How I Stay Organized with Email

If you’re like most people, you receive a lot of email every day. Newsletters from retailers, forwards from your friends or coworkers, the occasional email from a relative, work emails, social media notifications, I could go on and on.

I’m also a compulsive email checker. It’s on my iPhone, iPad, and at work I always have my inbox open. Is it a generational thing? Who knows! I know a lot of people who don’t check their email at all. It’s probably more of an OCD thing. However, you can sort through all of your email clutter without much effort. Your email can do it all for you! I’m a Gmail user, so I’ll be using their terminology, but the same features should be available in whatever email client you use.

1. Undo all of the new Gmail settings. That’s right! I said it, and I’ll say it again. I don’t like the updates that were implemented this year. I have a working system that conflicts with their updates (and I started implementing my own system back in 2005), so undo I did!

Gmail settings screenshot

Gmail settings required for my system to work well.

2. Use labels and filters to clean up your inbox. Gmail has two awesome, probably underutilized, features called labels and filters. 

label is like a folder. You can select an email and attach a label to it, such as “Bills”, and it will appear in your inbox with the label next to the subject line. Or you can remove it from your inbox altogether, and place it in your “Bills” label (folder).

filter is like a rule that tells Gmail what to do with an email. You can instruct Gmail to place all emails coming from @travelzoo.com to skip the inbox and attach the label “Travel Newsletters”. Let’s walk through an example of setting up a filter and label.

Select an email to filter.

You’ll see a new toolbar appear on the top. Click on “More” and “Filter messages like these”.

Then you’ll see this box come up.

creating a filter on Gmail

Creating a filter on Gmail

Here you have a few choices. In this example, I’m filtering all emails with the subject line “CBB”.

creating gmail filter 2

Almost done creating Gmail filter

I want my email to skip my inbox but have the label “Cody Bryan Band”, which is under an existing label “Business”. I’ve also chosen to apply the filter to 18 other emails with that same subject line.

Click “Create Filter” and you’re done! Now those emails will not appear in your inbox at all. Instead you’ll see them as a separate item in your account.

Gmail labels

Gmail labels

You may be wondering why I’d create a filter like that. Since I’m constantly checking my email, I don’t want to read these emails until I’m ready to address them. They’re not urgent, so I can choose a time to open up my Gmail account on my desktop to see what emails I have waiting for me in my labels. I have set up filters for retail newsletters, industry newsletters, bills, and social media notifications — anything that isn’t timely or needs to be addressed immediately. Now I know that when I get that new email notification on my iPhone that it probably is something more likely to be important and needs to be read.

3. Use labels and filters to sort out ideas. I’ve created a filter for my own emails. I like to email myself ideas or links, so anything I receive an email from one of my own email addresses, the email goes to my inbox with a label of “Notes”. On the weekends, I like to check on my “Notes” label to review what I sent myself. You can also use tools like Delicious to do this, but I’ve been doing this for so long, it’s hard to break the habit.

4. Conversations are optional. Gmail groups emails, replies, and forwards together if they’re part of the same email thread. I have kept this setting for my personal email but undid this setting for my work email. If you find yourself missing emails all of the time, you may want to consider undoing it too. Just go to Settings > Conversation View Off > Save

5. Check you email! I can’t tell you how many times people ask me to help them with something at their desk, and then I see that they have HUNDREDS of unread emails in their inbox. Why why why?! I don’t understand this at all. If something is important, read the email, and then mark it with a “Star”. Check back on that email later by clicking on the “Starred” label. Even my iPhone lets me access these emails easily, but I believe it’s called a “flagged message” instead.  Or if you must address it today, keep a Post-It note on your desk to remind you.

The people I’ve met who have this weird system of marking emails as unread to refer back to… well, it doesn’t work. If you do this, and you swear it works for you, please let me know by writing a note in the comments section. I have found that people who use the marking-as-unread system are often unaware of any updates or new email conversations that have started. I personally think not checking your email is a method of procrastination or a way to avoid the stress of whatever is in that email. Do yourself a favor and read the email thoroughly the first time and address it then.

So there it is! Now you know how I keep myself organized and read all of my emails. This system is not perfect, but at least I’m not overwhelmed by my many newsletter subscriptions on a daily basis (there are a lot). I save those babies for the weekend! Coupon much?

How do you stay organized? Do you have any other tips to share? Let me know by posting in the comments below.

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