How To Organize Your E-Mail Inbox Like Grant Cushman

Hello there friends, colleagues, and people whose name I already forgot even though we just met five minutes ago. Welcome to another installment of Tech Tuesdays with Grant Cushman. With travel season still in full swing, I imagine that many counselors are struggling to keep up with their emails from students, parents, and people who you may have just met more or less five minutes ago.  Unfortunately, I’m not here today to show you an iPhone application or website that will automatically answer your emails and call your mother (no but really, call your mother). However, I do hope to impart upon all of you fine people how I organize my email inbox in Microsoft Outlook, so that I can maximize my time while on the road and in the office.

Now, I know, e-mail organization is a highly personal activity and everyone works in their own unique-as-a-snowflake kind of way. Trust me- I get that. However, organization was always a bit of a struggle for me when I first started this job and I never really had a guideline or standard for email sorting. I just sort of created folders when needed that sort of made sense and then threw my emails in these folders to live the rest of their lives in digital obscurity. It wasn’t until about a year into my career that I found a workflow that was conducive for me. But first-

Disclaimer: There is no best way to organize your inbox; you should feel free to take all, some, or absolutely none of my advice as you see fit.

With that being said, let’s hop right into it…

How I see MOST people organize their inbox:

Now I know I just said that each person is a snowflake with their own wonderfully original workflow but, to be honest, 90% of the email inboxes that I have looked at are generally organized in the same way, summarized beautifully by this screen grab:

Most People

The general idea with this layout is to create a folder for every different thing you are doing so you can file and recall the information later. And, trust me, I’ve seen inboxes with 30 times as many folders as this one that I just made up (I’m sure many of you are guilty of this). Once again, there is nothing inherently wrong with this workflow; many people will work extremely well with this sort of filing system where they know where every little thing is. However, when I first entered the workforce, I wrongfully assumed that this method was the gold standard. I worked under this style for about a year before I realized that I was just sorting files for the sake of sorting files. While there are a lot of benefits to this style of organization, it just never clicked with me. The pros and cons will show you why:

Pros

Cons

Filing system allows for easier   recall Too many folders saturates the organization
Easier to track conversations System   requires creation of new folders when necessary
  No inherent semblance of priority

 

For me, the folders seemed terribly excessive to my purposes. I wasn’t able to sort through what emails were important and which ones I could let go of. If I threw an email into a folder (which was a subfolder of another folder which was a subfolder of the original folder) there was a good chance I wasn’t going to check up on that folder until much later; I had a time period where I would drop still active conversations because I would lose track of them in my labyrinth of folders. There was no sense of actionable items or priority so I struggled to keep up with my emails. And whenever I wanted to find an old email I would just circumvent this whole system and used the search function to search ‘all folders’.

How I organize my inbox:

It was these grievances that inspired me to create my own system of email sorting (taken from bits and pieces from other systems) that worked for me, summarized beautifully in this screen grab:

GC Inbox

That’s it. That’s my entire system of email organization. This system, while by no means perfect, came after I thought and read critically about what I need to do with email, and it’s broken down into:

1. Emails that require action

2. Emails that are done

3. Emails that contain important reference materials

4. Emails that I need access to in the short term

These folders represent all possible outcomes (as I defined them); I will empty my inbox on a consistent basis and each email will end up in one of these four folders. Allow me to explain:

@Action– This is for emails that I need to respond to, or ‘actionable’ items. Generally if I can respond to an email quickly in my inbox I will just do it and then put it in the @Done folder, but often times if it requires some research I will throw it in this folder to deal with during my designated ‘email’ time. Additionally, if the email calls for me to do a task, I will throw it in this folder and then later I will either do the task immediately or put the task on my calendar and put the email in the @Done folder.

@Done– This is also known as the searchable graveyard. Any correspondence that has been replied to, had action taken upon it, or is ‘complete’ can be put in this folder. Basically this is where 99.99% of my emails end up ultimately.

@Reference– This folder is for any long-term reference email that you may want to bring up again in the future. I use this folder pretty sparingly because it can quickly get saturated if I use it as an alternate @Done folder. Basically, I will use this folder for any email that has useful information that I will want to recall later.

@Waiting for– This is a temporary folder that I have actually gotten away from using too often. This folder is for emails or correspondence that I will have to call up in the next few days. If someone is going to get back to me in a day regarding a meeting or a project I will throw it in here. However, as of late I will just throw it in the done pile since I have an alternate system for tracking projects.

(Why do you put @ before each one? Because it looks cool and I’m a hip dude, obviously.)

I know many people are concerned about having almost all of your emails in one folder, which is very understandable. However, understand that email is an incredibly unique medium due to the advent of the search function. Back in the day of physical filing cabinets you couldn’t search for every piece of mail containing the words ‘WACAC’ or ‘Cat’ and expect these pieces of paper to come flying out at you. That’s why this system works so intrinsically well with email; a well-crafted query can bring up any piece of information without the need of time-intensive sorting on the front end. Granted, there are times when I will create subfolders in my @Action and @Done because I need to organize certain emails for a period of time. However, once that project is done I will always revert back to my original four folders.

Let’s list the pros and cons of my system to make sure this blog has some semblance of cohesion:

Pros

Cons

Beautiful, wonderful simplicity Have to put trust in search functions
Allows for coherent sorting of   actionable vs. non-actionable items Less   individual organization

 

Now, of course, neither system is perfect. No system is perfect. It’s all about doing what works well for you and your workflow. If you want to take bits and pieces of mine then please do! If not, then that’s your prerogative. You can even combine both systems and create a monstrosity like this:

Monstrocity

Find what works for you and go for it.

CUSHMAN OUT

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Comments

  1. larry lang says:

    I like your ideas! If I try to implement your your suggested four folder idea, I suspect that I will (unfortunately) devolve into your commingled, hybrid example.

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