Tips for Categorising and Storing E-mails

I have evolved a habit and guidelines on how I handle e-mail categorisation and storing. This aids my productivity, so I am sharing it here in case it helps someone else. E-mail gets a bad rap and depending on who you ask, it’s terrible or wonderful. To me, it complements numerous other tools and works well for certain things.

Despite everything, e-mail tends to stick around. It’s a standard that has stood the test of time and I am still able to access, read and reply to e-mails from 25 years ago. It supports text, rich text, HTML, attachments, embedded images, priority, sent notifications, threading, etc. It’s also extremely portable and can be moved between clients or between servers with a bit of effort.

This is the second post in my personal e-mail productivity series – the first post was about subject lines for e-mails and this focuses on how I organise and categorise e-mails. In a recent conversation, someone asked about e-mail management habits and I had jotted these points down for them.

The main points are as below.

  1. Create folders by broad categories, such as project name, customer name, product name, internal update (technology, bizdev, management,…), work chapter, etc. and file (move) emails there. I try not to do things at too fine a granularity, e.g., I won’t normally do Project-DevOps or Project-QA. It’s quite common for topics like these to overlap, and if you make the granularity too fine, it gets tough to decide which category the e-mail might belong in. However, it’s less common for e-mails to touch disparate things like product AND management. Try hard to see if you can make the e-mail belong to a single category and file it there. In the uncommon cases where it’s equally important to multiple categories, file to multiple folders. Duplication is cheap.
  2. File away e-mails once they are answered – sounds silly and simple, but it’s important so that the inbox continues to clear up.
  3. For my work, I try to keep the Inbox to 1000 – 1200 e-mails. I’m not headed to Inbox Zero or such but I tend to leave e-mails in the Inbox till they get attended to.
  4. Try to remember something odd from the email. This helps you find it. It helps to remember that the e-mail had strange wording like “half the world is online right now” from an e-mail since that won’t occur in many e-mails. If you do remember it, you’ll be able to find it much more quickly than searching for “from:david, subject:update”
  5. Where you have the choice, add something odd to the email body or to the subject of the e-mail. Take a look at my post on e-mail subject lines on how I approach subject lines in e-mails.
  6. When searching, either go to the folder and look there or search your odd words in the online search, if available. We use Office 365 and I use the online search quite often because it’s pretty good. If you do find it using Office 365, take a look at which folder it was actually in – if it is not in the folder that you expected, see which folder it was in, and wonder why you did not think of that one yourself. It will help you file better in the future.
  7. Not strictly related to organising e-mails but to help move them forward, flag your email in Outlook so that it shows up in Microsoft To-do. Again, this assumes that you’re using Office 365. If you are, it’s a good link-up to remind you that you wanted to act on this e-mail.

Finally, this is important for me but might not matter so much to you. I prefer to adjust the colours and fonts in Outlook Desktop so that the display of email in the Outlook client makes me less miserable.

I know some of the items might feel controversial, and you might want to discuss whether e-mail is the best medium for some of the hypothetical scenarios. But, I’m just listing out how I approach it when I am using e-mail.

If you have any ideas to add to the list, please share in the comments below.

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