When you open your email program, do you ever look at all those messages and think:
- "What am I going to do with all this email?"
- "What if I get rid of something important?"
- "It's embarrassing, like having piles of records lying around."
- "I've got thousands of messages in here!"
- "I should be more organized, but who has the time?"
You're not alone!
In this issue I'll describe two particularly useful ways you can organize your email. This topic seemed especially relevant today, since here I am, sending you more
email to add to your collection.
Since there are many different email programs out there on both the PC and Macintosh, as well as "webmail" (getting your email using a web browser), I'm going to focus on the concepts rather than give step-by-step instructions. Just bear in mind that your email program may not have all of these features.
Two Ideas to Start With:
The good news--Email is not as big as you think
Don't worry that your email messages are "filling up" your computer. Unless you regularly receive email with very large (multi-megabyte) attachments like photos or videos, the storage space any one of your email messages takes up on your computer is more akin to a spec of dust in your living room than a couch or bookcase.
The bad news--You've got at least two places to look through
You've probably got even more stored email than you think. It's likely that your email program is not only storing the messages you've received
(which arrive in your Inbox or New Mail folder), but is also storing the messages you've sent
(in your Sent Items or Sent Mail folder), so everything you can do to organize or clean out your Inbox you could also do with your Sent Items folder.
Which of the following best describes the result you want?
- You want to keep your most important messages--email related to unresolved issues, relevant reference material, things you need to do, etc.--but delete everything else.
- You want to keep most every message you've ever received or sent, but you would like to get them out of your Inbox or Sent Items.
- You want to Leave most of your messages right where they are, but delete only the least important ones.
Or, if you're not sure yet, keep reading. I'm confident you'll figure out what you need to do once you start using these methods.
Using Email Folders as an Organizing Method:
Just like separating your rock & roll records from your classical, one useful approach is to create and use email "folders" (also known as "mailboxes"). These aren't the folders your computer uses to organize your regular documents, these are special folders inside your email program that hold your email messages.
You've probably already seen the standard email folders with names like Inbox (or New Mail), Outbox, Drafts, Sent Items (or Sent), and Deleted Items (or Trash). However, once you have more than a few messages, it can be hard to find things in the standard folders.
As you look at your messages, do you see major themes or categories? You might see messages that you can easily separate into Business vs. Personal, Client A vs. Client B, or Uncle Joe's Bunions vs. Uncle Joe's Humor. Create your own custom email folders for these themes, and then move the messages that fit these themes from your standard folders into those custom folders. This can really help reduce your email clutter. You can create custom folders and move messages into them anytime you see a need. Look for the term "folder" or "mailbox" in your email program to explore this further.
Using Sorting as an Organizing Method:
Just like alphabetizing your rock & roll records by artist or your classical CDs by orchestra, another really useful way to review your accumulated email is to Sort your messages. The most common columns on which to sort email are:
- Sender (or From)
- Subject, and
- Date (or Date Received, Date Sent)
In fact, your email is already
sorted by the values in one of these columns. Most people prefer to sort by Date, either increasing (oldest messages first) or decreasing (newest messages first). In most email programs you sort your email by simply clicking directly on a column title
at the top of the list of messages.
Sorting has a number of important aspects:
- It arranges your messages, grouping similar ones together.
- It puts them in order by that similarity, either increasing or decreasing.
- It affects only the messages in the current email folder.
- You can change how your messages are sorted at any time. You can first sort them one way for one purpose (perhaps by Subject to find messages to delete) and then another way for another purpose (perhaps by Sender to find messages to move to a custom folder). Then, if you're like me, you can go back to sorting by Date when you're done.
As you look at your messages, do you see messages that are related because they have the same Sender or Subject? If so, then Sorting them by Sender or Subject, even temporarily, will enable you to make some decisions in bulk
and avoid a lot of message-reading.
Sorting by Date
For everyday use, most people keep their email sorted by Date. That's fine when you simply want to see which messages are newest or oldest. It's also useful if you decide to take all messages that are more than, say, 6 months or a year old and move them to a custom folder or Delete them. However, sorting by Date isn't always the best approach to getting organized, especially if you want to organize your messages by concept and
you get a large variety of email over time. In this case, reviewing your email chronologically will have your mind jumping from one topic to another as you read down the list of messages, which can be tiring and time-consuming.
Sorting by Sender
After looking over the messages you've got, you might decide to Delete all messages from a specific Sender, such as Lands End or your chatty Uncle Joe. Or you may want to move all messages from certain Senders into custom folders, for example messages from your family into a Family folder. Or, you might see that only the latest
message from Uncle Joe is worth keeping. If so, sorting by Sender is a productive way to start.
Sorting by Subject
Alternatively, you can sort by Subject so you can review all the messages on a specific topic as group ("Discount Ticket Offers," "Great Chinese Restaurants," "More about my bunions"), and then proceed from subject to subject in alphabetical order.
Tying it all together
With these ideas in mind, here's the general strategy I suggest:
- Go to your Inbox folder and look it over. Notice the column titles.
- Try sorting by Sender, Subject, or Date. Do you see some themes or categories among your messages?
- If these related messages are all ones you want to get rid of, select them and Delete them. If only the most recent message in the group is worth keeping, select all the older ones and Delete them.
- If you want to keep these related messages, decide whether you want to just Leave them where they are, or whether you want to Move them into custom folders.
- Work your way down through the list of messages, and for each message (or clump of related messages), repeat the process, deciding whether you want to Leave it, Move it to a custom folder (creating the folder if needed), or Delete it.
- Now go to your Sent Items folder and work on the messages that have been accumulating there.
- Spend some time on this every month or two.
So, the next time you're feeling overwhelmed by the sheer volume of email you've accumulated, take a crack at it with one of these methods, and pretty soon you'll find that you'll have whittled that pile down to size, at least until the next batch of email comes in.
If you have a question about how to do any of this in your specific email program, just ask!
Also, as you're cleaning out your email and you find a message that you suspect is spam or a hoax or worse, feel free to forward it to me and I'll tell you what I think.
If you have any comments about this article, send me a reply!
If you have a topic that you'd like me to write about, I'd love to hear about it!