Organize Your Email Inbox and Avoid Wasps

For years I resisted the need to get a handle on my email inbox. Actually, for years I resisted the need to look at my email inbox.

This was partly due to the fact that email inboxes don’t have handles to get hold of. On top of that, there aren’t even boxes to which one might attach the aforementioned handles, and looking at an email inbox actually means viewing a monitor or screen.

But this isn’t all bad, as you know. With digital mail, there are no wasps to launch angrily from the box into your clothing, no frustrating mailbox doors that never seem to close completely (hence the wasps), no deceased boxes murdered at the end of a high schooler’s baseball bat, no wet, torn, or otherwise defaced Christmas cards from orphans.

I heard the rumors about people who successfully organized their email…about those who weren’t controlled by the constant notification “you’ve got mail”…about those who weren’t afraid of their inbox. I was always suspicious. I considered it an urban legend that an ordinary factory worker in Idaho, who maintained a valid email address, once actually emptied his inbox.

But I finally gave in to the hype, to the promotions, to the thousands of emails promising me the solution to too much email. I actually read the features on my email server, took action, and now my life will never be the same.

Well, that’s a bit too much hyperbole, but I was pleasantly surprised how a couple of simple fixes made email much more pleasant for me. It didn’t even involve needing to spray for wasps.

I subscribe to a couple of newsletters, blogs, and websites, and coupled with my work as a pastor and normal communications with friends and family, the daily email can get overwhelming. Before I took action, I don’t think I had done anything to clean up one email account for five years (I have three accounts for various purposes). I don’t think I had seen any white space at the bottom of my inbox since I went online.

Before, I only made files for saving various emails (right-click on your Inbox tab to create a new folder). This helped marginally, but I was still left with a growing list of folders holding nothing but dated messages, a runaway inbox, and an ingrained habit to check email every five minutes or so.

Two things helped: a Schedule and a System.

The Fixed Schedule

A man without self-control is as defenseless as a city with broken down walls. Proverbs 25:28 (TLB).

But the fruit of the Spirit is…self-control. Galatians 5:22-23 (ESV).

The first thing I did was develop the habit of only looking at email twice each day. Each morning I check email to sort messages by priority and action, and each afternoon I sort again and respond to those emails that require it.

This seems simple, but if you have developed the habit of checking your email inbox whenever your phone alerts you or your desktop prompts you, it will take some adjustment, and quite a bit of self-control. Email is a tool, but when we allow it to tell us what is a priority, then we serve it instead.

The Folder System

I now maintain a few active folders for email, rather than simply an ever-growing list of folders for dated and completed email discussions. Here are the active folders I currently have:

  • Action Required
  • Advertisements
  • Check Daily
  • Salem Leaders
  • Salem Members
  • Orders
  • Bills

I divert emails from the general inbox to each folder using the filters on my email software. I use gmail and Thunderbird for desktop, and Bluemail for mobile. Each has filtering options, usually found in either the settings or tools tabs.

Action Required. If something comes in to the general inbox or to one of the other folders and requires action, I put it in the Action Required folder to deal with later, usually around 3 p.m. each day. If something can be handled with a quick email response, I go ahead and handle it then. Everything else goes in this folder. For example, I got an email from a church member notifying me of a changed phone number. Because this required me to make some changes on my contacts software and a paper directory, I saved it for later.

Advertisements. Many would prefer that these go directly in the “round file.” The “round file” is a phrase from ancient history before there were digital documents, and I’m not quite sure what the email equivalent of a trash can is, though most icons for Trash give a nod to us old guys and use a wastebasket of some kind.

I do like to keep up with a few vendors for new products, sales, promotions, and so forth, so I set my email filters to catch these and send them to the Advertisements folder. I check this each morning and afternoon, and if something seems worth reviewing, move it to the Action Required folder. Everything else goes in the round file, the “digital trash receptacle.”

Check Daily. I like to read posts and newsletters from a couple of bloggers and other sources, so these go in the Check Daily folder.

Salem Leaders/Members. I want and need to see what the leaders and members of my congregation are sending me, so they get a special folder. Though the name doesn’t indicate it, I do check these daily. You might have similar folders for Family or Friends.

Orders. This is for order confirmations you get when you purchase something online.

Bills. I use this for all the online and electronic billing I’ve set up for ordinary expenses, such as internet, phone, power, and so forth.  Again, this is one I check regularly, though the name doesn’t say so.

This list of active folders doesn’t take care of all the email coming into the inbox, but does sort most of it. Once it does, there is a very short list and manageable list of messages to deal with in the general inbox. By using the Folder System I’ve been able to cut my inbox emails down to about fifteen, and can actually see white space at the bottom of the inbox pane. I haven’t gotten to “Zero Inbox” yet, and still harbor a bit of suspicion that it and Sasquatch are friends.

And, by using the Fixed Schedule, I’m much more productive and efficient with my time. I didn’t realize how little I was concentrating, and how much time I was consuming, by dealing with email as it came in.

If you already have a system to handle email, great. If not, you can use something like my system to start getting a handle on it. The key is to adjust your system so that you aren’t bombarded and overwhelmed, but actually see messages that you need to.

What have you done to manage email? I’d like hear from you.

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