Joshua I. James
by Joshua I. James
5 min read


  • email
  • goals
  • productivity

Just like most people, I get a lot of emails. I've tried tagging. I've tried folders. I've tried deleting everything and starting from scratch. These methods help, but just like New Year's workout resolutions, they tend to fade once you get too busy. Today, I'm going to talk about email management.

Don't get me wrong; I love email. It's a powerful, easy to use tool. That ease, however, means that a lot of mail comes in. Each piece of mail can be categorized by how you want to interact with it. I like David Allen's sorting recommendations.

My problem is not the initial sorting of mail by folders or categories. It is going back to the mail pile when I need to. For me, an email is almost one view and done. More important stuff makes it into my todo list. Less critical stuff sits in the inbox, making me feel guilty for not doing it.

Deleting all my messages made me see how much back-of-the-mind guilt was building up. I had the intention to avoid that, but find myself already slipping back into a similar routine.

I've identified my weakness as not going back to check emails once I've tagged them. I also want to automate as much of the process as possible.

Types of emails

First, think about all the mail that comes to your inbox. Looking at my mail, I can quickly see the following categories:

  • Spam
  • I need to do now
  • I need to do soon
  • I need to do later
  • Someone else needs to do (I need to tell or know) (now, soon, later)
  • Information / No action (once-off / long term / refer back on x day)
  • Won't do
  • Low value, but not quite spam

Most of these are related to time. Some action now or in the future. If there is no time component, it is most likely informational. Info is either once-off or a reference to hold. So what to do?


I'll take that same list and describe how the email should be processed.

  • Spam (filter better, delete)
  • I need to do now (do action, delete)
  • I need to do soon (hold, do action, delete)
  • I need to do later (long hold, do action, delete)
  • Someone else needs to do (forward info, hold for update, delete)
  • Information / No action (delete or archive)
  • Won't do (delete)
  • Low value, but not quite spam (unsubscribe, delete, possible spam classify)

There are two points where I start to mess up. First, do a task and don't go back and delete the email immediately. Next is the "won't do" pile. I think I won't do the task, but I want to believe I would do it. These should just get deleted immediately, but I sit on them for when I get time.

I have a someday/maybe folder (that I've not looked at for six months). There are about 20 mails in there from 2018. I don't think I could take action on them even if I wanted to. Now that I think about it, this folder kept these out of my inbox. I just need a way to delete older messages from this folder automatically.

Labels and Folders

I used labels and folders to organize things before. Labels were:

  • Action
  • Delegate
  • Defer
  • Reference

Folders were:

  • Waiting
  • Someday/Maybe
  • Project folders
  • Spam / Trash

There are a few problems with the labels above. First, 'action' is not useful. If something required action now, I would tag it and move on. Instead of tagging what needs to be done, I should just do it.

'Delegate' is a wrong label, because it says I "should" delegate it. I don't remember if I already have. This tag should at least be past-tense.

'Defer' has the same present-tense problem. Defer is usually used with either a date/time or another action. You need a calendar or a todo list to help deal with defer. If there is a task with a date, put it in TODO and delete the mail. If there is information you need, it may go into reference.

'Reference' is a bit tricky. I think of a reference as long-term storage. I want all references to be archived (out of inbox). The problem with reference is that it also has a shelf-life. For example, I currently have a lot of old flight tickets under references. I needed that information before the flight. Sometimes I need that information for a few months after the flight. After that, it's no longer valuable. The only way I can see to deal with references is to review the archive once or twice a year.

'Waiting folder' I never went back to check what was waiting. I didn't need the mail, or it should stay in view.

'Someday/Maybe' is interesting. It's all the things you would like to get to, but can't. This folder had a lot of stuff in it. I can say now that I'll probably never do any of them. This folder is an excellent place to put what you want to do. Review and clear it once a year.

'Project folders' were used for specific projects with a lot of people and emails. Useful only during the project, and for reference later. Most of the information is in other places, so it could probably be deleted after the project and final audits end.

'Spam / Trash' gets cleared daily.

New Tags

This review of my habits and how I ended up using tags revealed that I was using the tag as the action. Instead, I should get rid of the tag and do the action. The new list is:

  • Info (tag)
  • Reference (tag) + archive
  • Someday/Maybe (folder)

This is the workflow plan:

  1. Check email
  2. Actionable - No
    1. Trash or Someday or Reference
  3. Actionable - Yes
    1. <5 min? - Do it, then delete
    2. 5 min+? - In the task list
      1. Email contains useful info - Info (tag)
      2. No info - delete
  4. Review someday/maybe - 1 yr


Email is a pretty big stressor in my life. I realized the tags that I was using were not making the actions happen. Instead, they made me feel like I had already processed the information when I hadn't. I eventually removed both the waiting folder and waiting tag. This is because the email would either be deleted or info that I need later. Any reminders would be on my todo list. No email necessary (maybe that's why I didn't use it often).

This system can be broken down into three parts: short, medium, and long term storage. Now tasks don't get a tag and are done and deleted. Medium-term info is 'info' and is deleted on review. And reference stays for about a year. I think this makes more sense in terms of tags and folders to use.

Let's try and see how it works!