The Happy Inbox

“We tend to live in our email…”

–Steve Whittaker, Victoria Bellotti, Jacek Gwizdka,
Email in Personal Information Management,” 2006.

Do any of the following tasks sound familiar to you:

  • Sending an email to yourself as a reminder of a task you need to do tomorrow morning
  • Emailing links to yourself to visit later
  • Leaving most (or all) of your email in your inbox, even after you have read it
  • Backing up files by emailing them as attachments to yourself
  • Hitting the “Mark as unread” button, and turning unread messages into a to-do list.

If you any of these sounds familiar, you are not alone. Researchers who study the organizing habits of email users report that these types of email behaviors are very common. People use email messages for all sorts of things for which email was not originally intended: to-do lists, cloud storage, document archives, project management.

What’s more, researcher tells us that the human brain is not very good at managing digital records. People are fairly good at organizing and sorting paper records, but they struggle to apply the same good management practices to digital equivalents. A messy hard drive doesn’t cause the same physical discomfort as does a messy office. Dragging and dropping digital files from the computer desktop doesn’t trigger the same sense of fulfillment as does cleaning an actual desktop of cluttered paper files. Absent these physical incentives and disincentives, digital records management often gets moved to the back burner. Nowhere is this more evident than email.

wooden inboxHow should you organize your email?

First, the inbox. A good email inbox should look the same as the wooden inboxes that once helped us manage incoming paper correspondence–that is to say, empty (or nearly so).

Outlook inbox with only 2 messages

The email inbox is a temporary holding space for incoming mail yet to be sorted. Emails should be quickly transferred out of the inbox and into a hierarchy of topical folders. These folders should help you quickly identify:

  1. Confidential messages. If you frequently receive confidential messages, consider creating special folders that are labelled “confidential”. Confidential messages should always have the word “confidential” in the subject line, but you can’t control all incoming messages.
  2. Retention periods. Work-related emails are public records, and different types of emails need to be kept for different lengths of time (more on this below). Several years down the line, you don’t want to be faced with the task of sorting through thousands of unorganized messages to determine which ones need to be kept and which can be disposed of. Better to do it now.

Screenshot of a well-organized Outlook inbox and foldering systemA good starting place to organize your records is your records retention schedule. State agency employees should look at the General Schedule for State Agency Records in combination with their program-specific schedule. Local government employees should look at the municipal and county schedules. These retention and disposition schedules spell out the types of records (also called “records series” or “record items”) used in your office, how long you need to keep each type of record, and when you can destroy the record. Some emails need to be kept permanently, others five or ten years, and for local agencies many emails can be discarded as soon as you don’t need them anymore (in archives-speak, “as soon as you don’t need them anymore” is formally described as “when administrative value ends.”). For state employees subject to E.O.18, emails must be kept a minimum of ten years, but some emails must also be kept longer. Needless to say, if your records are already organized according to retention period, you’ll be saving yourself a lot of hassle down the line. Remember, no computer system can come back later and auto-sort your emails according to retention period. That task is up to you, and better to do it now than risk a mistake during a public records request or e-discovery process years down the line.

Don’t forget about your sent messages!

Screenshot of a well-organized Outlook Sent Items folderYou are responsible for every one of your sent messages, as well. We spend a lot of mental energy trying to keep up with our inbox, but the messages in our sent box are public records subject to identical retention and disposition laws. Use the same foldering system for your sent items as you do your received messages.


More information and guidance about email can be found on the Electronic Records website, including the online tutorial Managing Your Inbox: E-mail as a Public Record.