I don't know what your email is like, but mine is a disaster. Over the years, I've tried to fine-tune the process and become more efficient. But with hundreds of emails arriving every day to multiple accounts, I've resigned myself to some reduced expectations. I'm never going to be able to respond to every email I receive. But I at least read them all.
That said, I still try to keep my email organized. I want to be able to reference older emails when possible, but I don't want my inbox stuffed full of messages I'm never going to look at again. So I'm aggressive about filing things, and keeping as close as possible to the "empty inbox" maxim. I don't always succeed. But practice makes perfect.
After receiving a ton of email in the wake of last week's Hotmail tip about emulating the Gmail Archive button, I thought I'd expand on that a bit and talk about how I organize email using Hotmail. As you probably know, I recently switched to Hotmail from Gmail and now use Microsoft's email service to consolidate all of my non-work email accounts. So some of this will be Hotmail specific, while some is more general.
Don't organize with folders
If you read this site frequently or listen to one of my podcasts, you know that one of my general themes concerns not overthinking things. Years and years ago when I organized email through Microsoft's Outlook application, I constructed a complex series of folders that I used in tandem with filters to route email as it came in. This created a silly situation in which I'd have to look in multiple locations for new email.
Some people use a similar filing system, but for organizing email after its been read and dealt with. That is, email comes in through the inbox, it's responded to or whatever, and then the user has to examine the message, think about where it belongs, and file it accordingly.
Folks, please. I'm begging you. Don't do this.
Manually micro-managing email message is a waste of time. All modern email services (and applications) support powerful search functionality that will locate any message within seconds. There is no need for you to out-think the email and construct complex folder structures.
Here's what I do. I archive or I delete. Those are the only two possible outcomes for any email that comes through Hotmail: I save it or I kill it.
As discussed in Hotmail Tip: Use Instant Actions to Add an Archive Button, archived email is placed in a folder, _Archived, that I create inside Hotmail. It's the only folder I create, and the only one I use explicitly. (In Gmail, just use the Archive command/button.) Email that doesn't need to be saved--Google Alerts, boring newsletters, spam, whatever--is simply deleted. Done.
I do realize that not everyone is interested in utilizing my simple organizational scheme. But Hotmail supports dynamic views of different email types through a feature called Quick Views that many will find useful. Built-in Quick Views include Flagged, Office docs, Photos, Shipping updates, and Shopping. And you can add your own. This feature is a nice halfway point between my own simple organizational scheme and an out of control, folder-based hierarchy. But it's better than the latter because it's largely automatic.
No need to belabor this point since I've already written about it a lot, but if you're using multiple email accounts like I am, it's a good idea to consolidate them all into a single account or at least fewer accounts. There are two basic ways to do this, on the client (PC, Windows Phone, whatever) and at the service level. I choose to consolidate at the service level through Hotmail for personal accounts. And on Windows Phone I consolidate everything through a single linked Inbox view.
Again, I've written about this in the past, so please do refer to the following articles for more information.
In Hotmail Tip: Use Instant Actions to Add an Archive Button, I wrote about my conversion to a Gmail-like Archive button in Hotmail, thanks to a reader suggestion. But the feature used to create this button, Instant Actions, can be used for other purposes as well.
Instant Actions are small icon-like graphics that appear inline in an email message header in Hotmail. They provide a way to perform an action on the current message, regardless of whether it's being displayed or not. (That is, Instant Actions work even when the preview pane is off.) By default, the actions Mark As Read/Unread, Delete, and Flag are enabled in Hotmail. But you can add your own, including Move To, Categorize, Sweep, and Junk.
Instant Actions are perfect for what I think of (incorrectly, probably) as "email triage," which I undergo each morning: I basically scan through my list of new emails, deleting the ones I don't want first, and then reading and discarding/archiving others on a second pass. This leaves me with a much smaller selection of messages with which I must deal with further.
Jamie T. wrote in about the Hotmail flagged message feature, which is available inline in the message headers as an Instant Action, is key for keeping very important emails at the top of the Hotmail inbox. (True enough, though this feature doesn't work with Windows Phone for some inexplicable reason.)
The Hotmail web interface also supports a wide range of keyboard shortcuts, as Jamie T. also noted. In fact, it supports optional Gmail or Yahoo! keyboard shortcuts if you're looking to make the switch but don't want to learn all-new shortcuts. You can learn more about all of these keyboard shortcut sets at Hotmail Help, but two that Jamie points out are particularly useful:
F, I - Navigate to the Hotmail inbox. This works the Windows Live home page too.
/ - Puts the focus on the search box.
I've never regretted the decision to move to Hotmail, though I'm still amused by the curious comments I get from people on Twitter, especially, who clearly haven't examined the service in any meaningful way in years. But Hotmail is fast, efficient, and compatible with the devices and services I use most often, so it's a no-brainer. And if you have any other great Hotmail efficiency tips you'd like to share, please do let me know. I'm always looking for more.