|Volume 6 Issue 7||July 2012|
|In This Issue|
|Cleaning Out and Organizing Your Email--Not Easy, But Worth the Effort|
|Is your Inbox a sprawling pile of messages going back months or years? Read on for my advice on how to handle this all-too-common problem.|
Cleaning Out and Organizing Your Email--Not Easy, But Worth the Effort
The problem with your email Inbox
If you're like most people, you probably use your Inbox as a combination "to-do" list and archive. You tell yourself, "I need to keep this message, so I'll just leave it here and deal with it later." Unfortunately, with new messages arriving every day, any single important message will move farther and farther back in the list. Over time, your Inbox can grow to hundreds or thousands of messages.
This is not about capacity. Most people think having a lot of email messages somehow slows down or overburdens their computer. While that's technically possible, most of the time it makes no difference at all to the computer. Yes, including yours.
The real issue here is clutter. Having too much email can mean that:
Here's a summary of my recommended techniques:
Like any cleaning and organizing project, keep your expectations reasonable. You didn't receive all this email in a day, you're not going to conquer it that quickly. For each of the techniques below, set aside some uninterrupted time. As little as 10-15 minutes can get you off to a decent start.
Technique #1, Part A: Sort by "From" or "Subject" instead of "Date" (Can't do this on www.gmail.com)
Whether you use a "regular" email program (like Outlook, Outlook Express, or Apple Mail) or you use webmail (accessing your email on a web site like www.yahoo.com, www.aol.com, or www.comcast.net), when you work with your email you will see your messages in a list, with information about each message arranged in columns, including From (Sender), Subject, Date, Attachments (a "paper clip" icon), and more.
Most people keep their Inbox sorted by Date. Some prefer to see their newest messages first, some prefer newest last. Either way, sorting by Date is very inefficient for cleaning out your email. Reading down a list of messages in date order will have you mentally jumping around among all different topics, e.g., lunch with Uncle Joe vs. Staples orders vs. movie tickets. If there are 20 separate messages from Uncle Joe scattered over 20 separate dates in your Inbox, you'll waste time and effort thinking about (and moving or deleting) those messages 20 separate times.
To efficiently review a long list of messages, sort them by "From" instead. This will group together messages from each sender, so you can see all of Uncle Joe's messages in a group, putting them in context and enabling you to decide whether to keep or delete them much more quickly and efficiently. And if you're keeping them, you can more effectively and consistently see themes among those messages, and move them as a group.
How do you sort? In most email systems, you click on the title at the top of a column to sort the messages by that column. To sort by the "From" column, click once on the word "From" at the top of that column. This will sort the list of messages alphabetically by sender from A to Z. (If instead the list sorts by sender from Z to A, click once more on the column title to reverse the sort order to be A to Z.) In a similar way, if you'd prefer to sort by Subject, click once on the word "Subject" at the top of that column.
When you're done, put the list back in Date order by clicking once on the word "Date" (or "Received" or "Sent") at the top of that column. (If the resulting Date order is the reverse of what you prefer, click once more on the word "Date.")
Technique #1, Part B: Look for themes, create Folders, move messages, delete unwanted messages
Once you've sorted your Inbox by "From," scroll through it and look for themes or categories.
Since you'll be moving messages out of your Inbox, you won't see them at a glance anymore, so come up with a plan for how to handle important or urgent messages. Will you put them in a "Hot" (or "aaaHot") folder? Leave them in your Inbox? Move the information into a "to-do" document (or print them out) and then delete from your email? What's best for you?
Technique #2: Unsubscribe from legitimate vendors
You'll probably also find some messages you regularly receive from vendors because you (explicitly or implicitly) signed up for their newsletters, offers, or other email notices. If these are from legitimate companies with whom you have a relationship but you no longer want to receive them, don't report them as spam (not fair to the vendor)! Don't just delete them (doesn't stop them)! Instead, open them, scroll to the bottom, click on their "unsubscribe" or "opt-out" links, then delete them from your email. A few minutes spent unsubscribing can eliminate hundreds of unwanted messages in the future.
Technique #3: Now tackle your Sent folder!
The other place where lots of email messages accumulate is your Sent folder. You may even find that you send much more email than you receive! However, similar techniques apply:
Another simple cleanout method is to delete all messages in your Inbox or Sent folders older than a certain date, say a year ago or the start of this year. I'm not fond of this method because you may lose some important messages by arbitrarily deleting based on date. However, it is quick and expedient and it may make sense in some cases.
Technique #5: Use Rules or Filters to route incoming messages directly into folders
If you get regular emails from certain senders that you find yourself always moving into the same corresponding folders (e.g., newsletters, offers and discounts, your chatty Uncle Joe), most email systems will let you create Rules or Filters to "automatically" move those messages into those folders as soon as they arrive, so they won't accumulate in your Inbox. Doing this will save you the effort of moving those messages manually, but weigh that against the possibility that you won't notice new messages arriving in those folders, plus the possibility that some of the time those mechanical Rules may not do what you intended, especially if something changes about those incoming messages. ("How did that email from Al Gore end up in my Weird Al Yankovic folder?")
Stick with it!
These techniques may sound quick and easy, but they take time and thought. Depending on how much email you've accumulated, your initial cleanout may take days, even weeks.
Going forward, you would maintain this organizational system by taking the time to periodically review your Inbox and Sent folders, and then moving messages into folders (or deleting them) as appropriate.
The www.gmail.com web site only sorts by Date!
The Gmail web site is one of the most innovative, clever webmail systems I've ever seen. However, while other webmail systems let you sort your messages by Date, From, Subject, Size, and other columns, despite years of user requests, as of this writing Gmail only sorts your messages by Date (newest first). This severely limits your ability to review your messages efficiently. However, there are two alternate techniques you can use.
Gmail cleanout technique #1: Use IMAP and email software to sort
This method involves accessing your Gmail account without using the web site:
If the IMAP technique above is not practical for you, try this:
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I love helping people learn how to use their computers better! Like a "computer driving instructor," I work 1-on-1 with small business owners and individuals to help them find a more productive and successful relationship with their computers and other high-tech gadgets.