I DID IT: I Found an Email Organization Hack That Works

emails under control harling ross man repeller

My email-related anxiety feels like an old Greek yogurt smells: overwhelming, persistent, and slightly tangy. I’ve never tracked how many emails I receive a day because I’m sure it would stress me out, and I’m also sure it’s fewer than other people who are more important and deserving of your sympathy, but I can truthfully say that the number feels quite high. Or at least, high enough that attempting to answer them all seems to require the bandwidth of a full-time job. I typically have just enough time to answer any urgent missives as they come in over the course of a day, which means anything of slightly lesser priority is shoved into the abyss — a veritable purgatory of press releases, brainstorms past their prime, and “quick questions!!” that always seem to require long answers. When I finally get around to responding, I input my standard mea culpa:

Dear X,

I’m soooo sorry for the delay. You can hate me forever, or (!!) I can name my first-born child after you. Please email me your preference, and I’ll be sure to confirm receipt a month or so from now. 


In sum, my nonexistent first-born child has thousands of names, and my email-induced shame spirals are similarly endless. The idea of changing my strategy (or even simply getting a strategy) didn’t occur to me until I read an interview with Audrey Gelman in The Cut‘s “How I Get It Done” series. In it, she describes her email organization system:

“My assistant Penelope is in my inbox all day. We have a very elaborate color-coding system for my inbox with over 60 categories of emails. And then we have another category for action items that go at the top of my inbox so I know that I have to deal with them that day. Penelope and I created these categories in order to triage and organize all the emails I get in a day.”

After spending a few seconds wondering if I should find Penelope and force friendship upon her, I moved on to wondering how I might implement a similar Goodwill Hunting chalkboard-style approach to my own inbox. It sounded even more overwhelming than the chaos I was already dealing with (60 categories!?), but it also clued me into the possibility of finding some kind of reprieve. If there was hope for a CEO of a multimillion-dollar company, there was hope for a fashion director who recently Googled “how to make a Shirley Temple at home.”

The following is a list of tips, tricks, and stratagems I noted down in my online research of email organization techniques:

+ Use filters to automate common actions (maybe if I was a technological genius)

+  Send a mass message announcing you are deleting all emails and starting afresh (would rather send a mass message announcing I have asymmetrical breasts — which I do, to be clear)

+ Set up three different email accounts for work, personal, and bulk email (hahahahahah)

+ Relentlessly unsubscribe (I mean, sure)

+ Get to inbox zero every single day (right after I figure out how Stonehenge got made!)

I didn’t find solace from this madness until stumbling across the headline, The Only Five Email Folders Your Inbox Will Ever Need. Intrigued, I clicked. When the writer compared his former email approach to “slaying a hydra,” I knew I had discovered a kindred spirit. The essence of his new and improved strategy is such: stop organizing your email folders by subject and start organizing them by deadline. His five recommended deadline categories are 1) Inbox (i.e. the holding pen, where emails shouldn’t stay long unless they require an immediate response), 2) Today (emails that need to be answered today), 3) This Week (emails that need to be answered this week), 4) This Month (emails that need to be answered this month), and 5) FYI (informational emails or threads that don’t require a response).

As I absorbed this simple solution, I think I literally felt my cortisol levels drop. I began implementing it right away, first deleting my older folders and archiving the emails stored inside them, then creating new folders under the aforementioned guidelines. (The only additional folder I kept was Hugs, a designated depository for any and all emails that feel akin to receiving a warm embrace, but I digress). I set a daily reminder on my calendar to check the “Today” folder at 4:30 p.m., a weekly reminder to check the “The Week” folder on Thursday mornings, and a monthly reminder to check the “This Month” folder on the Monday of the last week.

I’m still getting used to it, and there are certainly times when I don’t follow my own rules (I’ve been known to save a “Today” email for tomorrow), but so far the results have been downright revelatory, transforming my inbox from a stress orgy to streamlined to-do list. I’m sorry for using the made-up phrase “stress orgy.” But I’m not sorry about the rate at which I now reply to emails.

Graphic by Madeline Montoya.

Harling Ross

Harling is a writer and was most recently the Brand Director at Man Repeller.

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