I currently keep three email addresses (,, and The first two are open to everyday email; the third is for some online ordering and a handful of other likely-to-sp8m sign-ups (i.e., the third is a zombie account, in effect). I suspect I am not alone in keeping multiple accounts, and yet I have made changes to these accounts recently that have substantially redrawn how they work for me.

After months of build-up, in November I realized I was spending too much time labeling, tagging, or sorting email messages into folders–a glut of folders, certainly more than 50. I read around briefly about various efficiency techniques, settled on one, and set about moving messages and deleting the excess. It was cathartic, soul-cleansing (though only about as rapturous as shelving books or vacuuming, to be honest). I ended up with the inbox plus four folders: Act, Hold, Archive, and Lists. All of the emails that arrive easily fit into one of these four folders with most going to Archive. Everything that goes into Lists is automatically routed there by a filtering algorithm. Suddenly Inbox Zero was commonplace: my email practices were significantly improved. And, in fact, this morning I deleted the Act folder because I don’t need it. The general inbox has, for almost three months, functioned as an Act folder. Again, the two motives here are ease of retrieving a message and improved classificatory efficiency.

In addition to the four three folders, I apply seven tags (in Thunderbird): 1 Teaching, 2 Scholarly Activity, 3 Service, 4 Administrativa, 5 Personal, 6 Calendar, and 7 Accounts. Category 4 came along after I realized that a number of emails were communicating various university business that didn’t quite fit into Category 3. I assign Category 7 to various password resets, membership renewals, and account information. Category 6 applies to items requiring an entry on Google Calendar. The others are fairly self-explanatory.

In effect, all emails I receive are categorized twice, once by folder and once by tag. Some receive two tags; few receive three. Often I search the Archive folder by sender, keyword, or date, but I can also separate the emails for any category. The other folders are never full enough that I need to search them. Hold, for example, has maybe ten items in it related to conference travel or meetings next week.

I realize this is a fairly mundane exercise, writing an entry about techniques for managing the inbox, but since November I have had two or three occasions to explain how this works, and I have been told it sounds either risky or brave to abandon a glut of folders for this new (to me) configuration. It’s neither risky nor brave. This is no hero narrative (at most, I can get a high-five from Is.: “You did what to your inbox?! Awesome!”). Yeah, I was nervous for 30 minutes deleting all of those folders, but the change has turned out to be a remarkable improvement.