In this challenge we’re tackling our digital inbox so we can manage and organize email and other digital information.
Email and Digital Information Organization
Let’s face it, years ago we were promised that one day we’d be a paperless society. It sure hasn’t happened. Instead, everyday we seem to be bombarded with even more paper.
Part of the reason for that is how easy it is to photocopy or print offinformation these days. It makes it easy to give everyone a paper copy.
But simultaneously with this bombardment of paper we’re also being given lots more digital information, including email. The reason is quite similar, it is cheap and easy to send lots of digital information, so we spread it around for everyone!
Are you new here? The Organize Email & Digital Information Challenge is part of the 52 Week Home Organization Challenge. (Click the link to learn how to join us for free for future and past challenges if you aren’t already a regular reader).
But, and this is what we need to realize, digital clutter is still clutter, and wading through it without having it organized and streamlined can rob us of time and energy just as much as something physical.
That’s why this week’s task switches gears just a bit and focuses on digital information, since last week we were dealing with our home filing system. You basically have two filing systems in your home whether you think you do or not — the one for information contained on paper, and other on your computer and other electronic devices for digital information.
Step 1: Declutter Digital Information & Emails
As always, the first step in each of our organizing challenges is to declutter.
This is just as true with digital information as it is with physical stuff. You need to declutter old useless emails and files to get it out of the way.
Not only because there is, actually, a finite amount of memory on your computer or in your email account, eventually, but also because weeding through all that useless stuff takes up your precious time and energy just like physical clutter.
Now obviously, just like when dealing with paper, just because a piece of information is old doesn’t mean it is useless, so I’m not suggesting you delete all emails or computer files that are over a certain age.
But what you need to do is get in the right mind set, from now on, to feel comfortable pushing delete. We often save way too much digital info because, heck why not? But don’t let “what if I need it one day” syndrome hold you back. You need to become just as ruthless with deleting your digital information as you hopefully are becoming with purging paper clutter.
In fact, the same four questions you should ask yourself when deciding if you should declutter paper can be used when deciding what electronic files and emails should be sent to the digital trash can.
Here are examples of digital information and email inboxes you should delete, or places you should declutter and clean up:
- Computer files, especially your documents folder and download history
- Email inbox, including deleting emails with attachments that you’ve already saved to your hard drive
- Email sent box
- Junk folder in your email – do a quick glance periodically to make sure something isn’t routed there when it’s not junk, but most of it can be quickly purged
Step 2: Organize Emails Into Folders For Reference & Action
As I mentioned before, you really have two or more filing systems in your home, whether or not you actually thought of them that way before or not.
You’ve got the paper filing system, and it is actually a great model for how to organize your other filing systems which include both your email and other computer files. These are the three main places you may check to access a piece of information someone has previously sent you, or that you created yourself.
Set Up Email Inbox Folders For Reference Information
Set up folders in your email inbox to organize the emails you receive, just like you would for papers you receive. Typically the emails that need to go into these types of folders are what I call “reference emails.” They provide you with information you need in the future, but you don’t need to do anything with right now. They don’t require your “action.”
You can set up these folders in whatever way works best for you, but your folders may be set up using categories, such as church or school, or by sender, etc.
Create A Virtual Task List Or To Do List For Emails Needing Action From You
Many people use their email inbox as a to do list, and there is actually nothing wrong with that. After all, often when people send you email they are not just providing you with information, but asking you to somehow act on it.
If you receive emails of this variety, I suggest dealing with them in a similar manner as you would do for papers that ask for action.
First, use the two minute rule. If it will take you less than 2 minutes to do the task, just go ahead and do it. But if it will take you longer move it to an action folder, so that you come back to it and deal with these tasks when you’ve planned you’ll get it accomplished.
The key with action or to do list types of email folders is to make sure you don’t just shuffle the emails over to those types of folders and then forget they exist.
Instead, you’ve got to have a system developed, just like for your paper, for coming back to these emails and dealing with them in a timely manner so you don’t miss deadlines or not follow through with your commitments.
Once you’ve done the action, now is the time to then file the email and perhaps also the reply you sent, into a folder as reference and history of what you did.
Step 3: Unsubscribe From Email Lists You Don’t Enjoy Or Need
One of the keys to keeping on top of your email is to receive less of it. The less you receive the less overwhelming it is to deal with, regularly.
It’s easy to do this by taking the time, over a several week period, to not just delete emails you don’t enjoy receiving anymore, but instead to do the extra step of clicking on the email and unsubscribing from them. That’s why this is Step 3 of this challenge.
Yes, there are some really scammy and spammy emails that come that don’t include an unsubscribe link at the bottom of them, but most reputable companies (including me, since I send out to an email list of over 150,000 people regularly) use email marketing systems which contain such an unsubscribe link at the bottom of every single email.
When you click unsubscribe you definitely are saving yourself time and hassle in the long run, because although it takes a little longer to unsubscribe than just to delete once, eventually it will keep you from hitting delete hundreds and hundreds of times.
Also, in the future, be very careful whenever you provide your email address to look for any checkboxes that may automatically be filled out that say you’re agreeing to receive additional information from that company. Unless you really want this information make sure you opt out or uncheck such boxes, to stop some of this junk email from coming into your inbox to begin with.
Step 4: Organize Computer Files
Much like you organize your paper files and also emails into folders, you do the same with your computer files.
The beauty of these digital files is you don’t have to actually sit down and file it though. Instead just click a button, or drag and drop, and bam, it’s in the folder you’ve created or designated, and can be rearranged at the click of a button alphabetically, or by date of creation or modification. It’s really great!
Your computer’s file cabinet is the document folder. Take the time to set up a good set of folders for your digital file cabinet now that will help you find information you need in the future. Then, move all the files you’ve made up to this point, willy nilly, into the right folder or subfolder, and then just maintain your system from now on.
Each person will have different types of folders that they’ll need to create, because everyone’s organizing system is unique. But if you want ideas of the categories that might be important for your computer files, you can check step 2 of the Organize Files Challenge for ideas. (Please note not all of them will apply, if you don’t have any digital information that would fit into some of these categories.)
Step 5: Make Sure You Back Up Your Data
Finally, just about everyone has experienced a hard drive failing, or lost their computer or smart phone, and then you know that sickening feeling of worrying where all that digital information has gone.
And if you haven’t experienced yet, I can say with certainty you will in the future.
That’s why step 5 of this challenge is to make sure you back up your data.
Neither technology or us is infallible, and something will go wrong. That’s why you need to back up your data. And fortunately, with digital information it is much easier to do than with physical paper information.
You can either schedule regular back ups manually, or my personal favorite is to choose some type of system that does it for you automatically and continuously. Because if your back up relies on you to remember to do it, well, that’s just one more way it can all go wrong if you forget, or just don’t have time, or whatever.
Similarly, if you just back up every 30 days you are purposefully taking the risk of losing up to 29 days worth of updates and new information if the system fails on day 29 before the next update. Continuous backups are now no longer onerous, since they can be automated, and that way you don’t lose many days worth of work without a way to get it back.
There are both backups that you save yourself, such as to an external hard drive, or to a thumb drive for example. Or you can choose a back up that is in the cloud. I personally prefer the cloud, but to each their own.
Some good places to look for cloud backups include Carbonite and DropBox, both of which I personally use and have been very pleased with in the past. There are lots of other options as well. I don’t honestly care which one you choose as long as it is reputable, and that you do, in fact, invest the money and time in doing it.
Tell Me How The Organize Email & Digital Information Challenge Is Going For You
I would love to know how this week’s challenge is going for you. You can tell me your progress or give me more ideas for how you’ve organized your email and other digital information in the comments.