#FocusFriday: Lessons from an Engineer on How to Organize Your Inbox

By: Diego Pereda,  Xerox Social Media Program Manager

I am amazed every time I go into a colleague’s office and ask them for information and they spend several minutes looking in their email inbox for it.  They scroll up and down their inbox and I see they have about a gazillion emails, hundreds of them unopened. I am amazed because I have no idea how they can function, hats off to them.

I keep my inbox to less than 50 emails and all of them opened.

My system is easy, I open a new email as soon as I can, I quickly scan it and then I decide:

Can I delete it?

YES: (delete!)

NO: Do I need to follow up?

YES:  Stays in my inbox

NO: I save it in one of my many .pst  folders

For the emails with which I need to follow up, they stay in my inbox as a reminder that I have to follow up, but as soon as I reply or forward,  the email goes to a .pst folder, unclogging my inbox.  You can say my inbox has become my “to-do” list of sorts.

This little way of treating my email works for me, I do occasionally delete the wrong email or file them in the wrong folder, but my inbox is clean.  I am rarely in mail jail!

Would this little tip work for you?


If it doesn’t, then you may be able to come up with your own system.  As long as you are comfortable with the way your own email is organized, it’s okay.

Do you have any tips for organizing your inbox?

Have you looked at Xerox Business of your Brain app?*

Share your thoughts with me.

*The Business of your Brain app is a fun app that could shed some light on how you are using your time based on your Outlook calendar and email.  Maybe you can stop sending thank you emails to the entire office (And avoid all their replies) and thus have less email in your inbox to delete or file away….


#FocusFriday is a weekly conversation helping people with productivity in the office.  Posts can be at the same time fun and serious, in the spirit of the Xerox’s Business of Your Brain app, yet always focused on what matters most, Real Business.


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  1. Durgesh Chaudhary July 10, 2011 - Reply

    I have also implemented something of that sort only. WIth different rules outlook first of all clears all the status kind of mails and after that I move them to different folders on pst depending on the mail.

  2. Sonia Panchal July 11, 2011 - Reply

    Nice post Diego. You’re right keep it as simple as that. I will try this approach:) I’ll see if I can get to 50 by the end of the week.

  3. Andy Hill July 11, 2011 - Reply

    Good post and I thought I was the only one…

    I do pretty much the same, and my inbox becomes my ‘to-do’ list. I have monthly folders sorted by Year and month (I use 1 January, 2 February etc) to keep them in order. Anything I’m done with or is related to a task is put into a sub folder by month it is due.
    For bigger projects I have a couple of specific folders and I hive off my “completed emails” or my “for reference” emails to these.

    Benefits to me are:

    When I am on vacation, I don’t bounce any emails because my inbox is full.
    It feels great to have a single page of emails in your inbox
    I can find things
    My email application works faster and there’s no need to scroll up and down a list of 200 emails

    Maybe I was an engineer in a previous life. Andy Hill (Xerox employee)

  4. Diego Pereda July 12, 2011 - Reply

    Durgesh, Sonia, Andy, thank you for reading my post.

    Durgesh, thanks for sharing your tips, rules is something I have not use yet, But will give it a try.

    Sonia, 50 is the target, hope you get there! (maybe you can use Durgesh rules tip…)

    Andy, My pst folders are not time based (month, day, etc) but topic/project based, I can see that you use both, wow!! Maybe you were and engineer in a previous life! (Xerox employee)

  5. Jeff Moran July 14, 2011 - Reply

    1. I view all mail via my Unread folder first which is sorted by date rcv’d in descending order so I always see the latest note in a thread, and can delete the earlier ones.
    2. My mail is grouped in my Inbox alphabetically by Sender, and sorted within by date rcv’d descending.
    3. I auto archive my Inbox for anything older than 30 days to an annual .pst file
    4. Status type msgs are auto sorted using Rules to several folders within my Inbox which I purge monthly.

  6. Sue Rausch July 14, 2011 - Reply

    I also keep my inbox at a minimum — basically an action reminder/to do list. Once completed, it moves to a folder pertaining to that subject. I also color code same topics (i.e., if I have various emails scattered throughout by date, I use a color category so I can see all the yellows, blues, etc. I use my deleted folder and sent folder as “electronic files” per se. I keep things that I don’t want to get rid of short term in my deleted folder and same for sent. Everything else that needs to go goes into a “DELELELEL” file in the “deleted” folder. Then I can just delete the whole thing without searching for the ones I want to delete in the “deleted” folder. Anything that is old/inactive but I still want to keep goes in the pst folders set up by a particular subject.

  7. Andrea Jacobs Gallagher July 14, 2011 - Reply

    I follow the same process with the exception of moving itmes that require action to an “ACTION” mail folder. I clear out the inbox on an ongoing basis and disposition items as you described. I know where everything is at any time. I review the “ACTION” folder periodically to disposition actions according to priority.

  8. Jorge Alsina July 14, 2011 - Reply

    Thanks for the tip. I’d like to recommend filing by years, separate “inbox” and “sent” for each year. I find that searches work a little faster that way. I tried separate folders (people or subject) in the past but that required too much time.
    (Xerox Employee)

  9. Diego Pereda July 14, 2011 - Reply

    Jeff, Sue, Andrea, Jorge, thank you so much for taking the time and sharing with us your great tips!

    They highlight the fact that there is no “one” answer and where some tips work best for some, other tips work best for others.

    I will take a look at some of your ideas, the Action folder would work great with my current methodology, sort of an WIP (Work in Process) folder.

    I have never tried color coding but maybe it is time now to become more effective and that way I can find things within my sub folder easier (I did not mention but a few of these have lots of email)

    Thanks again for taking the time to share your tips, Diego Pereda (Xerox Employee)

  10. Pamela Aropio(Fuji Xerox Australia) July 14, 2011 - Reply

    I do something similar EXCEPT my emails come directly into DELETED ITEMS and are read and ‘categorised’ accordingly unless follow up is required in which case it remains until actioned then moved. I even move the SENT/reply emails so I know where email trail is @

  11. Joel Thomson July 15, 2011 - Reply

    I do two things that are a build on some of the above comments:

    1) I color code my mailnotes to flag the following cases:
    Green: I need a response from the recipient of this note.
    Orange or Red: I need to take action on this note.
    Blue: This note has good reference information. I find that if I group mailnotes in folders by project or topic, one or two notes will have the best summary of useful information. If I use this flag, then locating these messages is much quicker.

    2) I too maintain a folder to manage deferred deletion. I have a Trash folder with monthly sub-folders, and keep the most recent 6 months worth. It’s a simple drag of the mouse to disposition a mailnote that I don’t think I need, but, might. It’s often paid off.

  12. Carol White (Xerox Employee) July 15, 2011 - Reply

    Diego, I totally agree with your method of managing mail. I also follow a similar method of dealing with e-mails…look at them immediately, delete if not needed, save to a hard drive topic specific folder if no action required, and simply leave in my inbox those items that truly require action. One other method I use is utilizing my sent mail as a “tickler” file. I am a finanancial analyst and I resend about 40 reports each month to various DL’s. I simply save the entire list of send mail items and when it’s time to send the same report the next month, I open the prior month’s sent note, copy the DL, attach the new months report and tweek a couple of words (mo. reference, etc.) in the body of the mailnote and send.

    This process keeps my inbox from rarely reaching 30 items and my sent mail to around 50-60 and that is with deleting 200 to 250 per day!

    Works for me!

  13. Peter Alfvin July 15, 2011 - Reply

    One .pst per year with only two folders per .pst, one for “sent” and one for “received”.

    After reading email, either delete, respond immediately or file to “todo” folder (never more than a couple dozen items total).

    Use Nelson Email Organizer which provides one-key operation for “delete”, “todo” and “received”. It also provides fast search which avoids the time consuming requirement for having multiple sort folders.

  14. Dave G July 15, 2011 - Reply

    Creating rules to auto fiel or delete is also helpful. Plus color code inox to scan for items only sent to me. I wish REPLY ALL was deactivated.

  15. Russell Lear July 15, 2011 - Reply

    I’ve tried organizing mail by topic-based folders until I found too many pieces that would need to go into multiple folders or the dread “misc.” folder.

    At this point I either delete a message or keep it in my inbox. Every 6 – 9 months I delete or move items to a time-based folder (right now my inbox has not quite 2000 pieces). With Outlook’s categories and search facilities there really hasn’t been a problem quickly finding needed information. For what it’s worth, I’m an engineer.

    (Xerox Employee)

  16. Eric Thibodeau July 18, 2011 - Reply

    I’ve been doing much of the same for years. This not only processes the email efficiently, it frees up space on the exchange server. Two other items to do:

    I also handle sent items a specific way: 1st Outlook has an option to automatically save sent items into the Sent folder (turn this off) as it uses space on the exchange server. Instead I set up a rule to save a copy of each message into a Sent Items PST file, which is also on your local machine.

    Lastly, every so often you need to search for and delete old calendar messages. These can take up space, in particuar with attachments. But you only need to do this once every 2-3 years.

    One last consideration is “backup”. Be warned that items on the Exchange Server are backed up automatically, but your local PST files are NOT backed up. I bought an external USB drive (1TB=$90), and backup every so often.

  17. Paul Butterfield July 18, 2011 - Reply

    I agree with Russell. Filing mail messages by category might work for some, but for me; there are too many messages that span multiple categories. Since Outlook has so many capabilities for sorting and searching, I don’t take the time to do ANY filing. I simply ‘archive’ the oldest of my postings (a month at a time)when I’ve reached my storage limit. I’m able to keep more than a year of history in current folders, which for most topics in this fast-paced world, is sufficient for mail note content. I can sort by “from”, “subject” or “date” and with Advanced Find my computer can usually locate desired content very fast.

    Important attachments (or particularly meaty mail notes) are filed into the appropriate folders in Explorer.

    (Xerox employee)

  18. Diego Pereda July 18, 2011 - Reply

    Thanks everyone, thank you for taking the time to leave your own tips.

    Pamela, that is very brave, all your mail into the deleted folder, wow, I wish I was that brave, but if that works for you, outstanding!

    Joel, that sounds like an effective but complex system, I am not sure that would work for me, maybe if I deleted less… Glad it works for you!

    Carol, I do something similar to resend “report” emails to specific DLs, the difference is I copy myself and then I store the copy. Something that is changing is I am using more and more “the cloud” to store these reports and “notifications” to alert users the report is available. Whether Sharepoint, Docushare, Yammer, etc most of these platforms have this capability… It helps to reduce email traffic…

    Peter, if I stored less I think one pst a year would work but I am a “categorizer” so I have many, many folders and subfolders in each .pst. Grat to hear your system works for you though.

    Dave, agree on reply all, NOT A FAN!

    Russell, as long as your system works for you that is what counts. I agree with tagging and search improving so much we will soon just ask our computers (by voice) what we want and it will come our way. And We (Xerox) will be contributing with our NLP (Natural Language Processing) technology!!!

    Eric, great to hear from you! I also back up my files using a $80 hard drive. Great idea on the archiving of sent files, will look into it. Thanks!

    Paul, agree with you, every person has a different system, and as I said earlier with computing speed and technology archiving will be a thing of the past (for some) I do believe that I will still have many, many subfolders in the future…

    Love all your comments and tips. Thanks for sharing. Diego Pereda (Xerox Employee)

  19. Leah August 31, 2011 - Reply

    I agree 100% with this post… I work my inbox in the EXACT same way! Us social media folks must be on the same mental wave length 🙂

    I know a few people who can really benefit from this simple strategy… forwarding on!

  20. Diego Pereda November 1, 2011 - Reply

    Leah, thank you so much for your comment, so sorry it took me this long to respond, somehow this comment never made it to my inbox…

    Thanks for forwarding this on! (Xerox Employee)

  21. WOW just what I was looking for. Came here by searching for reef aquariums

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