Every email program has these folders: The Inbox and Sent Items. I find that my clients often use these two folders in ways that can be inefficient and increase record-keeping risk.
In this post, I’d like to reintroduce you to your Inbox and Sent Items and offer best practices in organizing and maintaining them.
Features of the Inbox:
- It is and always will be the first place that incoming, unread mail lands (barring any Rules you have set).
- It buries older emails underneath newer ones.
- It is searchable and sortable but can quickly get filled with so many emails that it is difficult to retrieve what you need.
A large email inbox is like a haystack of information into which there are a handful of needles. The more email we have to sift through, the harder it is to find the information we need when we need it.
It is easy to lose track of your action items when you don’t clear out your inbox regularly. More email will always arrive and bury the older items. If we never clear out our inboxes, we are running a huge risk of missing deadlines and opportunities.
Best Practices in Inbox Maintenance:
- Drag emails you need to keep into an organized system of folders (or labels for Gmail). Avoid storing emails in your Inbox.
- Emails requiring action beyond a simple response should be removed from the Inbox, saved in an “Action Required” subfolder AND the action added to your To-Do list. My to-do list of choice is Outlook Tasks.
- Delete duplicates – if you replied to or forwarded an email, you will have an email in your Sent Items that duplicates what is in your inbox.
- In Outlook, use the Reply & Delete Quick Step.
- Strive for “Inbox Zero.”
Inbox Zero is possible and can start today. You may have a backlog of old emails to sift through (see below for tips), but you don’t have to wait to go through the backlog in order to start moving today’s emails out of your Inbox.
View your Inbox like a train station platform. Each email should board a train before the end of the day. It can either be filed/labeled for retention purposes, added to a task list like Trello or Outlook Tasks, or deleted. Any email left on the platform at the end of the day has missed its train.
Features of the Sent Items folder:
- It is the default location for all email you send to others: new messages, replies, and forwards
- Each time you send or reply to a calendar invitation in Outlook, your response is automatically filed in Sent Items
- When ignored, it can become a repository for a HUGE volume of email that really should be moved to folders or archived.
Emails that you send deserve attention, too. From a records management standpoint, you are responsible for the “care and feeding” of the business records that you create. So, if you are communicating an import decision or directive via email, you have a business record that needs to be organized and maintained until it expires according to law or regulatory practices.
Do not let these potentially important communications languish in a folder that you never review. If you need help distinguishing your business records from non-records, watch this video I filmed a few years ago. It’s an oldie but goodie.
Best Practices in Sent Items Maintenance:
- Schedule time on your calendar to go into your sent emails. Sort, delete, and file emails until your Sent Items folder is empty.
- Consider using a tool like SimplyFile to prompt you to file or delete emails immediately upon sending. It is always fastest to make the keep/delete decision immediately after sending.
- In Outlook, you can go into your Sent Items and sort by icon (the little button that looks like a dog-eared piece of paper). That will gather all your calendar items together for mass deleting.
All in all, the smaller the Inbox and Sent Items folders are the better. Emails you need to retain are best organized into folders/labels. Emails you don’t need to retain are best deleted.
How to Sort and Purge your Email Inbox and Sent Items Folders
- Pick a date. Sort your inbox by date received. Choose a date before which you are reasonably certain that you will not need to refer to information. Delete emails older than that date.
- Thin the herd. Sort your inbox by sender. Delete all emails received from senders that you no longer need.
- Purge by topic. Sort by subject and delete groups of emails as appropriate. For those email conversations that need to be retained, drag the most recent email in the string to a folder (or convert it to PDF and save it with the rest of your electronic files). Delete the emails whose contents are duplicated in subsequent replies.
- Once your inbox is empty, schedule an appointment on your Calendar to perform steps 1 – 3 regularly. Better yet, maintain your Inbox and Sent Items to one screen or less on a daily basis.
Email Retention Policies and Email Culture in Organizations
Ideally, your organization will have developed and communicated guidelines to employees about when to retain email and for how long.
Otherwise, people hoard email, overcopy others, and can get themselves and their companies in legal trouble. After developing policies, progressive companies roll out communications and training initiatives to promote a productive email culture.
But that’s the ideal world. You live in the real one.
If you work for a larger organization and are unclear about what email you should keep, and for how long, the first step is to ask. Maybe there are policies and/or guidelines about which you are uninformed.
If you are on your own to determine what email to keep and delete, you’ll have to use your best judgment. I strongly recommend: (1) focusing on the information you “own” from a records management standpoint, and (2) keeping your Inbox and Sent Items clean.
Email is not evil, and you are not a victim. Taking control of your Inbox and Sent Items folders will benefit you both from a productivity-enhancing standpoint as well as a psychological well-being one.
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Melissa Gratias (pronounced “Gracious”) used to think that productivity was a result of working long hours. And, she worked a lot of hours. Then, she learned that productivity is a skill set, not a personality trait. Now, Melissa is a productivity expert who coaches and trains other businesspeople to be more focused, balanced, and effective. She is a prolific writer and speaker who travels the world helping people change how they work and improve how they live. Contact her at email@example.com or 912-417-2505. Sign up to receive her productivity tips via email.
I’m pretty good at keeping my inbox current, but I never even think of looking at my Sent items. Thanks for the tips!
Of course, Janet! Action items, particularly emails on which we need to follow up, can hide very effectively in the Sent Items folder. Happy hunting!
Even though I’m not a follower of Inbox Zero (which I feel puts too much pressure on people), I love everything about your approach, especially the train station metaphor. Sadly, that little icon doesn’t appear in Outlook for Mac, so there’s no sorting by emails with calendar items. (Once again, Office shows no love to Mac folks.)
Like Janet, I don’t give a lot of attention to my Sent folder beyond creating an archived folder, by year, so I have 2019 Sent, 2018 Sent, and so on within the Sent folder. If I’ve bothered to reply to an email, it implies the original email was (likely) important, so saving that helps ensure I can find those random people with whom I engaged on that random topic…randomly. 🙂
Maybe we should rebrand “Inbox Zero” to “Inbox One Page” or “Inbox Sans Scroll” or something like that…
Purge by topic, BRILLIANT!
It’s funny because I’m great with keeping my work email organized, but my personal email is a mess. I’m feeling inspired to tackle it again!!!