Email Management = Mind Management

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, June 15, 2016

I’ve helped hundreds of computer users with their email. There’s probably a correlation between how a person organizes their email and how they think. Now, I can’t be the person who casts the first stone because of my own sins. I do better than most, but it’s a never ending war. Sometimes I lose battles and even ground, but over time I progress from chaos to order.

I know very few Zen Masters of the Inbox. The trouble is most folks don’t even know they have an email problem, or how they handle email reflects how they think. It’s like that old belief, a messy desk means a messy mind. Most people I helped are embarrassed to let me see their email program. Doctors see you naked, computer guys see your desktop and how you manage folders and email. That can be just as raw.

Email can be a treasure trove of history, just like old letters used to be. Unfortunately, few people make an effort to save them. Also, your email folder organization can mirror your interests in life. Finally, how you process and save emails can reveal how you categorize subjects in your mind. We all have a limited number of interests in life, If you have an email folder for each suggests a kind of mental orderliness.


I learned this week that an email account I’ve been using for over twenty years is going away. I’ve been dreading that because I use email servers as external memory dumps. I’ve had email accounts in various forms since the mid-1980s, and I was on the internet with email years before the web. I’ve had to migrate email a number of times to new servers. I even ran an email server for a while for a couple hundred people. Each time I closed an account I saw evidence of my activities and thinking for a period of years. Moving this 20+ year account is a massive task because I have tens of thousands of messages stored in a hierarchy of folders.

Because I correspond with many internet friends those messages represented my only connection with them. Plus, my sent folder documents everything I’ve written in email since the mid-1990s. In six days it will all be gone. I’ve frantically been going through the folders looking for messages I think worth forwarding to my new account, but I’m sure I will miss thousands of emails that I will one day want to remember. I suppose I could do something wild like moving them all into the inbox, mark them unread, and then set up a POP3 client, put I won’t. I’m using this experience to clean out the past.

I wished I had moved to a large international email provider sooner. Maybe I’ll get to keep this account until I die. It’s a shame our society doesn’t have some way of archiving email history for the long term.

I am learning a lot about what I really need to keep. For example, I have folders for my mother and father’s side of the family, with emails from cousins and aunts. Like old letters, they represent a series of events we all shared. If I was to ever write a family history these emails would be invaluable documentation. I moved very few of those emails. That knowledge will now be lost. When my mother died, I had to decide what paper records to keep. I didn’t keep many. It’s just too hard to drag the past along with us. If it was easier, future historians would love us.

Under my old email account, I had numerous folders for organizing my personal interests and business connections. Plus, I used email as a way to remember things I wanted to read later. Whenever I read something on the web that I want to write about I’d send the URL in a link to myself in an email, and then file it by topic in my email folders. Now that I’m being forced to recreate my folder system I’ve decided it’s time to reduce my interests in life. I only forwarded a fraction of these “memory” emails to the new server.

In recent years I’ve canceled most of my email subscriptions. It’s best to avoid email whenever possible. In this current migration, I canceled all the rest, and only signed up for few of those under the new account. I love reading blogs, but easier to let WordPress manage my favorites. For favorite websites, I rely on bookmarks.

I’m making a top level email folder for all my main interests in life, but I’m learning that some of my interests might need to be forgotten. For example, I collected links to photography how-tos and DIY Raspberry Pi projects, two hobbies I wish I had the time to pursue more, but only piddle with from time to time. I might need to just delete those folders.

Whenever I read an essay that inspires me to write I save the link in an email to myself and file it in a folder. These are the hardest emails to delete. Deleting them is like deleting ambitions. But I need to Marie Kondo them too.

Email clutter is harder to manage than household clutter because we only see it when we open our email programs. Otherwise, it’s all shoved under the rug. Some web based email programs don’t even tell you how many messages are piling up in the folders. They seem to expect everyone to be bad at managing their email.

When I had to consciously decide what sparked joy, and what to delete, I realized just how many connections to the world I’m trying to maintain. Doctors, dentists, banks, retirement investments, warranties, repairs, service shops, taxes, library, streaming subscriptions, shopping accounts, etc.

Email represents our connections to a larger world. We used to keep such business relationships in file folders and then clean them out every seven years. Being forced to change email servers is forcing me to clean out over two decades of files. The trouble is I can’t look at most of them. I just have to hunt for the vital files and hope the thousands that get deleted aren’t that important.

It troubles me that most of my business interests have gone paperless and saved emails might be my only proof of transactions. I’m rethinking going paperless in some cases. If I died my wife might not even find some of my retirement accounts.

When I retired I was told I’d have my email account for life, and I organized my files thinking that would be true. That email life only lasted less four years. I hate having this done to me but I’m trying to look at it positively. Yes, tens of thousands of messages are being lobotomized from my virtual brain, but I can also see it as weight being lifted from my shoulders.

It also means I can redesign my email filing system again to match my current thinking. This might be v. 5. I’ve already thought of one innovation I wished I had made. It has occurred to me that I should have separate email accounts for my personal business and writing activities. And maybe even have different accounts for my personal life and my internet life. Would using multiple email accounts lead to a multiple-personality syndrome?

Some people leave all their email in their inbox and just use search to find old emails. If you don’t remember what you have you can’t search for it. Going through folders and looking at old emails reminds me things I’ve forgotten. Often that’s cool, but other times it’s wonderful to be reminded.








Tips for Managing Email

Back in May I wrote “Does An Organized Desk Mean An Organized Mind?”  It summarizes the advice Jordana Jaffer gives about organized people that can be quickly summed up as:

  1. Plan the day the night before
  2. Maintain a to-do list
  3. Master email
  4. Keep desks clean
  5. Have a morning and evening routine
  6. Spend 10 minutes cleaning up at end of day
  7. Keep clean and dirty clothes organized
  8. Never leave the dishes
  9. Always eat lunch
  10. Process your mail daily

At the time I had #9 down pat.  Since then I’ve mastered #7 and #8, and mostly mastered #10.  My current goal is to become completely disciplined at #3 now that I’ve got all four of my email accounts cleaned out.  I already feel the tide is turning.  Email, and two messy desks are my Waterloo.  Because I’m a blogger and a member of three online book clubs, I process a lot of email each day.  Learning to wrestle email to the ground and pin it, has taken some time.  I feel a real sense of accomplishment to get all my accounts cleaned out, filed into folders, with an empty Inbox in each account.


Many people keep thinking email is going away, to be replaced by new  social media systems.  I think they’re wrong.  Email is just too basic, too obvious, too useful to ever be abandoned.  On the other hand, email can be a pain-in-the-ass-burden to manage.  Every time I help a friend I often see thousands of emails in their inbox.  Most people just won’t take the time to tame their Inbox.  This essay offers some tips I’ve learned while taming mine.

There’s two workflows with controlling email.  First, the amount of time you spend reading and writing emailing.  Second, the number of emails you process and store.  Email is about efficient communication.  Email has replaced letter writing, but most folks get more impersonal or work email than personal correspondence.  However, a lot of email is now internet friends, people we’ve never met.  Email connects us in ways we never imagined. 

Most people have work and home email accounts, so they have a lot of email to manage.  Some people even have multiple personal email accounts.  I’m retired and have four email accounts.  However, two are minimal because I want to use Google and Yahoo services and get their email accounts by default.  I use an Outlook 365 account for my main email, and an only for my book club activities.


  • Get less email
  • Process fewer emails
  • Send less time writing and replying to emails
  • Have an empty Inbox at the end of the day

How Often To Check Your Email?

Time management gurus recommend only checking your email once or twice a day, and then develop techniques to quickly process it.  Some jobs require constant attention to email because of workflow.  Other people socialize by email, so they check it frequently.  If you think you’re spending too much time working on email, then you need to work on streamlining your email work habits.  The key is to be your own efficiency expert and observe your habits for ways to save time.

I check my email the first thing in the morning, and the last thing at night.  Sometimes when I wake up in the middle of the night, I check it on the tablet beside my bed.  I’m in and out of my email all day long because I work at the computer.  I’m pretty compulsive.  I’m also a net citizen that likes to live in the hive.  If you’re the kind of person that’s ambitious and wants to get things accomplished, learn to have minimal contact with your email.  I dream of writing a novel – and my goal of becoming organized is to make routine time for writing.

Most people have no plan, they just look at their new messages, respond to the absolute essential and hope to get back to the rest.  They let their inbox grow and grow.  At minimum, to manage email effectively, you should keep your inbox cleaned out daily, and learn how to file email you want to save or process later in folders.  You can still horde email, and delay processing and responding, but things will be tidy.

Delete As Soon As You Can

Delete the obvious as fast as possible by reading the least possible in the preview.  Delete everything you think you’ll read later but really won’t.  That’s tricky, but you’ll learn.  Before I retired I had three folders (Do Soon, Do Work, Do Home) that I’d quickly shift emails into from the Inbox.  Now I only need Do Soon.  The goal is always keep the Inbox empty.  If you’re a manager defer emails to others.

Use a preview pane so you can see a portion of the email while looking at the Inbox listing.  This  allows you to work faster.

When deleting make sure the email doesn’t come from a list, and unsubscribe instead of always deleting.  Everything you can unsubscribe to is an endless number of deletions you don’t have to do in the future.

Make decisions now if you can, instead of putting things off later.  Reply quickly and succinctly, and then delete the message.  Or if saving is required, drag the message to an appropriate folder.  Manage your email life in subject folders.

If you have a full inbox, sort by sender.  That shows the obvious emails to delete first, and reveals the mailing lists.

Learn to use Rules so messages are automatically moved into folders and don’t burden your Inbox.  This is especially good for newsletters and mailing lists you actually love to get.  I have a folder for News and Sales.  I can ignore both if needed.

Junk Mail and Ads

All too often your email box is where solicitors now try to grab your attention.  Door-to-door sales, phone solicitation and other salesmanship avenues have dried up.  So our email boxes are the goal for junk marketing.  Even our email providers squeeze in as many ads as possible on the web page where we have our online email.  Yahoo is worse about this, in the middle, Gmail the most subtle, and Office365 the cleanest.

Use an email client if possible.  There used to be dozens of email clients.  With web clients getting better and better, people prefer their simplicity of web based clients, but local clients like Outlook and Thunderbird offer more features than a web client, and they don’t have ads.

Master you junk mail filter.

Newsletters and Lists

Avoid like the plague signing up for newsletters and lists.  Quite often companies and organizations automatically sign you up.  Unsubscribe if you don’t want their content.  If you join any group, or create any new business account, make sure they don’t send their newsletters by unchecking the appropriate check boxes.  Well, unless you really, really, really want them.  Because they are going to infest your inbox like crazy.

Learn to use the unsubscribe feature found on most mass emails.  Legit places always provide a way to opt-out.  You do have to worry about scams, but it’s a human decision you’ll have to make.  If you don’t trust the email, add that one to your junk mail filter.

Everyone has legitimate lists they want to belong to, but make absolutely sure they are worth the time they cause you.  My two favorite lists are The Kindle Daily Deal and The Audible Daily Deal.  I hate missing out on a bargain priced book that I really want.  I could unsubscribe and just visit the two websites daily, but that actually takes more time than getting the emails.

Generate Less Email

If you send less email you’ll get less email.  Don’t initiate emails unless you need a reply.  Don’t reply just to say thanks.  Use other forms of communicate like Twitter, Facebook, IM, texting, phone and F2F.

If you need answers consider sending questions as bullets so it’s obvious you are asking several things so people will address each point.

If you receive an email that other people are waiting for acknowledgement and answers, send the reply as soon as possible, and if you can’t reply soon, be polite and send a note saying you got the email and will reply at a set time.  File message in the To Do Soon folder, or track it with flag or status system.

Use Email Client with Calendar and Task/To-Do List

If a message is calendar related, convert the email to a calendar entry, and even add it to your Task/To-Do list.  Develop a synergy between email, calendar, tasks and contacts.

If you already live by your calendar and/or To-Do list, get the important content moved to those systems fast.  That’s why Outlook is so great.  Since Outlook works with PC/Mac/Web/iOS/Android it’s all in one location for those who have access to an Exchange server.  And Office365 or is very well integrated too.  Google has similar features for Gmail.

Cancel Social Media Notifications

For some reason social media sites, which are alternatives to emails, want to constantly notify you that you’ve got messages in their systems, and to come see them.  This is actually why email won’t be replaced.  It’s extremely easy to miss messages and notifications in social media sites.  And that’s why social media sites send you emails, because emails are a more dependable form of notification.

But if you’re pretty faithful about using your social media sites, or you don’t give a damn, just turn off the notifications that are sent as reminders to your email system.

Use A Second Email Service For Junk Email

Get a second email service and when you’re asked for an email address that you know means getting advertising, give out that address.  Or for anything you want to subscribe to but don’t feel you have to read.  Then when that inbox fills up, do a select all and delete without having to examine each email separately.  

Sometimes Use Your Junk Mail Filter on Friends and Family

Have a friend or relative that constantly sends you forwarded messages representing their political view or “hilarious” jokes and videos.  Tag them with the junk filter.  Of course, you have to assume they will never write you a nice email asking you out to dinner.

Encourage Friends to Use Other Methods of Communication

If you don’t like reading, especially verbose emails, encourage your friends to tweet instead so what they say stays brief, or to befriend you on Facebook.  Or tell them texting is best.  Whatever you actually prefer.

Use Your Smartphone For Clearing Emails

For many kinds of emails, using your smartphone can be a faster way to preview and delete messages.  Or if you stuck somewhere and have some minutes to kill, like being in a line or waiting room, delete messages.

JWH – 9/4/14