How to organize your email and resolve deeper issues which are holding you back

Years ago, there used to be stacks upon stacks of letters and bills in our houses, waiting to be opened. There used to be phones ringing off the hook on Sunday afternoons. There used to be neighbours dropping by to knock on the door.

Nowadays, there is email.

At first, email was fun.  I remember graduating from AOL to a free service that offered custom domains. My email address was, right up until gmail came along. Receiving email as a preteen and receiving email as an adult is a very different emotional experience.

Although I still go through periods where I dread checking my email, I have mostly been able to learn how to manage my email communication, and how to feel much better about receiving new messages. Learning to manage my email was vital because I find it close to impossible to relax and go with the flow if I know my inbox is full of untended-to or unread email.

I know that not everyone needs to empty their inbox every night in order to fall asleep. However, I also know that most people wish they were more organized when it comes to dealing with their messages. Here are a few ways I have dealt with my own email challenges.

Follow Along with the Email Utopia Worksheet! (PDF)

Part 1: Personal Inquiry

1. Question: How do I want to feel when I look at my inbox?

What will make me feel the way I want to feel? Your answer to this question will help you identify which tools you need to use or practices you want to adopt.

When I look at my inbox, I want to feel in control and full of potential. Perhaps someone who likes to feel connected will enjoy using email as a hub for their social media accounts, receiving notifications and invitations to events. Someone who wants to feel knowledgeable will want to receive news articles and interesting newsletters, archiving as they read. There is no right way to manage your email inbox; the most important thing is that it reflects how you want to feel when you look at it.

2. Question: How do I feel about my email, and why?

Some of my most disorganized phases have also been times that I had some unresolved issues or business. Sometimes, I was desperate for work and had to say yes to any paying gig that came my way. Sometimes, I was trying to maintain relationships with people that I didn’t feel much of a connection with. Sometimes, I was inquiring about a service that I didn’t really want or knew I couldn’t afford.

One of the most difficult and most effective ways to gain control of your email inbox is to figure out if there is anything you can do in your “real” life to solve any problems that are lurking in your email. [Of course, perhaps more important than identifying root problems in order to organize your email, you are organizing your email in order to identify and confront root problems.] [bctt tweet=”Organize your email in order to identify and confront root problems.”]

With a pen and paper, click through your email and write down any subject lines or names that elicit of annoyance, dread, anger, or avoidance. Instead of trying to organize your email messages, address these issues, line by line. If you are struggling with work or money, is there any way to ask for help or find some peace about your situation right now? If there is a person you need to make amends with or “consciously uncouple” with, what would be the most loving way to do that?

Part 2: Organize based on how you want to feel

Keeping your desired feelings written down and close by for inspiration, start to think about what elements of your inbox organization could be improved upon to help you get closer to those feelings. The following is a list of practices and tools that might help you, and that I use to help me stay organized. Take whatever you need from this list!

  1. Spend 5 or 10 minutes every morning and/or every evening on email, and keep it as empty as possible throughout the day.
  2. Treat every email as a to-do item – either respond to, or else file or funnel information contained in the email to calendar, to-do list, or notebook.
  3. If it can be done in 2 minutes, do it now. This basic but brilliant concept comes from David Allen’s book, Getting Things Done.
  4. I receive information by email that I can’t or don’t want to get in any other way (Social media, radio, RSS feed, etc.). Everything that comes into my inbox is something that I feel compelled to open and read.

There are numerous tools, many of them free, that can help you get more out of your email. A few of my favorites are:

Unroll Me. This is an amazing web application that collects all your email subscriptions (newsletters, notifications etc.) into one place. From there, you can choose to unsubscribe right from the Unroll Me page, exclude any subscriptions from Unroll Me so they keep showing up in your inbox as normal, and group subscriptions into one handy-dandy newsletter that comes whenever you say you want it. I’m telling you, it will change your life, and it’s free.

Follow Up Then. Another amazing application that I use every day and don’t know what I would do without. Forward or CC any email to [whatever time/day you want a reminder], and then just archive the email. FUT will send the email back to you when you asked for it. FUT is free.

Auto-responders. Most email applications come with the capacity to set at least a simple auto-responder. I keep it friendly, professional, and lighthearted, usually give the reason I’m not responding, and I indicate that the message is an auto-response so no one gets confused.  I always set one when I know I’m swamped with work and won’t be able to respond right away, if I’m on vacation, or if I’m taking a few days screen-free. It helps me relax when I know that no one is wondering where I am and why I’m not getting back to them.

Canned responses. Gmail offers a lab that I use quite often called “Canned Responses” – if you don’t have Gmail, you can simply keep a few frequently-used response templates in your drafts folder and copy and paste them when you need to use them. I don’t necessarily use canned responses to avoid typing, I usually use them to redirect my time into typing things that will help me connect with the people I’m emailing (even if I’m using a canned responses template). Some examples of times I use canned responses: if I’m selling something on Craigslist or Kijiji, if I’m hiring someone for something and I’ve advertised the position, or business-type things that I end up typing over and over, like requests for quotes or availability.

“Whenever you place your fingers on the keyboard, you have an opportunity to add to the love in the world or subtract from it.

You have an opportunity to lift someone’s spirits — or sink them.

You have a chance to get what you need while giving — or get what you need while taking.

It doesn’t matter if you’re writing a text message to a friend, popping off a note to a colleague or filling out a form on the Internet.

Eventually, your words will reach a living, breathing, feeling human being.

Eventually, your words will land and leave a mark.”

This quote is from a great writer named Alexandra Franzen, who was featured on Autostraddle a few months ago and whom I now follow. She has some wonderful insight into the ways we can use email to inspire and uplift others, and to truly effectively communicate. Here’s her article on writing better email.

If you’d like some help organizing your email and don’t know where to turn, you can always send me an email! I can answer any questions you have, and you can even hire me to do it for you, or guide you through it if you have a few extra bucks and are short on time. I’ve also prepared a free worksheet to help you work through some of the questions that will help get you on track to feeling great about your inbox.