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Advanced Email Organization

using tags
Devon Campbell

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If youve tried organizing email, youve probably used folders. The metaphor has been around since the early days of computers, and it served us well in the beginning. Users needed to anchor the computers file system to something they understood in the real world. The folder was perfect. However, in the past five years, developers have recognized and filled a need to take full advantage of the unique benefits of digital organization. The innovation is tagging. Think back on the folder metaphor. Here in meatspace (the non-virtual world), a document can only exist in a single folder. If you need a document to be filed in two different places, you need copies. If you want to change one copy, you change both. If you forget to change both... Physics tell us that a piece of paper can only be in one place at a time. Organization on computers thankfully doesnt need to concern itself with the pitiful limitations of spacetime.


Folders: the prevailing digital organization metaphor but not the best

Tags: Not as strong a metaphor, but a better way to organize digital information

Tags are very much like folders but without the exclusivity. A single item can have multiple tagsas many as you want, in fact. Heres a concrete example. I have a tag called projects which I use to track any work that doesnt fall into working tickets day-to-day. This way, I can click the tag and, at a glance, see where I am and what I need to do on all my side-projects. Another tag is called trouble, and its here I keep computer problems. So, what if someone emails me to say an entire computer lab is down? Thats trouble, but its also a pretty serious project. Luckily, I can organize it as both. Tagging realizes that, in two years when Im looking for that email, Im not going to know whether I put it into projects or trouble, and it lets me put it in both.


Im not sure where to put this email. It would really make sense to put it in two different places. With tags, I can do that easily. In fact, I could put it in 20 different places if I wanted.

Making tags is really easy in ENA Webmail. Just click the button shown. The hard part is developing a system that will still work long after youve forgotten where you filed away that email. Give some thought to the way you will tag your email. I have some general rules I use to develop tags. Use plural words for nouns, singular for concepts Use all-lowercase letters for your tags except in the case of a proper noun Use as many tags as apply to each message Use multiple word forms if necessary Organizing is a game in which you develop a system your brain can understand once you have forgotten about it. When you look at an email, try to guess what you would think of when you want to find it later. Tagging is simple; its word association! Dont think you will setup all your tags in the beginning. You will almost certainly create new tags as you go. Tagging is free-form.

Tagging in Practice
You can create your tags in a number of placeseven as youre applying them. Just look out for the tag icon. These are not hard and fast rules. They just happen to be what I use. You can probably come up with better ones.

Its still a good idea to maintain your tags. If an old tag would make better sense with a different name, by all means change it! 4

Tags make more sense for digital organization, but folders still have their place. I have put my folders to work turning my inbox into a to-do list. Most emails are actionable meaning the recipient needs to take some sort of action on them. This folder structure allows every email to be classified based on when it is actionable. This is unlike my tag organization which sorts messages based on their content. The basis for the sorting of messages into folders is dissimilar enough to warrant a different mechanism to create separation from the content organization. It also happens to be a case in which exclusivity makes perfect sense. As such, the folder is an excellent mechanism for this scheme. As my messages come in, I will first tag them while they are in the inbox. Then, I will sort them based on when they can be acted upon. You may want to check the folders periodically and move your messages between them as deadlines approach.

Folders Have Their Place

Folders work well for this because each action can be completed at only one time. Folders will help because I am forced to sort each message into only one folder. The folder names are self-explanatory for the most part. Its important to note I lead the names with a number to influence the order. The Archive folder contains completed items or items which are not actionable.

Finally, we have reached the payoff. The sole reason for organizing is so you can easily find things later. If you use the tips here, youll have no trouble finding the messages you need to see now or months from now. Searching in concert with tags and folders is incredibly powerful.

Finding Your Messages

Heres a simple search that returns messages tagged projects. It looks the same as clicking on the projects tag in the left sidebar. Not terribly useful. Heres where things get interesting.

Search is your friend. Saved searches can often automate the organization process to some degree. AND- Finds items with both search terms. Use multiple ANDs to find more. OR- Finds items with one, the other, or both search terms. NOT- Exclude items matching a search term.

This search finds a tag intersection. The search will return messages tagged with both tags. This will find the message I mentioned earlier about the computer lab that is down.

This search looks like the last one but for the inclusion of the keyword OR. Without it, an AND is implied between all search terms. The OR finds messages with either tag, as you might expect. Try a search with NOT.

Lets do a search for messages tagged trouble that are actionable today. To do so, I have to use the advanced search functionality. Despite its name, advanced search is really a cinch. Its much simpler than the tag searching tricks you learned previously. You can probably figure it out just by jumping in and looking around the interface. Everything is graphical. After clicking Advanced next to the search box, the area below clears out for the advanced searching criteria. A bar shows the available criteria. Clicking on Folder and Tag in turn will reveal those search panes.

Advanced Searches

Advanced searching may be simpler than the text-only searching we did before, but it isnt as powerful. In advanced searches, there is no way to find a tag intersection. Fortunately, you can use the advanced criteria in tandem with the text box.

These two checkboxes will find what we need: emails about trouble which are actionable today. Click the Search button to see the results.

If this or any other search is something you will reuse, save the search. Instead of searching again each time, just click the saved search in your sidebar. These saved searches can act like folders, but they have a key advantage. They will update each time you click. I know many of you like to be able to see messages from key colleagues. A saved search is the perfect way. Youll no longer have to manually sort all these messages. Plus, you will not have locked the message into monogamy with a folder named for your colleague. Use the From: field in the basic search section of the advanced search. Enter the users email address in the field, click Save, and enjoy an auto-updating saved search with every email from that individual. Saved searches are incredibly versatile, but use them somewhat sparingly. Only save searches you know you will use again and again. They eat up valuable screen space in your email interface.

Saved Searches

Give your saved searches names in the same way you might a folder. Be sure youre consistent.

If a search will be useful once a day or once a week, it probably needs a saved search. If its useful once per month, thats a maybe. If its terribly complex, thats another good reason to save. 8

Just as saved searches make repeated queries faster, filtering automates repeated sorting tasks. The best example is an email phenomenon known as bacn (pronounced like the meat). Bacn is the halfway point between timesensitive emails and spam. You probably receive several newsletters in your inbox. These are bacn. Its not unsolicited like spam, but it lacks the urgency of other email. You may read your bacn at the end of the day or in a week... or maybe never. A given newsletter is typically sent from the same email address each issue. For example, our Techknow newsletter comes from Using this information, I can automatically sort these messages into a tag called bacn or newsletters, if you prefer. Filters are located in ENA Webmails preferences. Once you click preferences, you will see filters in the left sidebar.


Filters will help automate some of the sorting process.

Bacn would be a more general tag. Newsletters is a variety of bacn.

Once I navigate to Preferences > Filters, I can click New Filter to summon the box shown here. This is where I tell the filter which messages to find and what to do with them.

Making Filters
Using any in this dropdown menu allows me to use the plus sign to add other senders. I can use a single filter to sort all my bacn.

In this example, Im finding messages from, moving them from the inbox into the archive folder (they are probably not actionable), and tagging them bacn. This gets them out of the inbox and out of my way so I can deal with my truly urgent messages.

The great thing about tagging my bacn is that tags get an unread message count just like folders and the inbox. I will still be able to see that my bacn tag has unread messages just by glancing at the tag in the sidebar.


In this hour, youve acquired a toolset which will make organizing and finding your email as painless and headache-free as it can be. If you have any questions or suggestions, I would love to hear them. Feel free to contact me at I hope you have enjoyed the session. Thank you for your time. Folksonomies - Cooperative Classification and Communication Through Shared Metadata Singular vs. plural tags in a tag-based categorization system The author here merely poses a question. The meat is in the comments. Tagging Best Practices Although I disagree with the assertion that singular (as opposed to plural) tags are best, this is a well-thought set of tagging guidelines

Contact Me
Devon Campbell 865.680.5922

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