My super-simple email system

• ~700 words • 3 minute read

I have an email system that works remarkably well for me, so I thought I'd share. It shares some things in-common with the "Inbox Zero" philosophy you might find out there, but I'm wary to lead with that because of the general zealotry surrounding it and related principles (GET. THINGS. DONE.... GTD!!!!!).

You might scoff and think it's an oversimplification of things, but I've used it to manage personal email, business email and a few other accounts exclusively setup for some pet projects and pursuits. I've seldom wished it was more robust and I can't remember the last time I was truly buried under a mountain of email.

I use Gmail where you'll find what you might think of as "folders" being called "labels" but it's just semantics. Whatever you want to call it, it's just a place to organize your messages.

Okay, you ready for it? My folder/label structure for email basically looks like this:

Archive/All Mail

That's basically it (Were I a pedant I'd include Trash and Spam/Junk. But I'm not so I won't). And here's what I do:

  • When I get a flurry of emails — say when I check in the morning and see about 10-20 sitting there — I poke through each of them and decide what to do. Trash? Generally an easy decision. Is someone asking me to do something or does this require additional scrutiny? Put it in the @reply folder. A simple "thanks" email or followup that doesn't really require a response or second thought? Archive it.
  • Later, when I have time set aside for writing and processing emails, go through the @reply folder one at a time and respond as needed. Once I'm finished I can archive it.

That's really it. I started doing that about six years ago and my inbox has been generally empty since. Some people like to structure their archives by project, date or sender, but I don't bother with that and it's never been an issue. If I want to find an old email I rely on the built-in ability to search emails and find what I'm looking for 99% of the time. If you can remember who something is from, a keyword or two and the general timeframe it was sent you shouldn't have trouble. Just trust it will be there and your trust will be rewarded.

Eventually I expanded it to include two additional labels:


I use them more like flags those than traditional folders or labels, so I don't think it really complicates my existing setup. Both ofthese are automatically applied to incoming messages based on parameters I've setup. If I receive an inquiry about web development through the form on my website it automatically receives a @lead label. As soon as I see that I quickly apply a @reply label and pretty much treat it as normal, but seeing that @lead label alongside it helps me push it to the top of the pack as there's a good chance it's something I'm interested in responding to right away.

I use the @retainer label in a similar fashion, automatically applying it to incoming messages from clients with whom I have an existing retainer relationship so that their emails can immediately stand-out from the pack and help me prioritize them.

That's it!

Here's the secret though: you'll want to good about parsing the things that you actually need to do somewhere else. A lot of people keep emails around as reminders of things the need to do, maybe because they contain an itemized list or specific instructions they'll need to reference later. I get it. But I've found that taking those items/instructions and moving them over to a different system explicitly designed to accommodate to-do lists and the like is way better than trying to keep old emails around (I'm partial to OmniFocus myself, but even a simple text-file can suffice for some.).

Your email should just be for corresponding and communication. This system helps me keep it that way.