Getting organised with …. Email!

Being organised is the cornerstone of being a successful student. Let's start with one of those everyday things we need to manage: Email.

This is the first of a few posts on tools and techniques I'm using to keep me on top of personal/study/work things. So let's jump in with a chat about Email.

I appreciate that for many,  email is a nightmare and getting to that hallowed "Inbox Zero" where there are no emails remaining in your inbox is a challenge… or a fight against the tide. 

I've been fortunate enough to never really find it so. I unsubscribe to things I don't need and get a relatively small amount in (20-30 emails a day) to not get stressed or overwhelmed. I also make use of filters and rules to blitz or reposition the stuff that comes in.

Having an email structure and a process to follow really helps me get to Inbox Zero… details below!


Email Tools

I use Gmail for my home/personal email.  I've been using Gmail for about 10 years. I have played with Apple Mail, Thunderbird, Opera, Proton and lots of other email variations, but for me, Gmail works a treat and is incredibly efficient. I can't recall having a single problem or outage over the last 10 years.

Both my work and the OU offer Microsoft 365, so I also use Outlook for those – but my setup and process for managing email remains the same.


Folder setup

Whether Gmail or Outlook, I use the same folder structure (the term in Gmail is actually "labels" but it's a close enough metaphor):

  • 01 TO ACTION – items that need to be actioned soon
  • 02 TO READ– items that should be read
  • 03 WAITING FOR – items that are with someone else
  • 04 STORAGE– everything that's not 1-3!


Email Processing

I've removed desktop and phone notifications to prevent that twitchy finger to check mail every 5 minutes (for more on this, take a look at the excellent book Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport). If anything is super urgent, someone will call me.  I therefore try and limit my looking at email to three times a day – 10am,  2pm, 6pm.

When I do check my email items, I will try and organise them immediately. If an item needs a response that can be done within 2 minutes I'll do it straight away (lifted from David Allen's "Getting Things Done" (GTD) framework.   If it needs a response and will take longer than the time I have available right now, it goes into the TO ACTION folder. I'll tend to get through these emails during my 6pm mail catchup.

If a mail contains attachments, or is an article/newsletter/blog of interest, it'll go into my TO READ folder. I'll generally try and catch up with these in a Pomodoro longer break. Otherwise, they'll be read as part of my work or home Weekly Review (more on this in another post coming soon).

If I reply to a mail and I need a response or there's some action someone else needs to perform, the mail will go to my WAITING FOR folder.  Once I've got a response, or I no longer need a response, it gets added to STORAGE, or deleted. 

Stuff that is of no value gets binned/unsubscribed. Some stuff just ain't worth keeping.

 If it's something I need to do or someone I need to respond to, and it needs a bit more thought and time, it goes into my ACTION folder. I action all emails in this folder within 24 hours (my 6pm slow is the usual time for this to happen).

The end goal of this is Inbox Zero at the end of the day, with important emails actioned.



I tend to review all my email folders once a week (on a Sunday morning for home stuff, Friday afternoon for work stuff) to make sure the items are relevant and in the right place. 

The STORAGE folder gets reviewed once a month and usually get a proper cull with an end of year review.



Everyone's wired different, but when it comes to Inbox Zero, this process works for me to prevent overwhelm or eventual email bankruptcy:

  • Keep email checks down to two or three times a day
  • If an email takes less than 2 minutes to sort, see to it.
  • If it will take longer, move it into the TO ACTION folder.
  • Process and organise/delete your email to your appropriate folders or storage/notes
  • Review your folders while you're checking, and include a check of all folders with a Weekly Review.

I'd like to know what systems/processes you follow for email – please add some comments! My next post will cover use of the calendar.

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Steve Dunn


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