How to Organize Your Email: 11 Management Tools

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Lindsay Kolowich Cox
Lindsay Kolowich Cox

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Most people have a love-hate relationship with their email inbox. On the one hand, email can be incredibly useful — whether you're making progress with a client, replacing a meeting with a (much more efficient) email thread, or receiving an invitation to a fun social gathering.

inbox organization tools: image shows a person standing on a laptop computer in the corner

On the other hand, though, email can be overwhelming — especially if you lose control. And boy is it easy to lose control. Many of us get bombarded by new emails on a regular basis, and it's stressful to know that we might be missing out on the truly important stuff amid the flood of less pertinent stuff.

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Luckily, there are a lot of tools and free apps for startups that can help us get more organized. In this post, we'll go through how to best organize your email and suggest some tools to make the process easier.

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How to Organize Your Email

Before we dive into the tools that can help you take control of your inbox, let's go over some of the basic best practices that can help you maintain email organization as much as possible. Here are our three golden rules:

  • Get rid of the old email you don't need. I still have email invitations to events from 2006, most of which I never even attended. Do I need them? No. Should I delete them? Yes. Clear your inbox of anything but new emails and previous ones that you'll absolutely need to refer to later. You can even clean your inbox with AI.
  • Unsubscribe. Seriously. We all have those I-swear-you‘re-going-to-read-this-newsletter-really-just-as-soon-as-I-have-a-minute emails. You’re not going to read them -- get rid of them. Some of the tools below will help you do this in bulk.
  • Combine multiple email accounts. I‘m a big believer in keeping work and personal email separate -- but sometimes, having to toggle between the two isn’t conducive to staying organized. Some of the tools below can help you consolidate different email addresses -- Mail and iCal on Mac devices, for example, allow you to streamline multiple accounts in one place.

Best Way to Organize Email

Now that we’ve covered some email organizing basics, let’s dig into how to best go about the task.

1. Use Labels and Folders

You can’t simply delete all of your emails so one easy way to get organized is to create labels and folders for the important things. Storing emails in folders keeps them out of your main inbox and cuts down on clutter.

how to organize email: labels

You can name these folders something like “needs response ASAP” or after a particular project if you’re getting a bunch of emails related to one topic. Labels are another organizational tool you can deploy. Each mail provider will vary slightly but if using Gmail, labels function like sticky notes and don’t move emails from your inbox like folders do. Instead, you’d search the label name and to view all of the emails with that particular label.

2. Star or Flag Important Emails

Most email providers will come with a star or flag (or both) feature that will enable you to mark emails you’d like to come back to later. Marking emails with a flag or star doesn’t remove them from your inbox, but can quickly give you a visual representation of what emails to focus on next.

In Gmail, simply open your inbox and click the star on the left-hand side of the message. If you’d like to see all of your starred emails, click “Starred” from the left-hand menu like the photo below.

how best way to organize email: Google stars

In Outlook, instead of stars, you can flag an email. Go to your inbox and hit the flag column next to the message you’d like to flag. From there, you’ll have the option to set a due date for yourself to follow up.

3. Set Up Filters

There will always be a steady stream of new emails coming into your inbox, no matter how well you organize them. Applying filters can help you manage new emails as they come in. Filters are rules you can apply to incoming messages that will automatically send them to the correct folder, add the correct label, archive, or delete them.

how to organize email: gmail filters

Setting filters up can be complicated with other email providers, but for Gmail users it’s pretty straightforward. To create a new filter in Gmail:

  1. Go to your inbox
  2. In the search box at the top, click Show search options.
  3. Enter your search criteria. If you want to check that your search worked correctly, see what emails show up by clicking Search.
  4. At the bottom of the search window, click Create filter.
  5. Choose what you’d like the filter to do.
  6. Click Create filter.

For Outlook users, you can find step-by-step instructions for creating email rules here.

4. Use the Archive Feature

Sometimes you may have emails that are unimportant or not as urgent as others, but also not ready to be deleted. For these, you can use an archive feature that removes them from your inbox and store it for later.

For example, you can archive an email for a future task. Once you’re ready to complete it, you can pull the email up, complete the task, and delete it when finished.

5. Regularly Clean Out Your Inbox

We spring clean and declutter our homes regularly and the same should go for your email inbox. We’re inundated with emails daily and it’s easy to let it spin out of control — even when utilizing the organizing hacks above.

That’s why it’s important to declutter your inbox regularly so that it doesn’t become so overwhelming. Consider clearing out your inbox on a monthly or quarterly basis. For a more detailed checklist, check out our tips for managing your email inbox.

11 Tools for Organizing Your Email

1. HubSpot Sales

Price: Free; Paid Versions Available

Ever wanted to know who opens your emails and when, how many times, and from where? When you download the HubSpot Sales Chrome extension, you can opt-in to get live notifications whenever someone opens or clicks on the links in your email. It integrates with both Gmail and Outlook.

Another cool feature is the contact information sidebar that pops up when you open an email thread. It includes all the relevant information about the person you're emailing, including past contact history (kind of like LinkedIn's “relationship tab” function), social media content, mutual connections, and so on. Soon, the extension will let you schedule emails to send later.

email organization tools: HubSpot Sales

The free version of Sales Hub provides email open notifications — as well as the ability to schedule emails to be sent later, and a few other functionalities. For unlimited open-and-click notifications (and a slew of other upgraded functions), you can upgrade to Starter for $45 per month.

2. Shift

Price: Free; Paid Versions Available

Shift allows you to access and use all of your email accounts from one convenient desktop application. Not only that, but you can access tons of apps and extensions, including HubSpot Sales, Grammarly, Asana, WhatsApp, and many more.

Shift also has an excellent search function that works across all of your accounts, so you can quickly retrieve and revive conversations. The biggest benefit to using something like Shift is that all of your work and workflows are in one place. You can save a ton of time switching between apps and email accounts using this.

email organization tools: Shift

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3. Unroll.me

Price: Free

The first step to relieving your inbox from all that email is to unsubscribe from all the newsletters you've subscribed to over the years. But unsubscribing manually from tens, maybe hundreds of newsletters would take forever.

Enter Unroll.me, a free tool that lets you mass unsubscribe from all the newsletters you don't read. You can either wipe the slate clean and unsubscribe from everything at once, or you can pick and choose.

email organization tools: unroll me

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4. FollowUpThen

Price: Free; Paid Versions Available

Here's another simple but useful tool, this time for reminding you — and even your clients, if you want —to follow up on specific emails.

Here's how it works: Compose an email, and then include [any time]@followupthen.com in the “Bcc,” “Cc,” or “To” fields of your email. The "any time“ wording here is pretty flexible: It can be ”tomorrow@followupthen.com,“ ”nextwednesday@followupthen.com,“ ”3hours@followupthen.com,“ ”everyday@followupthen.com,“ ”every3rdwednesday@followupthen.com," and so on.

What happens to that email when you click “send” depends on where you put that @followupthen.com email address:

  • Bcc: You'll get a follow-up regarding the email (without bothering the original recipient).
  • Cc: The tool will schedule a reminder for you and the recipient.
  • To: The tool will send an email to your future self.

Here's a video that explains the tool in more detail:

It works for every email client, and it's free for up to 50 follow-ups per month. You can increase the number of follow-ups and add features like calendar integration for teams for $4 per month, per user.

5. IFTTT

Price: Free

IFTTT, short for “If This Then That,” is an amazing productivity tool that helps you connect the apps and devices you use every day with “if this, then that” statements — which they call “recipes.”

When it comes to inbox productivity, IFTTT can do wonders for automating some of the more tedious, manual tasks. Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Get a text message when a specific person emails you.
  • Send email attachments to Dropbox.
  • Save starred emails to Evernote.
  • Schedule reminders tomorrow for the emails you star in your inbox today.
  • Add “receipt” or “order” emails to a Google spreadsheet.
  • Track your work hours by adding an entry into a Google spreadsheet every time you arrive at or leave your office.
  • Turn emails into Trello cards.

email organization tools: IFTTT

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6. Gmail “Special Stars”

Price: Free

I couldn't write a blog post about inbox organization without including my go-to strategy for getting to — and maintaining — inbox zero. This tool isn‘t an add-on; it’s a methodology developed by Andreas Klinger. It uses two, built-in features in Gmail: “special stars” (a slightly fancier labeling system than Gmail labels) and multiple inboxes. Since writing that post last year, many people have told me it's changed the way they use email and has made their lives a lot easier. I highly recommend it.

email organization tools: gmail

There's just one, notable caveat: No special stars other than the yellow star are supported by Gmail‘s mobile app, so you won’t be able to see your lists on mobile. If you frequently use mobile devices to sort your emails, try Sortd, which is next on the list.

7. Sortd

Price: Free; Paid Versions Available

Sortd is basically a cleaner version of the Gmail Special Stars methodology I described above, in that you don‘t need to star, label, or mark your emails in any way. But it does work right in Gmail: It’s what their team calls a “Smart Skin for Gmail,” meaning that it lives right inside your Gmail inbox so you don't have to leave the app at all.

What it does do is fix the problem of important emails getting lost below the fold — most importantly, by expanding your inbox into a flexible set of lists, organized cleanly into columns. This allows your emails, to-do lists, and priorities to live together in one place, and lets you easily drag-and-drop emails from column to column.

HubSpot's former VP of Marketing Meghan Keaney Anderson is a big fan of Sortd. “I think of my inbox as a conveyer belt of sorts bringing me a rapid succession of requests, resources, and to-dos,” she told me. "Email triage means keeping up with that influx without letting anything slip through the cracks. Before I found Sortd, I was marking any email that needed further action as ‘unread’ in the hopes of returning back to it to complete the review or follow-up. It worked about as poorly as you'd expect."

This is what Anderson's inbox looks like now that she uses Sortd:

email organization tools: sortd

"Sortd merges your inbox with a drag-and-drop to do list, so I can quickly evaluate the urgency of an email and then decide what to do with it,“ says Anderson. ”I drag it to the appropriate category of response and rename it to a quick summary of the action needed. Then, I can get a birds-eye view of my work for the week."

email organization tools: sortd

"What's especially nice is Sortd allows me to add tasks that haven't come in through email, for example, a request someone asked of me over chat or in person,“ she adds. ”So my inbox really becomes my central command. I have a column for immediate action items, tasks for the week, a backlog for next week, and resources that I want to have at my fingertips quickly."

Another advantage to Sortd over special stars? You can use it on mobile if you download the Sortd Mobile Companion App on iOS or Android. (Remember, all special stars but one aren't supported by the Gmail mobile app — so this is your best option if you like to sort your email on mobile.)

8. SaneBox

Price: Begins at $7/Month; Premium Options Available

If you're looking to automate prioritizing each email as it comes in, you may want to give SaneBox a try. There‘s nothing to install here: Basically, it works with any email client to create new folders like SaneLater and SaneNews. When a new email comes into your inbox, SaneBox quickly analyzes it to determine how important it is. This analysis is based on your past interaction with your inbox. If SaneBox finds the new email important, it’ll keep it in your inbox. If not, it'll send it to one of those folders.

Later, you'll get a digest of the emails that were sent to those three folders so you can decide whether any of them need your attention when you have the time. Over time, you “train” SaneBox to filter certain types of emails into each of these folders.

SaneBlackHole is a fourth folder that'll help you delete emails and unsubscribe from them in one fell swoop. When you manually drag an email into your SaneBlackHole folder, it'll delete the email and unsubscribe from the source automatically.

There are other cool features in here too, like the “attachments” feature that automatically sends all email attachments into a Dropbox folder.

9. Checker Plus

Price: Free

Checker Plus is a Chrome extension for Gmail that helps you manage multiple Gmail accounts at once so you don‘t have to flip through multiple inboxes. One of the main features is instant email notifications even when Gmail isn’t open. So if you‘re a fan of notifications, then you’ll like this one.

Without opening Gmail in your browser, Checker Plus will give you desktop notifications when you get a new email, along with the option to read, listen to, or delete emails.

I‘m a big fan of the extension’s voice notification feature. If I get an email while I‘m busy cooking dinner or something, I can choose to have the extension read the email out loud to me, even if Gmail isn’t open. (Just remember to shut this off when you head into the office.)

 

10. Mailbird

Price: Free; Paid Versions Available

There are other email clients out there, but Mailbird manages to stand out.

While it only works for Windows users, this email client unifies your inbox with your apps by rolling your email and all your calendar, task, and messaging apps into an all-in-one interface. And it's a simple user interface, which you can customize in different colors and layouts.

Here's an example of what one layout looks like with email and WhatsApp integration:

email organization tools: mail bird

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Mailbird works for Windows users on desktop and mobile. The Lite version is free, but if you want other, more advanced functionalities — like the ability to “snooze” your email — then you'll have to get the paid version for $3.25/user/month.

11. SimplyFile

Price: Starts at $47.88/year

While Outlook doesn‘t have nearly as many organization tools as other email clients, here’s one for Outlook users only that'll help you spend less time filing your email. SimplyFile adds a toolbar (or “ribbon tab”) to your inbox, with different, customizable files, which is easily accessible so you can file new emails quickly.

When an email comes in, simply drag it into the appropriate folder. You can organize both messages you‘re receiving in your inbox, as well as messages you’re sending — which you can file as you send them.

email organization tools: Simply File

Take Control of Your Inbox

Ready to get started? Great. Start exploring these tools, and get that inbox organized — once and for all.

Editor's note: This article was originally published in October 2017 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.

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