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The Life-Changing Magic of the Inbox Sort Folder

April 27th, 2017 · 22 comments

Back to Basics

It’s been a while since I’ve geeked out here on Study Hacks about the latest productivity hack to earn my enthusiasm. So it’s with some excitement that I bring up my latest favorite tip: the inbox sort folder.

It’s not uncommon for me to go two or three days without seeing my email inbox. When I subsequently return, the volume of its contents can be overwhelming. The inbox sort folder method is something I stumbled into that helps me tame this mess.

The idea is simple…

  1. Create a folder in your email inbox named “sort” (if, like me, you use Gmail, then create a label with this name; as shown above).
  2. Pick a topic that describes several of your unread messages. For example, there might be multiple messages related to a specific project, or multiple messages about a meeting you’re organizing.
  3. Move all messages related to that topic into your sort folder.
  4. Go into your sort folder and process through these messages until the folder is empty.
  5. Return to your inbox and loop back to Step 2, looking for another topic that describes multiple messages. Repeat until the inbox is empty.

Logically speaking, this trick of moving a group of related messages to a temporary folder before processing shouldn’t make a big difference.

But psychologically speaking, it does help. A lot.

Tackling a stack of messages all related to the same topic, one after another, while watching the sort folder diminish toward empty as you go, somehow ends up much easier than tackling those same messages in a scattered order as you make your way through your chaotic inbox in a less structured manner.

I can’t explain the exact mechanism behind this hack’s effectiveness, but it certainly does help me maintain my sanity when I have to return to the world of workplace communication after travel or long deep work binges.

Give it a try. You’ll understand what I mean.

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My good friend Scott Young, of MIT Challenge fame, has developed a great online course about his tactics for rapidly learning hard things. It’s called Rapid Learner. He opens it once or twice a year for people to sign up. It’s open this week. If you’re curious, I highly recommend that you learn more about it here

(This is not an affiliate link. I don’t make any money if you sign up. I just think he put together a smart course on a topic I care about.)

22 thoughts on “The Life-Changing Magic of the Inbox Sort Folder

  1. AJ says:

    Sorry I hope my message got through, I didn’t get any notification that it was sent so apologies for writing again here, just checking, thanks

    1. Timothy Dumbell says:

      AJ not sure what you talking about my friend. I didn’t get your message to get a message about any message. Hope this helps!

  2. Tauseef Alam says:

    I am using this method already to sort the email that I receive from websites I subscribed to. It is awesome to get all your subscriptions at one place. It makes the life a bit easy.

  3. Adam Marlin says:

    First, do you search items on a topic and drag/assign that label?

    Second, YOU REALLY HAVE ONLY ONE UNREAD MESSAGE IN YOUR INBOX–AND HAVE INBOX ZERO????!!!!!

    1. Study Hacks says:

      A few points…

      My actual inbox in gmail is not necessarily that important as I feed four or five email addresses into that one account and they all go to their own folders.

      I rarely have unread messages at all due to this habit: http://calnewport.com/blog/2008/08/11/monday-master-class-how-to-use-a-monotypic-inbox-to-kick-the-compulsive-e-mail-checking-habit/

      But it’s true that when I do jump into my inbox I do like to process it pretty close to 0. I definitely don’t have one big inbox with 1000s of messages in it.

  4. Adam Marlin says:

    That is, I tell people up front, I don’t reliably check my email (text me if absolutely need me). I have not found a way to remain highly : deeply productive and get to Inbox Zero.

  5. Sean says:

    I find that most emails don’t require any action further than sorting for reference later. To that end I have a number of folders that I sort everything into. The most important of which is my WIP folder, where each job I do has its own folder. When the job is complete I move the whole thing to COMPLETED.

    I check email a few times a day and typically run inbox zero.

  6. Steve says:

    Thanks for the tip. Check out https://www.sanebox.com/ I have no affiliation with them but I find their service awesome. This service is especially helpful if you get alot of email that you eventually want to read but not until later.

  7. Josh says:

    I use the star feature in Gmail to perform this sort of processing. Once a message no longer requires my attention, I un-star it (I archive it before or after processing, and sometimes delete it). This method doesn’t require any dragging or navigating through menus to add or remove labels, so I find it less cumbersome than using an additional folder.

  8. Greg says:

    357 Drafts? Cal, we need to talk… 🙂

  9. Dave says:

    Cal, thank you for all your works. They impact my life on a regular basis.

    You may have mentioned this “hack” in a previous post, but if you’re using Chrome, I highly recommend the extension called ‘Inbox When Ready’. It’s a gem for cutting down on distractions and as a result, increasing productivity. Similar to Cal’s link above, I have no affiliation with the extension creator and receive no compensation for this recommendation.

  10. Anatoli says:

    Unrelated question, Cal – would you post your lectures on Coursera at some stage?

  11. David Stern says:

    I do this but set up 3-4 topics to cover the main topics of the messages and put everything in the Inbox that isn’t instantly deleted into one of them. For me these could be “Research”, “STudents”, “Admin”, “Personal” or something like that.

  12. AK says:

    I have been doing this (without knowing it was a hack) for a few months. It occurred to me as a good way to go about life as a result of the general theme across your blogs and others about single tasking and working with focus. Resulted in much higher efficiency and much less stress and procrastination.

  13. Helen Casteel says:

    This was a GREAT tip. I had 3,000 emails stacked up (not bragging, it was horrible).
    Passing it along to everyone I know. Thank you, Cal Newport!

    Now that I QUIT Social Media, after watching THAT YouTube of yours, they won’t be that cumbersome. 🙂

  14. Dave Ardent says:

    I like it: very David Allen-esque.

  15. Pakeezah says:

    Hi Cal,
    You haven’t talked a lot about “expert generalists”. Would love to hear your thoughts: http://observer.com/2016/09/how-elon-musk-learns-faster-and-better-than-everyone-else/

    This exact technique was at play during the golden era of Islam. Check out Lost History by Michael Morgan.

    1. Pakeezah says:

      golden era of Islam as well as one of the key traits of Mongols.

    2. Amoranda says:

      Basically thinking in terms of analogy and venn diagrams.

  16. Misha says:

    Divide and conquer! It’s funny how partitioning makes things faster for both computers AND humans 😉

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