The first time I learned that Outlook had folders that I could use to organize my email, my mind melted. I’m a neat freak so folders excite me. When my wife first met me she thought I might be gay because I was thin, neat, and single. I can’t help it, I was born that way… neat I mean.
Finding a way to organize your email can be a learning process. Email is the single largest disrupter and time waster in the modern day paperless office. Unless you can effectively manage your inbox, your inbox will manage you.
Rewind 2 years and the scene is all too familiar. 1,409 items in my inbox, most of them I don’t need or will never use. They are left to fill my inbox the same way old sweatshirts fill my closet. I never wear them, but I think one day I might.
The To-Do list is staring at me and it makes me feel uncomfortable because the items on it are going to take some real effort. Unfortunately, my default effort level is the same level I exude watching my favorite Seinfeld episode, very little. But since I’m at work and work should be done, I open Outlook and spend 2 very busy hours accomplishing nothing.
Fast-forward to today, my inbox is empty and for the first time ever, Outlook has become a productivity tool. The system I follow I suggest you follow to organize your email using folders is based on my Paperless Office approach.
- Create Projects – Michael Hyatt advises against this but I find it the only way to organize your email using folders. In his post he uses just one folder, “Processed” for everything. Might as well call it “inbox” and save a step. No, you must create a folder for every ACTIVE project you have.
- GTD – Apply the Getting Things Done method to your email. I check my email only twice daily. When I do, I take one of three actions for each email. If I can complete the task in less than 2 minutes, I do. Then I file the message in the appropriate folder. If I can’t do it in 2 minutes, I flag it and make an action item in Nozbe. Everything else, I delete.
- Storage – No matter how much of a minimalist you think you are, you will have emails that you just can’t delete, but don’t really need. This is where the “Processed” folder would fit. Drop the things you just can’t make yourself delete into this and use the search feature to find it later.
- Activities – Create a folder for items that don’t fit a project but interest you. This for me is updates from blogs, authors, industry newsletters, ect. Basically all these are interesting but should be reserved for free time. I circle back and browse them when I have time. I purge the folder monthly.
- Waiting For – Every email that I send to someone else and am waiting for them to reply, I put in my waiting for folder, even if the item applies to a project. When they complete the task, I then move both emails to the project folder.
- Delete – When a project is completed I delete every email in the folder that isn’t critical. The messages then go into the project folder on the server or my Dropbox. Just like with my Paperless Office process, this closing of the project creates a good opportunity to reflect.
Outlook can be your biggest friend or your biggest foe, the choice is yours. Organize your email using folders to achieve a zen-like email relationship and stop wasting time. Below are a few more articles I’ve written on becoming an email ninja, and one on fitness, just incase you’re single.
How is your relationship with Email?