Thursday, October 18, 2012

How to Take Control of Your Email in a Few Simple Steps

Do you spend too much time on email? Are you looking for a system that academics can use to manage email? In this blog post, I describe a system that will allow you to take control of your email.

After Checking a email inbox i had with my old ISP its all spam WTF!

Email is an amazing way to communicate with people around the world. But, it also can be a time-sink. Academics usually have to spend a lot of time on email. This amount of time tends to increase over the course of your career as you accumulate more students, colleagues, publications, and service.

A couple of years ago, I searched around for a system that would allow me to manage my email more effectively. I had thousands of emails in my inbox, and felt that my email was getting out of control. I found this post by Leo Babauta immensely helpful. The steps I describe below are based on this approach, but tailored for academics.

First, I describe what you can do right now to relieve an overflowing inbox. Then, I explain how to develop a system that keeps your inbox under control.

If your email inbox is overflowing, here are three steps you can take to gain control of it.

Three Steps to an Empty Inbox

  1. Create three folders: 1) Temporary; 2) Archive; and 3) Action.
  2. Take all of the emails that are more than 30 days old and place them in the “Temporary” folder. You will deal with these later, at your leisure.
  3. Start at the top of your inbox and make a decision about each email in your inbox. If you need to do something in response to the email, place it in the “Action” folder. If not, it goes into “Archive.”

If you ever find yourself with spare time, you can return to the “Temporary” folder and attend to any important emails in there. However, if a month has already passed, you probably do not need to respond to them. And, if you do need to respond, you likely will get a reminder about whatever it is you need to do.

If you are using your university’s email system and are running out of space, one idea is to create a gmail account and have a copy of every email sent to you sent to your gmail account. That way, you have a record of every email you receive in an easily-searchable database. If you do this, you can delete emails from your university account instead of archiving them, as they can be automatically archived at your gmail address.

Only place items in your “Action” folder that actually require you to do something. Let’s say you receive an email reminding you about an event. If that event is not yet on your calendar, you can put it in “Action” until it’s on your calendar. Once you have it on your calendar, it is no longer an “Action” item. Now, it is on your calendar – which is a much better reminder system than your “Action” folder.

Once you have a nice, clean, empty, zen inbox, it’s time for you to implement a system to deal with email on a daily basis.

How to Manage Your Email on a Daily Basis

  1. Don’t check email first thing in the morning. One of the best ways to avoid email turning into a time sink is to do other important things first.
  2. When you first check email for the day, process each item in your inbox. Emails should fall into one of these categories:
    1. Respond immediately: Emails that require a quick response “Yes, I can review that article.” Or “No, I can’t make that committee meeting.” If it takes less than a minute to respond, answer the email. Then, archive the email.
    2. Action items: These are items that require a bit more effort. Perhaps you have to check your schedule to see when you can deliver a talk next semester. That might take a bit of planning and though. Place these emails into your action folder.
    3. Archive: These are emails with information that may or may not be important. If it’s interesting or relevant, read the email. If not, archive it.
    4. Other folders: Ideally, I would have just those three categories. However, I also have two other folders that are more or less useful. I am the chair of a major committee, and find it easier to place all emails related to that committee into one folder named “Committee.” I also frequently receive news articles and updates related to immigration that I want to read. I place these in a folder called “To read.” I have yet to actually read any of them, but it makes me feel better to have that folder.
  3. Quit your email. Once you have processed all the emails that came in over the night, and responded to the most pressing ones, quit your email program and focus on something else you need to do, like prep class or write that grant proposal. It is not a good idea to have your email on all the time as it is distracting.
  4. Check your email periodically during the day (fewer times is better). Set aside at least one of those times as the time you attend to your Action items. You see, the action folder will work a lot better if you know for sure that you are going to do your action items at some point during the day.
  5. At the end of the week, make sure that your inbox and action box are empty. Your inbox definitely should be empty. Ideally, your action box will be empty too. However, I often let emails sit in their for a while because I am making a decision about something or have yet to write that letter of recommendation.
I recognize this system is not perfect, but it is better than no system! What about you? How do you organize your email?


  1. I could not agree more with your advice about NOT checking email first thing in the morning!! This discipline is vital to productivity. It's taken me a long time of being conscious of my priorities to be able to put email off until just before lunch each day, and sometimes I still give in.

    Likewise, it's not a good idea to check email at night because you often can't do anything at the moment and then you end up going to bed with some problem or question weighing on your mind!

    Oh email. Sigh. thanks for this, Tanya!

    1. speaking of email - i owe you one! It's in the "action" folder of an account I am not using... But, I will get to it soon.

  2. Hello Tanya

    I have a similar system but I still check my email first in the morning! But I don't have so many emails as you. If I don't check my email for a day I'll probably receive 50-60 emails. But I quickly separe them and delete the ones I do not need to reed. The ones that are important go to different folders, according to the project they are related with. It'easier to search for them later, although Gmail search is quite easy.

    As you suggested I put my Gmail account to transfer the emails from my University email. This way it's never full.

    Just a final remarck. The other day my collegue saw that my inbox was empty and asked me if I don't receive any emails. I said that i have to be the master of my emails before they overrun me! :-)


    1. I like your system. Once you get over 20 emails a day, it is clear you need some sort of system to deal with them. My Action folder always ends up getting too big, but I still haven't figured out how to deal with that.

  3. I use mozilla thunderbird instead of outlook and I use their labelling option a lot. I created labels in different colours for each big task (for example: meetings are brown, courses i take are red, courses I teach are green, everything regarding my phd is blue, etc). E-mails that do not fall into one of my eight categories, are left black. This way, I can additionally use the "only show label"-option next to the search option.

    Every e-mail over 3 months old, gets divided by Thunderbird into different maps in my archive. This way, I can check the right folder as an option when I'm searching in my thousands of e-mails.

    Thunderbird also has an electronic plugin for calendars (lightning, which looks like the gmail-calendar-option). I use the same colours in my calendars as I use for my labels: this way it's easier to see what I need to do that week.

  4. Hi, Thanks to provide information about mailbox archiving.