by Bill Snyder

Email Clutter: Cleaning it Up on Your Own Terms

Jul 05, 20115 mins
Cloud ComputingEnterprise ApplicationsInternet

You don't have to be constantly tidying up your messy email inbox, writes's Bill Snyder. Today's email clients such as Gmail and Mozilla Thunderbird have plenty of storage space and advanced search and tagging features. But there's still a method to the email madness. Here are four tips to stay organized.

If you’re a grownup, and not in the army or in prison, you don’t have to put up with someone telling you to clean your room. But I’ll bet you cringe when some self-righteous tech writer tells you to clean up your email box. Oh, you’ve heard it all before: “It’s messy, it keeps you from finding things, it slows your computer, it wastes your time, blah blah blah….


Take me, for example. I’ve got 4,000 emails sitting around. And I’m neither ashamed nor overwhelmed. I use my email box as a convenient repository of information. And since my email client, Mozilla’s Thunderbird, a close cousin to Firefox, has decent search capabilities built in to it, I can find what I’m looking for with little trouble. As a backup, I use a desktop search tool called Copernic, which works even better.

What’s more, Thunderbird makes it easy to create folders for a specific project or event and you can drag and drop email into and out of them. If I need to go back and check on an old project in a couple of months, that information is right where I left it. I can also label and sort emails with color-coded tags, which let me see what I’m looking for with just a glance. Thunderbird is free, and works with any Web mail you choose to use. Copernic has free and paid versions.

Say some PR person sent me a note a couple of months ago mentioning a source for an article. If I were as organized as I’d like to be, I’d have entered that information into my contacts database. Sadly, I’m not so together. But with a few keystrokes, I can find that email and the name of that contact. Since I’ve set my mail to delete itself from AT&T’s server once I’ve downloaded it, I’m not selfishly eating up somebody else’s storage. So what’s the problem?

Oh but I use Gmail, you say. Not to worry. Google gives you 25GB of space, which is really, really a lot. Even with my 4,000 emails — a total you’ll probably never come close to — I’m using less than 4GB.

Gmail’s search features aren’t as advanced as my Thunderbird/Copernic combo, but they work pretty well.

Tip: Click on “search options,” and you’ll find a number of ways to focus your search. Gmail also supports tagging, although Google calls it labeling. You can go into settings and check “show” next to the label. That ensures that the label you add to an email will be visible from the message list.

Having said all of the above, it’s worth noting that my system works for me because I do my job from a home office. It’s really nobody’s business how I choose to organize my computer. The same holds true if we’re talking about a computer you purchased for personal use. But the rules at work are probably quite different, and if the folks who manage your corporate email system tell you to slim down your email box because you’re clogging their servers, you need to listen, annoying as it may be.

We’re all adults here and can mess up our rooms if we want to. But that doesn’t give us license to mess up somebody else’s room. Although I have no trouble dealing with spam and mountains of messages, other people have very different feelings, and it is incumbent upon us as courteous people to respect their needs and feelings.

Which brings me to an interesting site called, which is dedicated to reducing the amount of useless email floating around the cyberworld. I don’t agree with all 10 points of the charter, but some are right on the money. Here are a few that I like. (My comments are in italics.)

Tighten the Thread

Some emails depend for their meaning on context. Which means it’s usually right to include the thread being responded to. But it’s rare that a thread should extend to more than three emails. Before sending, cut what’s not relevant. Frankly, there are some issues, like scheduling a meeting, that are handled more efficiently via a quick conversation. You’ve got a cell phone. Use it.

Give these Gifts: EOM and NNTR

If your email message can be expressed in half a dozen words, just put it in the subject line, followed by EOM (= End of Message). This saves the recipient having to actually open the message. Ending a note with “No need to respond” or NNTR, is a wonderful act of generosity.

Attack Attachments

Don’t use graphics files as logos or signatures that appear as attachments. Time is wasted trying to see if there’s something to open. They also take up space and can be confused with bogus attachments that carry malware.

Slash Surplus cc’s

cc’s are like mating bunnies. For every recipient you add, you are dramatically multiplying total response time. When there are multiple recipients, please don’t default to ‘Reply All’. That’s especially important in Google Groups, when “reply all” can send a response to dozens of people. And please don’t use email blocking software. I’ve had people ask me to help them with something and I’ll reply, only to be blocked and told I have to be approved. GRRRR.

San Francisco journalist Bill Snyder writes frequently about business and technology. He welcomes your comments and suggestions. Reach him at Follow Bill Snyder on Twitter @BSnyderSF. Follow everything from on Twitter @CIOonline