In With the New E-Mail, Out With the Old

By Sam Diaz Washington Post Staff Writer

It's only been a week since the calendar turned the corner into 2006, and I'm slowly making progress on one of my New Year's resolutions: organizing my digital life.

The digital music and digital photo files were fairly easy -- photo album software has made it simple to organize my pictures by dates or events while music software allows me to create playlists or find duplicate tracks with just a few clicks. And I've been pretty good at keeping it organized month after month.

The biggest challenge, the one that I'm finding is taking a lot of time, patience and commitment, is tackling the e-mail mess that I've created. Part of the problem, I think, is that I have too many e-mail accounts. There's the mail that comes into the office, as well as the personal account I use through Yahoo. And of course, I couldn't refuse an invitation to Google's GMail when a friend lured me in.

And, to intensify the flood of mail, I subscribe to a half-dozen or so e-newsletters and have set up my mail to receive daily news alerts. Add to that the jokes that some friends just won't stop sending and the Spam that seems to regularly sneak past the filters, and you get an idea of how quickly things can get cluttered. How cluttered? I have more than 6,200 e-mails in my Yahoo inbox alone.

Now I find myself wrestling with two impulses: The need for some sort of order in my e-mail versus my pack-rat instinct to save everything. So I came up with a no-budget plan to not only do some cleanup but also ensure that I never get back to this cluttered place again.


OR ARCHIVE. It sounds simple enough, but just sorting through the hundreds (or thousands) of mails is a job within itself.

No matter if you read mail over Yahoo, GMail or Hotmail, or if you access it through programs such as Outlook, Lotus Notes or Eudora, you have the capability to sort the mail by sender or subject line.

That's where I started. Click on the heading and start searching for stuff that has to go. In my case, the automatic news alerts that date back to last summer can probably go first.

If you're using Outlook, select a group of similar e-mails and press the delete key once. If you're using a Web-based program, the best bet may be to perform a search on the e-mails from a sender or those who use the same subject line. When your search results appear, select them all and hit delete.

I have cleared hundreds of e-mails in one shot by doing this.

If you really can't fathom the idea of deleting hundreds of e-mails, do yourself a favor and archive them to get them out of the inbox.

Archiving, also known as exporting in some programs, really isn't that hard. You're basically saving a select group of e-mails, usually those within a range of dates, to another place on your computer, though I suggest saving them to a USB drive or CD.

Whenever you need to search for a particular e-mail from 2004, for example, you can just plug in that drive or pop in that CD and retrieve them.

FILTERS AND FOLDERS. Regardless of what program you use to get e-mail, you probably have the ability to create custom filters and new subfolders. I made a new folder called Alerts and set up a filter that automatically puts any e-mail sent by "," the address that sends those daily bulletins, directly into the Alerts folder. I've done the same for newsletters and other regular e-mail that's not necessarily critical.

My inbox will no longer be cluttered by them, they'll be easy to find and even easier to delete in bulk when the time comes.

Sure, now I have more folders to sort through during the day, but the important stuff, the e-mail that needs to be in my face, will pop into the primary inbox.

FORWARD THOSE E-MAILS. I realize that the last thing you need is another e-mail account, but I have started putting that GMail account to good use.

Every e-mail that comes into my inbox, or filtered subfolders, is automatically forwarded to my GMail account, which has a mailbox capacity of two gigabytes and keeps growing as you continue to feed it.

Here's the trick: Set up your primary account to forward a copy of the e-mail, not the original, to a different account, one that you don't check regularly. Read, reply and delete as you normally would with the peace of mind that somewhere out in cyberspace there's a copy for you.

It's worth noting that none of these tricks is new, but none will cost you a penny. Filters and folders have been around for years, but like backing up important data or updating anti-virus software, we don't use them until things go crazy.

Like losing weight or quitting smoking, this e-mail organization resolution can be overwhelming. Just remember, like the weight and smoking, this didn't happen overnight. It took a while to get here. Getting out of it will take plenty of time, as well -- and a commitment.

Copyright 2006 The Washington Post Company

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