Monday was my first day back at work after a two week holiday. Of course this means that a mountain of unread emails had piled up in my absence – it’s taken me most of the week to clear them out.
I’m not going to pretend I have some kind of sensational new advice about this: it’s a tedious task that everyone with a desk-based job has to perform every now and again. However, quickly browsing a few simple tips on Lifehacker has made a mind-numbing chore slightly more bearable:
Empty your inbox with the trusted trio
It’s an old article, but still very relevant and it saved me tons of time when clearing out my inbox this week. Instead of setting up a complicated filing structure with myriad sub-folders, and spending ages deciding where to place each individual email, it recommends a svelte three folder flat structure. Archive, Action and Hold are all you need, apparently. This will enable you to quickly decide where to put each email as you come to it based on whether you need to do something imminently (Action), later (Hold), or just store it for information (Archive).
For hoarders like me, it requires a rather strong constitution to dispense with a carefully ordered filing structure, but it really makes sense in the end. Instead of spending 10 minutes wondering whether to store an email under “Recent bids” or “Speculative bids”, I can simply choose one of three folders based on whether I need to respond or not. Search takes care of the rest.
To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t quite as radical as the Lifehacker article advises. Instead of three folders, I think I ended up with about five. And rather than having a separate folder for items which need action, I used Outlook’s Follow-Up function, so I can see at-a-glance how many emails need attention. It’s also geekily satisfying to tick off stuff when you’ve dealt with it.
As far as sorting goes, I actually prefer Mozilla Thunderbird‘s dual tag + folder system to provide maximum sorting flexibility. I’m a bit of a tag-o-phile, and I like the fact that I can label a single message with more than one keyword, unlike Outlook’s “folders-only” approach which effectively act as tags, but limits you to one per mail. Unfortunately, since I only use Thunderbird for my home emails, I haven’t had the chance to experiment as much as I’d like.
Finally, if your inbox situation is dire and you have months of read emails that need dealing with, I’d recommend sorting by sender rather than starting at the oldest. Maybe it’s the fact that you’re viewing emails in an order that’s unfamiliar, but it saves time when it comes to deciding what to keep and what to chuck. If you’re running out of space, simply sort by size and get rid of as many large emails as possible.