How Do You Organize Your Email, Dawn Foster?

After reading Aliza’s post about how she organizes her email, my biggest piece of advice in using Gmail is to embrace the organizational chaos. I’ve been using Gmail (s goog) for over three years, and I use it as my primary email. I have a dozen or so email addresses, but they all get forwarded to Gmail. I use it as my central inbox for everything, so my email volume in that one inbox is high.

Prior to Gmail, I used Outlook for email, which has a less-than-optimal search capability. In other words, if I didn’t file an email into the proper folder, my chances of ever finding that email again were slim. When I first started using Gmail, I brought this filing behavior with me, and I obsessively tagged and labeled everything. I ended up with a bunch of labels that I probably didn’t need. At some point, I realized that Gmail’s search facility is so amazing that labeling and filing every email became unnecessary. Now, for most emails, I read them, respond if necessary, and archive. All without bothering to give them labels.

Now, to contradict myself. I also make extensive use of Gmail’s filtering capabilities to automatically add labels to some email. However, I reserve this capability for the really important stuff, like client email — you know, the people who pay me money to do stuff. I want to keep careful track of those emails.

When I get a new client, I create two separate filters for that client. The first one looks at the “from” address and applies an appropriate label (for example, “coolclient”) to any email coming from its domain (“*”). The second filter looks for anything in the “to” address that matches the same “*”. Now, I can click on the “coolclient” label and see all of my correspondence with that client.

Like most people, I also have an issue with too much email overflowing in my inbox, and I don’t want to miss any of those important emails from clients, so I need to have the client email stand out. Gmail lets you apply colors to labels, so forĀ  important clients, I make the label bright green to make sure that I can see all of my client email at a glance.

I handle my big list of labels by using a keyboard shortcut that lets me go directly to a label without having to scroll for ages. To do this, you have to enable keyboard shortcuts under “Settings”, and then go to Labs and enable the “Go to label” feature. Now, I can hit “g” then “l”, type in my label, and get dumped right into that label. Again, it’s important to embrace the chaos of having too many labels and use this feature to avoid scrolling through them.

Go To Label in Gmail

The key to using Gmail effectively is to embrace the chaos: Let Gmail’s search handle most of the organization, and keep labeling to a minimum. By only labeling my client email and a few other important categories, I’ve simplified my labels down to a manageable level.

How do you organize your email?