The Best Way to Organize Your Emails: Just Archive Them

Email inbox on a laptop
a photo / Shutterstock.com

We recommend use OHIO (Only Handle It Once) to sort your emails. An essential part of OHIO is archiving the emails you need to keep – get them out of your inbox! Here’s why archiving is essential and why you shouldn’t worry about records.

Why you should archive your emails

Small recap of our OHIO article: your inbox is not an archive, a trash can, a binder or a dump. It’s an inbox!

When you have hundreds or thousands of emails in your inbox, they quickly get buried. Out of sight, it is out of mind. It is much harder to find specific emails, it slows down the operation of your email client (even if you access your emails through a browser like Gmail), and it can use up your storage space if you use Outlook or Apple Mail on your phone.

Bottom Line: There is no point in keeping all of your emails in your inbox, and there are plenty of good reasons not to.

With that in mind, you need to manage an email (reply / forward it, turn it into a task, set up a meeting) and then delete the email or archive it. Here’s how to do it.

RELATED: Forget Inbox Zero: use OHIO to sort your emails instead

Where to archive your emails

Your emails should go to an Archive folder. They should not fit into one of hundreds of carefully organized files; they should go to an Archive folder.

A single archive file

This is quite a bold statement, so a little rationale is needed.

First, a folder hierarchy takes time to set up and maintain, time that would be best spent managing your emails. Second, it may take a bit of effort to decide where an email should go – does an email from your coworker explaining why a project deadline might be missing go on file for that project? The file for this person? A lessons learned file? -And decision making takes time and is exhausting. Finally, it can be extremely difficult to find emails at a later date when they might be in one of the many folders, and each folder contains hundreds of emails.

A single archive makes it easy to move your emails from your inbox because you don’t have to use thinking or decision-making resources. You just need to manage the mail and move it to your archives. It couldn’t be simpler, and when you’re trying to stay on top of an endless stream of emails, you want your process to be as straightforward and easy as possible. Every difficulty or irritation is magnified on a large scale, so something that is a minor annoyance or running out of time for an email will be a huge hassle and a waste of time for hundreds of emails.

For some people, it will be a welcome relief from the torture of a folder structure, but other people will have to breathe in a paper bag at the very thought of losing their meticulously designed, complex, logical, beautiful folder structure. If this is you then, unfortunately, this is going to be hard to swallow. We recognize your pain, although we are confident that the long term benefits of a single archive will more than outweigh the short term pain of changing your system.

How to mass archive your emails

It probably seems obvious that in order to archive your emails you just need to move them to your Archive folder, and you are right. But if you have hundreds or thousands of emails in your inbox, moving them around individually will seem pretty daunting. Ideally, you need to find a way to move them in bulk.

If you are using a client like Microsoft Outlook or Apple Mail, it is easy to select bulk emails. Click an email in your inbox, scroll down, press the SHIFT key on your keyboard, and select another email. All emails between the first and second will be selected. You can drag and drop them into your archive folder or use the Archive button. Like the floppy disk icon used to represent Save, there is a standard archive icon that looks like a traditional cardboard archive box. This is in both Outlook and Apple Mail (both client apps and mobile apps) for the Archive button.

The Archive button in the Outlook ribbon The Archive button in Apple Mail

If you are using the Outlook client, you can also create a Quick Step action which marks all selected emails as read and moves them to the Archive folder with one click (or keyboard shortcut).

If you’ve decided to start from scratch, you can still select all the emails in your inbox using the keyboard shortcut Ctrl + A (Command + A on a Mac) and archive them. We can’t tell you if this is the right thing to do, but you will definitely get an empty inbox very quickly.

In a web interface such as Gmail, you can select one page at a time by checking the box at the top of the page.

The Gmail selection checkbox

Once you have selected the emails, click Archive to move them.

The Gmail Archive button

There is no keyboard shortcut to select all emails in your Gmail inbox (although * + a selects all emails on the page), but when you have selected all emails on page, a message bar will appear above the emails giving you the option to select all emails from your inbox.

The link to select all emails in your Gmail inbox

Click on this link to select all emails in your inbox. The message bar will change to allow you to cancel the selection.

The link to clear the selection of all emails in your Gmail inbox

How many emails do you need to archive?

How many emails you want to archive at a time is really up to you. As we said before, having an empty inbox is temporary at best and at worst almost impossible. You don’t control what goes into your inbox because anyone with your address can send you something. So even if you manage to empty your inbox, it won’t stay empty. That said, it’s not a bad target to aim for, as having an empty inbox, even for a short time, takes some of the pressure off you. But it won’t stay empty, that’s why managing your email is a process, not a goal. And of course you don’t have to archive an email if you don’t need to keep it, you can delete it. This is a great option for saving space.

So instead of focusing all of your efforts on archiving (or deleting) every email from your inbox, focus on achievable goals that will reduce your email stress. Only you know what will reduce the stress of your emails, but example targets are:

  • No high priority mail at the end of the day
  • No emails older than two working days in your inbox
  • No mail from your staff / manager / customers (delete if applicable) at the end of the week

Determine which email is causing you the most stress. Treat and archive (or delete) these emails as a priority.

RELATED: What is Inbox Zero and how do I get it?

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