Email organisation for stress reduction

In recent years I have been trying lots of different strategies to help with my executive functioning difficulties, with varying amounts of success. I thought I would write on my blog about some of the things that have worked for me in the hope that it may help other neurodivergent or disabled people who also struggle with executive dysfunction. This post it about organising my email – it has been a huge success and I feel more relaxed and organised already.

The problem

I had thousands of emails in my inboxes, many unread, many were junk mail and some were 15 years old! My usual strategy has always been to use the search function to find emails that I need however, as my memory declines this no longer works as it relies on remembering that you even received the email, never mind the name of who sent it or something contained within it. My work and personal life have changed over the years too and I no longer work on individual large projects for one client, I have many things on the go all at once. Another complication is the multiple ways people contact me now. Many requests for help come via social media channels or text, whatsapp or messenger. Everything felt out of control, I was missing out on opportunites, accidentally ignoring people, wasting time and being unnecessarily stressed.

A possible solution

I came across a book called ‘How to be a productivity ninja’ by Graham Allcott in an audible sale. I was happily listening to it and on getting to the email chapter, I was inspired to get started straight away.  Here is a summary of his email organisation system, it is incredibly simple but takes a bit of an investment in time at first (though not as much as you might think).

A few comments about this new system

  • Your inbox will become a temporary holding place for emails to arrive and be processed, the aim is to get it to zero every time you go into your email
  • You won’t ‘check’ your emails you will ‘process’ them
  • Turning off all notifications and just processing them a couple of times a day (or whatever is appropriate for your circumstances) will reduce your distractions. Better for you to be in control of when you manage emails.

First stage – set up

Your mailbox will have three spaces. The processing folders, the reference folders, the inbox

Processing folders

Create three folders called @Action, @Read and @Waiting.

@Action is for anything where you need to reply or do something (and it will take longer than two minutes)

@read is for anything that you need or want to read (but in your own time rather than when it lands in your inbox)

@waiting is for emails where somebody else needs to do something and you want to keep track of progress but don’t need to do anything yourself

Reference folders

Set up folders for emails you need to keep as reference. These will be personal to you but the aim is to have as few as possible as this will make your filing much quicker and ironically it will make emails easier to find. Nowadays email search functions are good so it is recommended to use that within large folders rather than have many subfolders.

I will use my set up as an example:

1. Confirmation (for all confirmation emails of things like train tickets, online shopping)

2. Finance (makes tax returns easier if these are stored together)

3. Personal (for all family and friend related emails)

4. Work

5. Voluntary work

6. Academia

7. Landlord

8. Uni students

Old stuff (I used this to save old folders that I don’t use any more)

Z_reference (for anything that doesn’t fit elsewhere)

The first three and z_reference were all recommended in the book. Z_reference is recommended so that you aren’t tempted to make new folders for individual emails which will eventually overcomplicate your email storage.

Second stage – Hacking

This is the first part of getting your inbox to 0 emails. 

Sort your inbox by date and the book recommends selecting emails older than 6 months and move them to a folder called ‘email death row’. These will be deleted at some point in the future when you feel comfortable that you don’t need them. I actually did two years because of some important emails that stay in my inbox until tax return time and I deleted them straight away because I usually will have filed any that I know I need to save in folders so I wasn’t too worried about any important old emails being deleted.

Then sort your inbox based on sender and delete whole chunks based on the sender. For me this got rid of loads as there were some companies who had been sending me regular marketing emails for years. Or there were colleagues and recruitment consultants from a previous career.

The book then suggests then doing it based on subject but I didn’t.

Third stage – Processing one by one

By now you will have drastically reduced the number of emails. Go through the remainder either:

  • Replying or actioning them (if take less than two minutes, no point clogging up your @action folder)
  • Moving to your process folders: @action, @waiting or @read
  • Moving them to your reference folders
  • Or deleting them

Fourth Stage – Completion

Allcott describes two kinds of completion. Inbox to zero which he aims to do every single time he shuts down his email. And complete zero where there is nothing in the inbox or the @action folder and you have paid some attention to the @waiting and @reading folders. He aims for complete zero once a week. I have not achieved this yet but I do get to inbox zero every time I go in my email. No email hangs around in there any more.

And that’s it! 

One annoying thing to note is that on my mac’s email, I went from over 5k emails in one email account to zero in only 1.5 hours. However, it turned out not to be so easy – lots of them came back! After googling I discovered it is a common bug and I dealt with it by working directly from my yahoo email via my browser. But even there I had to not delete too many at once and then wait patiently before trying to do the next chunk or it couldn’t cope. So it took much longer than I had hoped but still it has been worth it. I feel less stressed already.

‘How to be a productivity ninja’ is full of so much more than this and I intend to implement many more strategies. If I like them, I will write about them on my blog. The ‘to do’ list system and his way of capturing and collecting ideas and actions looks good. As I haven’t implemented this yet, and my email is so organised, I now screenshot important messages that I receive in alternative ways, emailing the picture to myself and then processing via my email. This usually involves capturing any actions to my existing ginormous, complicated and stressful to do list. This is a temporary solution which means I remember to do things but I am looking forward to not needing this as I implement more strategies in the near future.

Let me know in the comments if you decide to try it

Published by ShonaMurphy

I am an autistic autism professional, PhD student and a mother to two autistic children. A change of personal circumstances including a late diagnosis of autism brought my banking career to an end in exchange for a more fulfilling life as an autism educator and autistic advocate. Clients have included the NHS, private companies, universities, schools and charities. I graduated with an MA in autism (distinction) from Sheffield Hallam University in 2018 and since then have been working professionally as a trainer and conference speaker. I also do voluntary work writing about autism and supporting autistic people.

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