Organize your Emails • Cat Morley

If you start every email with "sorry for the late reply", discover invitations to exciting events that you missed, have to wait ages as your computer churns to open your inbox, or feel guilty for not replying to a year old letter from a friend, then it's time to get on top of your email!

This may sound easier said than done, but don't worry, it's not impossible. There was a time that I use to dread opening my inbox. I even turned off the ping sound, so that I wouldn't be reminded of what lurked behind the innocent looking postage stamp icon sitting in my dock. Eventually I became numb to the whole thing, even though I knew there were urgent messages becoming even more urgent, deadlines for opportunities flying past and what felt like 10,000 word essays from disapointed friends waiting unread.

However one day, after noticing an email dated over a year old at the bottom of my very long-list of unanswered mail, I snapped and decided it was time to take my inbox seriously. I was sick of feeling guilty, missing out on things and letting other people down. I started to dream of a day when I could reply to every email within 24 hours of receiving it. The first few days took a lot of work, and then it took several months to get in to routine, but a few years down... I think I have the hang of it!

I'll never be perfect but I'm not scared of email anymore, so I've put together a little guide of my best tips for getting your inbox under control. Who knows, I may need to use it again for myself one day. Seriously though, if I can get my inbox monster under control then you can too, so let's get started...

1. Empty your inbox

To get organized, you have to start fresh and get your inbox empty. This may sound daunting, but we're not got to spend hours answering emails right now. Some people like to create a new folder called something like "old inbox", which I'd recommend if you don't have time on your hands, but otherwise, we'll do our best to empty it now. Emails tend to fall under these four categories:

a) Trash - Quickly scan through your emails and delete any spam, unwanted messages, notifications and newsletters you don't want. This is strangely satisfying and you'll be surprised how rapidly your message count drops.

b) Answered mail - Archive or file away any emails that you've already replied to. If you're waiting on a response to something, you can either flag the message or make a note of it in your to-do list.

c) Quick replies - Answer any emails you can respond to in less than a minute or two and then delete, archive or file away. Don't get stuck in to anything long-winded right now or you'll lose momentum.

d) Must reply to - Flag or note in your to-do list any emails that need answered but will take more than a few minutes to reply to. Or if the email requires some kind of action before you can reply to it. You can then file these away in a folder until you have more time to take care of them.

Unread emails are the only ones you should have in your inbox from now on.

2. Create folders

Creating folders is a helpful way to stay organised while keeping email out of site and helping you to stay relaxed while processing your messages.

The tricky part is deciding how many folders you need. I suggest keeping them to a minimum because you can always add extra later, as you need them. For now, you'll just want one for each aspect of your life - family, friends, work etc. You may always want a folder for unanswered mail, so that you can filter through it before filing away the email in to it's appropriate folder.

3. Unsubscribe

Unsubscribing may sound harsh but it's essential to keeping your sanity. These are the three main things to steer clear of:

Notifications - If you're signed up to a lot of websites, then you'll likely receive dozens of notifications for every bit of activity, from someone following you on Twitter to someone poking you on Facebook. Most websites will remind you of these when you log in, so you don't really need to be emailed about them beforehand.

Newsletters - Do you really need these? If it's a site you really like then you probably check it frequently and will be subscribed via RSS or in some other way like Twitter or Facebook. Do yourself a favour and hit the unsubscribe button. If you can't find a way to unsubscribe, just mark it as Junk and your mail program will learn not to let these messages in to your inbox.

Forwards - These can be anything from a selection of funny photos, strange games involving scrolling through multiple lines of text or weird chain mail. There's a certain type of person these really appeal to and if you're one of them, you should keep them coming by all means. But, if you find them annoying, then ask your friend / family member / whoever is sending them to drop you from the CC list. Or, if you don't think they'll take that very well, then set up a rule to put these in to a special folder (maybe the trash?).

4. Draft stationery

If you send a lot of similar emails, for example, asking people if you can feature them on your blog, requesting books for review, or thanking people for purchasing from your shop, then it's a great idea to create some standard stationery.

Most mail programs provide a stationery service and they're easy to use - just ask Google about the one you're using. Not only will this save you hours and hours of time while saving your wrists from repetitive strain injury, but you can invest time in writing the most perfect email, proof read it and then feel certain you're sending a great email without any spelling mistakes over and over again.

Leave the first couple of lines blank when writing stationery, so you can type in the receivers name and a few lines of chatty personalised email. That way it won't feel too auto-generated.

5. Add a signature

A signature is a great way to provide extra contact information, while saving you from typing it in every time. For example, you can include a link to your website, Facebook, Twitter phone number and postal address. You can even create multiple signatures depending upon who you're replying to - so you're not sending your home address to absolutely everyone.

One really great trick is to include a plain text sign off in your default signature (and on your phone too) which will save so much time. For example, I'll end my emails like this:


This works really well when out and about on your phone, as you can reply with just a few short words and it still signs off your message nicely.

6. Set limits

To stop your time being sucked away answering emails, it's important to set limits on how often you reply to messages and check your account. I like to answer all of my emails first thing in the morning. I then close my account, so that the impending replies don't distract me from the rest of my to-do's.

I'll then check my account a couple of times throughout the day, to make sure there's nothing urgent and leave the rest to be answered the next morning.

7. Track replies

The time when email really falls down is when people don't reply. This is usually because their inboxes are even more chaotic than your own and the only emails they'll see are the ones at the top of the stack.

To make sure your message gets spotted, you need to chase someone up, getting your email to the top of their inbox until they reply. This may sound annoying but you won't believe the amount of times people have thanked me for reminding them.

It doesn't take too much work to chase up but you do have to be organised for it to work. So the next time you send an email you want a reply to, take a note of the date - either in your to-do list and calendar and when you'd like to hear back from them by. A week is usually a good amount of time to wait and then, if you still don't get a reply, send another email two weeks later and a final email after three weeks.

If they're still not getting a reply, something must be wrong. You can try calling, tracking down an alternative email address or someone else who works with the person. @-ing on Twitter is always worth a shot too.

For further tips on organzing your email, check out these links:

Do you have any tricks for staying on top of your inbox?