Sophistication vs. Simplicity: Organizing emails






The great Einstein had said:

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”

Ever since I’ve started working, the flurry of emails which I receive everyday, is increasing on an average. And this is the case with everyone else I guess. As I see myself, I’ve been quite disorganized throughout my life. When I was in class 2 and the term was ending, I vowed to maintain all my notebooks and workbooks up-to-date from class 3. And no wonder I thought the same when I was in class 11. I never planned to be organized when I was into engineering. I guess I never felt the need.

The first year of my job was also quite OK in terms of managing emails. There were only a few emails related to the project I was working on and then  a couple of ones here and there. Enter into the next phase of my career and suddenly things changed. My work not only required looking into multiple projects, but there were other non-project related stuff which were equally and sometimes more important. And were large in volumes. For a few months, or rather a couple of years, I somehow managed to work through this. This would have definitely hit my productivity. However, the problem was that I constantly had a nagging feeling of not being organized. Whenever I opened my outlook, it was all flat and uninteresting.

Let’s call this phase I. One fine Saturday morning, I decided, it was enough. I will become highly organized w.r.t. email management. I created about 30-40 odd folders like project 1, project 2….project n (all of these under a master folder called Projects), HR, Management, Accounts, Notifications, Personal, Leisure, Hiring, Processes, Sales-Mobile, Web……etc. Then  I took an arduous task of moving all my existing emails into these. What a feeling I had that night. It was such an awesome sense of accomplishment that I can’t explain. So things went smooth for a while. But then, it started hitting me slowly. The problem was that I almost never looked into the specific folder unless I had to search something. What this meant was that my email had to remain in inbox, until I felt  that it didn’t deserve to remain in the inbox. For some emails, I could immediately move into the specific folders, but some of them had to stay in the inbox for a while. And this again got me to the same point where I had started. I had lots of emails lying in my inbox. And now, the feeling of guilt was much more as it looked more disorganized (earlier I didn’t have those classified folders to make me feel so low). And because of this feeling, I always thought, I need to do something better and usually left the emails lying around in my inbox.

Move to phase II. With Gmail web and all the cool stuff of tagging etc., I found a software which could tag my emails and I could configure rules to move them into specific folders. This was what I always wanted! Wow, all sorted now. I could color code the tags, search based on the tags and what not. This went on for a while. Suddenly, I realized that the folders I had and the tags I was putting-in didn’t co-relate always (BTW, I seem to have the same problems with categories and tags on my blog). And one fine day, the tagging plugin to outlook required a mandatory update. Upon updating, all previous tagging information just disappeared. I am not sure if I checked some wrong option or if it was a bug with the upgrade process of the software itself. This left me in a big fix and made me think as to what exactly I want out of this whole process of classifying emails.

Cut to phase III. On my last Riyadh trip, I decided to dedicate a day to get through this once and for all. I thought through and came up with the following key points:

  • Emails are central to almost 90% of my work.
  • All emails which require my attention, should remain in my inbox unless they have been attended to. Mind that just reading the email through may not be enough to move it out of inbox. If the email requires certain action, it should ideally remain in the inbox until the action has been  followed through.
  • Although I had tagged my emails and moved them into different folders, whenever I had to look for a buried email, I almost always did a search on my root mail folder with keywords which didn’t always match with the keyword I had tagged the email with.
  • Almost 90% of the search was based on the from and approximate date range.
  • The gmail web interface (yes we use Google Apps) was a lot faster than the outlook search and I was using it 90% of the time to search through my emails.
  • Unless I myself had a follow-up to do on a certain email, I will invariably get that email with the trail from someone if and when it needs my atttention. So I will most likely not need to search for anything as the email trail would have all the context.

What the above meant, was that I really didn’t need to get fancy to classify and move my emails in such a  complicated fashion. I decided to just have a few folders:

  • Inbox: Well, you already have it. I now just keep any email there until it needs a follow up item on my plate.
  • Read: All read emails get into this. No strings attached. I am able to move about 80% of my emails almost instantly after reading into this folder.
  • Important: Some emails which may not require immediate follow-up, but are deemed important, go here.
  • Personal: All personal emails get in here.
  • Notifications: All those notification emails (bugs, issues etc.) go in here.
  • Recurring: There are some emails which I need to see again and again. Could be some registration information, credentials which I use once in a while etc.

That’s it. I think I made it simple. I am not sure if it can be made any simpler. But if I could, I will definitely make it. I am happy and I am relaxed. As I write this, I just have 7 emails lying in my inbox.  Now when I open my outlook, it is still flat, but it is interesting!

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Amit Srivastava

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Richa - May 10, 2011

Not sure whether u have done with your email management or not but i think u have enhanced your writing skills. 🙂

Amit Srivastava - May 10, 2011

@Richa: Thanks 🙂


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