablet/phone use. Since they’re not important, it doesn’t matter how long the tasks hang out in my inbox.  And since I open my email several times a day, I see and am reminded of these tasks often.

How I organize my inbox helps me to decide what needs to be done and what doesn’t and what specific actions need to be taken for certain emails.

I use Gmail.  Anyone who is familiar with the service knows that it provides many organization options for your email.  First, I have the priority inbox enabled.

What this means is that my inbox is separated into 4 sections: Unread, Important, To Do, and Everything Else.  You can customize your priority inbox in the settings section.

Even though I don’t read everything that comes into my inbox, I do like to see what I’m getting.  So I have my inbox set to put all unread messages in the first section.

You might also have noticed that I use the star options and filters—more on that below.

So the first thing I do upon opening my email is to delete anything I don’t need or want to read.  This mostly consists of store ads and promotions, notifications from Facebook that I’ve already seen in Facebook, or junk that I didn’t even ask for.  I check off anything that falls into this category.

Then, I delete them all at once.  It would take much longer to open each individual email and delete them from inside the email.  Doing this as a bulk action saves me time.  It also helps me to achieve inbox zero every time I open my email.  I never have hundreds of emails that I have to sort through because I do this every single time I open my email.  I know several people who don’t do this, then have a pile of thousands of emails they don’t need, never sort through it because it would take too much time, and are overwhelmed with having so many emails in their inbox.  Like so many other tasks, if you sort through your emails as you go along, the task won’t be so overwhelming.

Once all of the junk is removed from my inbox, I can easily sort through what remains, either by answering it right away or marking it in some way to be dealt with later.  And that’s where the star options come into play.

Gmail gives you an option of stars (the equivalent of flags for other email providers).

You can see which ones I have in use and which I do not.  You can also drag them to a specific order so that when you cycle through the options (by clicking on the star icon in a message) you know in what order they will appear.  So here, my first option is the red bang (known to the rest of the world as an exclamation point, but “bang” is the term that Gmail uses).  This means that it’s the first option that comes up when I click on the star in a message.  The purple question mark is in position three, so it’s the third choice that comes up when I cycle through.  So on and so forth.

Each star icon means something different to me and I will choose one based on what needs to happen with a particular email message.

Anything in my “Important” section (marked by the yellow indicator to the right of the star) needs to be dealt with in some way, whether that means I’m waiting for an answer from someone about something or I need to answer someone or I’m waiting for something to arrive.  And depending on which it is determines what star I use.

In the above photo, anything with a red bang is something I need to answer.  Anything with a yellow bang means I need to do something as soon as possible, usually print a bill or receipt or something along those lines.  A purple question mark means I’m waiting for an answer.  Orange arrows means I have to do something with that email, but it’s not urgent; just do it when I have time, usually research something or read something, etc.  The blue “i” is for information purposes, so in this case, what time Thanksgiving Dinner is on Thursday (these items will be deleted when I’m done with them).  The green check mark means nothing else needs to be done here until the date to which the email pertains has passed (these emails will also be deleted once the date has passed).  The blue “i” and green check mark can be interchangeable; which I choose just depends on what it means to me or represents in my mind.

Labels (aka folders) also come into play here.  I create labels for things that I continually have going on, but I also will create labels for things that have an end date.  In either case, I will apply a label to any relevant emails, then archive (file) them (if they are not sitting in my inbox waiting for some kind of action), and once the project or subject is done with, I delete those emails, as well as the label.  An example is below.

For Christmas, my sister and I are taking my mom to a Kenny Rogers Christmas concert.  Any emails having to do with this (such as ticket information) get the “Kenny Rogers” label and are archived for reference purposes.  Once we have seen the concert, all emails and the label itself will be deleted.

The “Xmas 2014” label is an example of something that always stays.  Once this Christmas is over, all related emails will be deleted, the label name will be changed to “Xmas 2015,” and the label will be hidden from the sidebar until fall of 2015.  I will need this label to stay because this Christmas Eve, my siblings and in-laws and I will do Christmas Picks for 2015 (who is buying for whom) and I will email the list to everyone involved and keep a record of it myself for the entire year.

Labels such as “Organizing,” “Philofaxy,” and “WPL” (anything related to this blog) are never deleted and are always in view.

I have created filters (you can set up filters in the Settings section) for certain emails, everything that I send to myself via Feedly or Pocket, as well as all email notification for the YouTube channels that I subscribe to, Facebook notifications, etc.  So for anything I’ve created a filter for (based on certain criteria I chose), certain emails are assigned a specific label as they come in.  That label can then be put into the priority inbox settings (or it remains as a basic label).

For example, I have certain emails filtered into the “To Do” label, which is the next section in my inbox.

The items that go in my “To Do” section mostly have to do with Philofaxy and other blogs I read.  Anything that needs an action beyond just reading, I email myself.  The item then lives here until I have time to do something with it, whether it’s add it to my blog list, watch a video, etc.  I then use the different stars to indicate what type of action needs to be taken.  I do this because I can see at a glance what I might be able to do based on how much time I have.  For example, if I have several minutes, I can choose something marked with the blue “i,” or a yellow bang which indicates a YouTube video or a music video, respectively; music videos sometimes disappear fast so I like to watch those before anything else.

The final section in my inbox is “Everything Else.”  I believe this is set by Gmail and cannot be changed.  Basically, it’s everything else in your inbox that has already been read, isn’t important (indicated by the lack of the yellow marker), and hasn’t (in my case) been labeled “To Do.”

I basically use this section for (what else?) everything else.  Typically, these are items that I’m waiting on (shipment arrivals), coupons to use (they will live here until they are either used or expired), or things I might need to reference but that aren’t important.  Again, all of these items will be deleted when I no longer have need or use for them.

This may seem like a complicated system to some.  And like many of my systems, it may well be more complicated than is needed.  But it works for me, and it helps me to stay organized and on top of my email.  By organizing what I need and deleting what I don’t, there is no sorting through tons of emails to find the one I’m looking for.  Plus, I always achieve inbox zero; well, the only time I have unread messages in my inbox is the time between checking it.  And although I do have many emails in my inbox, they are all sitting there with a purpose, and I know exactly what that purpose is.

Of course, because Gmail is a Google product, there is a fabulous search feature, which I do use when I can’t find something or when I think I saw a coupon I didn’t save but can’t really remember—the search feature does bring up items that have been trashed (I believe deleted items live in the trash for a month).  But by organizing items, I rarely have to search for something that is important.  Just as writing something down helps me to remember the item, taking action on an email (whether it’s to label the email or give it a certain star) helps me to remember that it existed at all and that something needs to be done with it.

The final post in my digital organization series will be my first impressions on the new Google Inbox.

Happy organizing!


  1. I must say, I thought I had a complex e-mail system with over 20 filters, but you really outshine me here! I love the idea of "inbox zero," but I have hoarder-issues when it comes to e-mails from my friends. So...I set up a second Gmail account for coupons, etc., and for shopping. Now, I delete things right away, or receipts, etc., once I receive what I ordered (and am sure that I will not be returning it). It's a nice feeling! :)

    1. I do achieve inbox zero every time I open my email but that's not to say that I don't have emails saved. They are just organized by label and out of my inbox (archived). For items that I need only temporarily, I do keep in my inbox but hidden by the priority inbox so I don't see them unless I go into that section. When I'm done with them, I delete them. Everything else gets deleted right away or archived appropriately. :)


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