Thinking Through Email: Automate and Sort

We’ve covered a lot of ground in this series on email. If you take some of these suggestions under consideration you’ll be able to start getting your inbox under control. Remember, it’s not about “inbox zero”. There will always be another email coming in to mar that clean slate. Managing email is about keeping your communications under control rather than scrambling to keep up.

Bearing that in mind, let’s go over a final suggestion before we wrap the series: automation. I mentioned it briefly in the post on limiting what arrives in your inbox. Most email clients and services offer some form of automation. If the one you use doesn’t, find a different service and forward your address to the new one.

If you’re processing lots of email and sorting it manually, you’re missing out on one of the greatest advantages of the medium. Let’s look at some of the ways different services handle sorting.


Several services offer tags as a way of sorting and organizing. Gmail[1] and Apple Mail are the most common[2]. Tags have several advantages over folders. First, they are not discrete. A message can carry multiple tags(sometimes called labels) at the same time, allowing you to find a specific message with various search terms.

For example, I could add a “2013” tag to every message I sent or received that year, but also add specific tags like “Receipt” or “Personal” to each message. Not only can I search for messages by a specific tag, I can cross-reference them and find all my receipts from 2013.

My problem with tags is the gigabytes of email that I received before tags were invented. I find the “search” functions in my email clients far more useful. If your business’ record-keeping is mission-critical[3] you may consider tagging your incoming email[4].


I love folders. I’m not ashamed of it. I’ll proclaim it loud from the rooftops. Tags are cool. They’re new and shiny and Apple wants us to use them. But I find the rigid hierarchy of folders comforting.

I think it’s easier to sort into folders. I rarely need to attach a single email to multiple categories, and if I do I can accomplish it through nesting the folders[5].

I like the feeling of knowing “where” something is[6]. All my podcasts are archived into folders. My photos live in folders. Nothing on my computer is tagged.

Even if it’s a giant “Archive” folder[7] that I frequently search, I like to know it’s all there somewhere. Tags just don’t fit the way I work.

What Should You Do?

Different things work for different people. If tags sound interesting to you, give them a try. Add some tags to your email app and let the app auto-apply those to some of your incoming messages.

If the thought of multiple tags stresses you out, sort your email into folders. Put together some rules to auto-sort your incoming messages so you can find what you need quickly.

  1. Gmail calls them “Labels”.  ↩

  2. Both services offer folders as a way of sorting as well. More on that in a moment.  ↩

  3. If you’re a doctor, lawyer, or accountant for example.  ↩

  4. Find an intern to tag your archived email.  ↩

  5. You can get away with this if one category is a subset of another: “Bananas” can’t go in the “Beef” folder, for example  ↩

  6. Look, I know it’s just bits on a magnetic platter. It’s just a metaphor, OK?  ↩

  7. Where most of my email lives  ↩