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Managing Email in the Real World


Inbox zero is hard, but have you tried Inbox 100?

As Earth Day approaches, we’re grateful that all the interoffice paper memos of yesteryear have been replaced with electronic communications. Make sure you aren’t undoing sustainability gains by printing out your email! Instead, ensure you are managing it the best you can digitally. Concepts like “inbox zero” sound great in theory, but it gets more complicated when emails continuously flow in. Of course, we all have the core parts of our jobs to spend our focus and time on rather than email management. Luckily, we found a real life example of email management success in Lisa Robertson, from the Cashier’s Office at UW Bothell. She graciously shared the details of her recent large scale email clean-up project with us.

At the completion of her project, Lisa was able to delete 7,000 emails from her sent box and inbox. It’s good to have a plan to follow and, conveniently, we have a new flowchart designed to help you process and manage email. Lisa did not delete such a large amount of emails overnight, but rather accomplished it bit by bit, by dedicating time when she could.

hands holding a cell phone over a laptop

Here are some lessons that Lisa learned from her project:

  • Identifying whether an email is transitory or substantive is key. Transitory emails can be deleted immediately. Substantive emails are retained according to their content based on the General Records Retention Schedule or your office’s customized Departmental Records Retention Schedule. So Lisa started by identifying emails that aren’t substantive, but rather just for reference (articles she wants to read one day, some project related information that she’ll likely check back on, etc.). She put these together in a “Reference” folder, and checks through it regularly to see what she can delete. Lisa says picking a date, like the start of each month, to review what can be deleted can help you stay on top of it.
  • She used color coded categories/tags to identify the status of each email in her inbox. As the status changed, she changed the category tag. Once the last action is taken, she saved (if needed) or deleted the email.
    • Category examples:
      • Awaiting response
      • Needs action
      • Accounting
      • Reference Only
  • Researching what an email is about takes time once it is older and you no longer remember the context. It’s better to deal with items when they’re still fresh.
  • Using “Conversation View” makes it easier to delete emails. Lisa noted this is especially helpful because it ensures you won’t forget about managing the related messages in the “Sent” folder. Use our instructions to set Conversation View, as well as how to run a Conversation Cleanup.
  • “Inbox zero” may not be attainable for a lot of people, but pick a number that is comfortable for you that you can actually achieve. For Lisa, it’s having 40-50 emails in her inbox at a time. Other staff have mentioned they aim for 100 or 500 at a time. Pick the number that signals to you that you have some email cleanup to do.
  • If you are trying to cut down by saving only the last email in a string, and an earlier email in the string has an attachment you need to save, make sure you save the attachment separately. But in general, it’s a good policy to download any attachment you need and save it to its proper storage location outside of your email, then delete the email as soon as you can.
  • Lisa figured that all the same best practices that apply to any other electronic folders structures (as described in our resource here), can apply to email too. These include: don’t overcomplicate the folder structure, and file by function (such as student folders) and then chronologically (fiscal year or academic year).
  • 2 computer monitors on a clean desk with flowersEmpty the “Deleted Items” box weekly otherwise those emails are still there and still your responsibility.
  • Lisa’s plan for the future is to continue putting aside time for email management bit by bit (even just dealing with a few in a day), so she never has to do a big cleanup project again. She said having to do such a sizable project can be tedious, “can make a person’s eyeballs roll back in their head until they don’t even remember what they are doing anymore.” Once the project is completed, keep good habits up over time so you don’t have to do any big future cleanup projects.
  • Lisa said, “Deleting such a large number feels good! Accomplishment builds on accomplishment. It gets easier. I started with a huge number, and I made it work.” She said the project inspired future success.

Does Lisa’s real world success inspire you too?

Interested in getting your own email cleanup project started?

Check out the following links:

Contact the ROT Squad with questions about what to do with specific emails or creating a folder plan structure


Click here to watch the video on this new University-wide initiative.


Barbara Benson

Cara Ball

Emily Lemieux

Michael Mooney

Lynn O'Shea