Recommendations on how to organize e-mail

In order to keep control of e-mail there is all sorts of advice on web sites, books and TV shows telling you to use folders and tags to organize (or even organise) your e-mail. But there is almost no advice telling you how to organize it. So, in the spirit of rampant egotism and the belief that I know best, here are some recommendations how to organise your e-mail. Although first we just need to describe the tools and techniques that I suggest to use

i. Understand the difference between folders and tags. Folders are long term, structural things that divide messages. Tags on the other hand are far more flexible.

Think of folders as the wall that divide up a house- you can move walls, but it is quite an undertaking. Tags on the other hand are more like a free standing bookcase that you buy from Ikea- it is pretty straightforward to move the bookcase from one side of the room to the other or add another bookcase etc. In fact the bookcase metaphor works on a second level: In an ideal world, any tag will exist solely within a single folder, just as a bookcase will normally exist in a single room. However, you could always place the bookcase so that it is half in one room and half in the other; but you would probably need a fairly particular purpose to need to place a bookcase in a doorway.

Finally on folders and tags, and this is where the bookcase metaphor breaks down, you can easily assign multiple tags to a single message. Storing a message in multiple folders generally requires physically copying the message multiple times.

ii. Know the searching and sorting capability of your e-mail program.

Every e-mail application that I have used in the last 5 years allows you to customise the information that is displayed. Most times the message pane will contain the senders name, the message subject (or title), the sent time and possibly whether the message had an attachment or not. The crucial thing to note is that all these columns are sortable (and in some applications they are groupable- though that may not be a real word). What this means is that we can use the computer to search or sort on any column that can be displayed in the message pane.

So, with that understood, how should you organise your e-mail?

1. Create your folders based on large, stable groupings that (and this is the crucial part) are not based on any column that is available from the message pane.

This means that you should (probably) not create a folder called “John Smith” to store all the messages that you send to John and he sends to you. Instead think of what John is, or how you know him or what you talk about with him. So, if John is part of your family or if you know him from the pub then perhaps those are the folders you can create. At work this process is often easier: if you work on multiple projects (or even have multiple billing codes) then the process is simple: 1 folder per billing code. It doesn’t matter who sends the message, if it is related to that project it goes in that folder.

2. Supplement your folders with tags that provide additional information not contained within the folder, the message pane columns or elsewhere.

3. Finally, and this does bend the previous rules slightly: If you are using an e-mail program that doesn’t use a database to store the messages you will need to archive your messages. This is obviously a time based breakdown, which is one of the sortable columns. However, I can’t think of a smart way of creating archives any other way, so just suck it up.

So, some of these suggestions may be old hat- I think that the crucial one is #1: I haven’t seen anyone anywhere else make this proposal, but I have been using this approach for a while now and it works a charm at work (it is a bit more problematic at home, but that is because deciding on the folder structure is harder). Good luck with it. Or just ignore me and carry on as before