How to Sort Email – (my) Pro Edition

I started using email in 1993 when I had my introductory computer science class at the university. Using email was a requirement for us to turn in homework and so we had to learn it. With only a handful of assignments throughout the term I must have written 50 mails at most and received about as many that year. Sweet! How little did I know what the world would look like in 2019.

Much e-ink has flowed since then about the advantages and disadvantages of email and what to do about it, and this post is my drops into that ocean. I will not proclaim myself an expert on the matter. I am just another user who needs to deal with the incoming flow of information as well as possible, so here is what works for me today in my particular professional context.

My context

I work as a technical project manager in an fairly large IT organization where I am usually involved in 2-4 different projects with project teams spread across locations. I received about 100 emails on a typical day and On a typical day I receive about 100 emails and write 20-30 myself. Microsoft Outlook is the email client of choice.

Mail treads range between the single announcement mails over 3-5 mail back/an/.forths to long exchanges with 10 or more people involved and 10s of mails in threads that may even branch out. Most threads live for one to at most two weeks.

Regarding Outlook

Microsoft Outlook is a powerful email client that can do much more than receive and send messages and put them into folders.

Key features that I depend on in my daily work is:

  • Categories: Email categorization is integral to both my reading and sorting workflows. More about it below.
  • Customized search, that allows me to search for a very specific terms by using keywords [link] – a search can be across folders
  • Rules, that automate sorting and assigning categories
  • Cross platform access: Apart from the desktop client my mailbox can also be accessed via a powerful web-client that has similar functions as the desktop version(at least as my usage goes). On Android there is a mobile emails client called Nine from 9folders that supports most of my favorite functions as well and well worth the price for an ambitious mail user (Microsoft’s own Outlook for Android, on the other hand, is reduced to almost only basic mail functionality).

According to various websites the maximum number of emails that a folder can hold is 100,000. In my experience (with my hardware and my emails) I have experienced degrading performance when the inbox folder contains more than 4-6,000 items, so I need to sort and archive regularly. Since I receive about 100 emails per (work-) day, this means that I can have about 2-3 months of mail in my inbox.

Reading workflow

My reading workflow focus on ensuring that no actions are left behind. Since many of my mails are not just simple Q&A exchanges but can be longer discussions where different people contribute and responses drag out because people are busy with other things than this particular thread, I need a system where I can track an active thread over time.

I rely largely on the a combination of the unread mail filter, subject sorting and category of assignment; with the category only being assigned when mail has been read and no further action is required.

Here is what I do:

  1. In chronological view, pick a unread and categorized email.
  2. Switch to subject sorted view, review thread and take actions as needed, mark items as categorized according to content (cf. the outline folder structure below).
  3. Repeat steps 1-2 as many times as time allows or until all email has been handled.
  4. When done, mark all categorized mail as read.

I use the category marker to indicate when a mail has been processed and then combine it with the unread mail

Folder/Archive structure

For many years I used to build detailed and deep folder structures for my emails and then spent ages archiving mails, followed by occasionally spending ages finding them again, because I couldn’t remember where I had put that particular mail on that day. The point to remember is that most emails can be sorted according to several different criteria, and those criteria may even change after arching. Imagine for example an emails about a release 2.2 of a product. Perhaps the scope of that release is later changed to release 2.3 because other scope is introduced in release 2.2 or perhaps the matter discussed in that particular mail is moved to another release. Regardless, the odds of finding that email again is small, not because you didn’t archive properly, but instead exactly because you archived it in a very specific place. To avoid this, avoid folder hierarchies and embrace the search functionality provided by Outlook.

Here is what I do:

  • Inbox: All mail resides here until archived
  • Project folders: Projects where I contribute actively for an extended period has a folder. IN addition I have a folder for projects I am not involved in and possible one for programs that my projects are part of. All these folders have a prefix ‘_P’ to ensure that they are easy to find on any client (note the underscore that ensure the folders go on top in alphabetic lists)
  • “Info” folders for non-project related mail, organized to reflect the organisational structure, with Info corporate and then breaking up once the team structure is relevant for me. So:
    Info: Organization
    Info: Department
    Info: Team
    Info: Miscellaneous
  • “Newsletters” for newsletters
  • “Admin” for various administrative messages that relate to simply being employed, such as travel expenses, time registration, appraisals, training
  • “People” for tasks related to people management, including hiring/firing, 1:1 follow-ups and appraisals
  • “Private” for emails and content that might as well have been handled in personal mail
  • “Miscellaneous” for everything else

The list above reflects my current needs and is not supposed to be the final, ultimate and exhaustive list. For example it could make sense to have a folder set up for activities like art corporate club memberships (art society, fitness activity) or social activities like organizing the next x-mas party.

I use the Outlook categories to categorize emails in the same way. That makes it easy to get a view on all email related to a single product and make the archiving incredibly smooth.

Sorting/Archiving workflow

As mentioned above, my personal experience is that the Outlook inbox performs less well when it contains more than 5000 mails, so with approximately 2000 emails received monthly I need to archive regularly and the easiest way for me to do that is to keep archive once per month and hold only mails for last and current month in the inbox.

What I do is simple:

  1. On the last day of the month click Outlooks inbuilt “received last month” filter to show just that in my mail box (if you missed the date, just write “received:june” (if in August) to get all emails from the almost last month).
  2. Filter on categories (note that filter only returns 250 items, so this may have to be repeated several times for each category)
  3. Move all mails of a given category to the corresponding folder (note that the move is not instantaneous but one can switch between categories and filter one while the other is still moving)
  4. When all “last month” mails have been sorted, apply the ‘Categorized mail’ filter to retrieve all categorized mails. Sort the search result and clear the category from all folders expect the inbox

Featured image

Last night’s sunset seen from the garden.