For most of us, e-mail has become a primary means of communication—which means that we have an ever-expanding list of messages to read and process. To keep from being overwhelmed, first figure out how to keep your inbox under control, and then decide on other details of e-mail organization. As with organizing your files, choosing strategies to implement will depend on whether you prefer to find a place for each message or to rely primarily on searches to sift through your mail.
The organizer’s strategy
Act Quickly, File Everything
If you hope to apply order to your rapidly growing collection of e-mail, you have to be willing to act decisively, dealing with messages as swiftly and efficiently as you can and then filing them away in discrete mailboxes. By choosing a place for each message that you receive, you can build groupings that add context to your messages—categorizing them by project or by your relationship to the sender. Later, when you need to find a particular message again, you’ll know just where to look.
If you feel overwhelmed by the rising flood of messages in your inbox, these tips should help:
Empty Your Inbox
Keeping your inbox under control requires vigilance. If you allow messages to pile up for too long, you’ll have a much harder time dealing with them. You may also have greater difficulty remembering which messages still require your attention. To address this problem, I recommend treating your e-mail inbox like a physical inbox on your desk—that is, a place that holds things you haven’t looked at yet. Try to deal with messages as you read them. Once you’ve read, replied to, or otherwise acted on a message, immediately file it in an appropriate mailbox. My inbox, for example, seldom has more than half a dozen messages in it at any given time.
As with managing files, deciding how to set up your filing system is largely a matter of personal preference. However, if you choose to divide your mail between many very specific mailboxes, you may find it helpful to group similar mailboxes in nested folders, which you can then hide or reveal as needed. For example, you might have a Work mailbox that contains a separate mailbox for each work project.
If you’re having trouble making decisions about where to put individual messages, consider setting up a system of mailboxes based on actions that need to be taken, rather than categorizing messages according to their content (see
“The Three-Mailbox System”
Automate Your Filing
People who receive hundreds of messages a day often rely on their e-mail software’s rules (or filters) to help them process their messages more quickly. Rules scan incoming messages for specific criteria, such as a particular sender or text in the subject line. When a rule finds a message that matches a criterion, it takes action, typically moving the message into a designated mailbox.
To set up a new rule in Apple’s Mail, choose Mail -> Preferences and click on Rules; in Microsoft’s Entourage, choose Tools -> Rules. You can use rules to filter out spam that your junk-mail filter doesn’t catch—for example, deleting messages with the words
in their subject lines—or to move all messages from your coworkers into your Work mailbox (see the “Mail Room” screenshot). To set up the latter rule in Mail, set the first condition to From Contains, and then enter the domain name that appears at the end of your company’s e-mail addresses (after the symbol).
When creating multiple rules, keep in mind that your e-mail program applies rules in order. So if it isn’t filing messages in the way you expect, one rule may be interfering with another that is applied after it.
Mark Messages for Follow-Up
Some messages, of course, you can’t dispose of immediately. Perhaps you can’t reply to the sender until you’ve finished a project or done some research, for example. If such messages are starting to clutter up your inbox, create a mailbox that’s specifically designated for things that need follow-up. This gets these messages out of your inbox but keeps them within easy reach. Just make sure that you check this mailbox frequently.
Most e-mail programs let you keep track of messages that still need attention, by flagging them. To do this in Mail, select the message and choose Message -> Mark -> As Flagged. In Entourage, choose Message -> Flag For Follow Up. Once the message is flagged, you can file it in an appropriate mailbox.
To keep track of your flagged messages in Mail regardless of where they’re filed, create a new smart mailbox (choose Mailbox -> New Smart Mailbox) and set the first condition to Message Is Flagged. Give the smart mailbox a name and then click on OK.
Entourage offers a built-in custom view called Flagged, which displays all flagged messages; to see them quickly, simply click on Flagged in the Mail Views section of the Entourage folder list. This lets you get messages out of your inbox without allowing you to forget that they still need a response. You can also set up your own custom view. First, perform a search by choosing Edit: Advanced Find, fill in one or more criteria, and then click on Find. When the search results appear, choose File: Save As Custom View and give the view a name.
Limit Your Search
If you’re having trouble finding an old message, try searching one mailbox at a time. The results are usually much faster than searching all your mailboxes at once.
The searcher’s strategy
Keep Everything in One Place
If the presence of messages in your inbox makes you feel untidy, filing them away will help keep them out of your sight. But if you’re overwhelmed by the idea of trying to find a home for each and every message you receive, you may find it more convenient to skip the filing system and instead use your inbox (or another catchall mailbox) as a general storage bin. By keeping everything in one mailbox, you’ll avoid the hassle of switching between mailboxes. This strategy may also make it easier to keep track of messages that are difficult to categorize or that fall into several different categories.
If you choose not to file your messages (or to use only a few mailboxes), you’ll rely more heavily on your e-mail client’s search features. However, if you use Mail with an IMAP account, this is probably not the best strategy for you. The program often runs into serious performance problems when there are more than 1,000 messages in its IMAP inbox.
When you use your inbox (or any mailbox) as a general storage bin for a massive quantity of mail, quickly singling out a particular message from the crowd becomes much more challenging. These tips will help:
Use Color Coding
If you keep all your messages in your inbox, color-coding them will make it easier to find the ones you’re looking for. For example, you might use one color for coworkers and another for family and friends.
If you use Entourage, setting up a color system is relatively easy. First, set up your color scheme by choosing Edit: Categories -> Edit Categories. Click on Add Category, enter a description, and then select a color to represent that category. As you add contacts to Entourage’s address book (choose Tools -> Add To Address Book), quickly assign each one a category by selecting Edit: Categories. Now every message you receive from this person will appear in the color you selected (see the “Color My World” screenshot).
Every e-mail client offers search features that can help you quickly locate one message in a list of thousands. In Entourage, for example, you can perform a quick search by entering text in the search field at the top of the window and then using the pop-up menu to restrict the search to the subject line, sender, recipient, category, or project. To quickly see just your unread messages, choose View -> Unread Only.
However, all of these strategies rely on a single search term. In Entourage, to perform more-complex searches using mul-tiple criteria—such as message content, date received, and attachment names—press Command-option-F. In the Find window, you can also specify whether to search just the current mail folder or all folders.
Mail, on the other hand, relies on a Spotlight search field to perform searches. Type search terms into the field and then click on the buttons that appear above the message list to determine whether the search applies to your current mailbox or to all mailboxes, and whether it searches the entire message content or just one of the headers. You can also use Boolean searches to track down messages in Mail.
Advanced Mail Searches
|To Search for E-Mails Mentioning…
|Apples AND Oranges
||Apples & Oranges
|Apples OR Oranges
||Apples | Oranges
|Apples but NOT Oranges
||Apples ! Oranges
|Apples AND either Oranges OR Lemons
||Apples & (Oranges | Lemons)
To help narrow down search results in Mail, use these handy Boolean expressions. (You must choose the Entire Message option for these to work.)
The last word
The moral of the story is that only you can decide what works best for you. If you already have organizational techniques that serve you well, then by all means stick with them. But if you don’t have a system, or if your system isn’t working well, some of the suggestions here may help set you on the right track. However, don’t feel limited to just one strategy. You may find that a combination of filing and searching works best for you. For example, you may want to file away e-mail receipts but leave general correspondence in your inbox. Most importantly, keep in mind that once you’ve developed a system for managing your files, you have to stick with it.Mail Room: Mail, like most e-mail programs, offers rules you can use to sort incoming messages. In this example, all messages from the macworld.com domain get filed into a Work mailbox, to keep them separate from spam and personal mail.Color My World: To make it easy to quickly distinguish personal mail from work-related mail in Entourage, create a color-coded system for all incoming mail. Use the Categories pane to set up your colors, and then apply those categories to contacts.
The three-mailbox system
If you’re struggling to find a useful way of categorizing your e-mail—particularly e-mail that still requires your attention—consider taking a page from the Getting Things Done system (see “The Secret to Getting Things Done”). Rather than filing messages according to subject matter or sender, file them according to when you need to act on them.
To set up this system, create three mailboxes (one for each type of message that demands your attention). Start with an Act On mailbox to hold messages that require action but that you can’t process right away. Next, create a Waiting For mailbox for messages that you can’t act on until someone provides you with additional information. And finally, create a Read & Review mailbox for lower-priority messages that you’ll look at when you have time.
Respond to messages immediately if you can. If you can’t, file them in the appropriate mailbox. Whenever you have some spare time, open the Act On mailbox and deal with as many messages as time permits.
Beef up Mail
If you like using Apple Mail but feel limited by its search and sorting features, two add-ons from
will give you some needed power:
MailTags: This $25 utility enhances Spotlight searches by letting you apply keywords and categories to both incoming and outgoing messages. For example, you can tag all messages pertaining to your dissertation with the keyword
Later, if you perform a search in Spotlight, it’ll find all messages tagged as being relevant to your dissertation, even if some of the messages don’t include that word in the subject line or message content (
Mail Act-On: This free plug-in lets you apply specific rules to selected messages, using keyboard shortcuts. Ordinarily, all rules apply sequentially to all incoming messages. But with Mail Act-On, you can create special rules that apply only when you invoke them. For example, you could create a key sequence that means “file this message in my Friends mailbox” or “send this canned reply to this person” (
Tip: When in doubt, keep it
You should feel free to delete spam and any ephemeral messages, such as the announcement of a new product line at your local kitchenware store, as they come in. But don’t be overzealous about tossing old mail. With today’s generous hard drives, there’s little point in deleting legitimate correspondence. Instead, tuck it away where it won’t be in your way, but where you can easily find it if you need to. You never know when you’ll suddenly need to remember the name of the bass player your cousin was dating last year.
Joe Kissell is the senior editor of TidBits and the author of
Real World Mac Maintenance and Backups
(Peachpit Press, 2006).