How to organize your inbox if you're drowning in emails

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Your email inbox is a lot like a garden: you have to prune it so it doesn’t grow wild. More literally, it’s not much different than your physical mailbox. If you don't empty and organize its contents regularly, you’ll be ankle deep in junk mail and drowning in unpaid bills. It'll be a mess.

It’s similar if you fail to organize your email inbox. Eventually, spam will proliferate and your important messages will get buried in the abyss. Not to mention the mental stress a chaotic inbox can induce. But it doesn’t have to be this way. It’s never too late to get your inbox under control and get through all your unread emails — otherwise known as “achieving inbox zero.”

AOL Desktop Gold is a great starting point. It’s the AOL desktop you know and love, but so much better. One key feature it offers is Advanced Filtering, which lets you view all the attachments or images you’ve ever received via email in one place — no digging through tons of emails to locate that one elusive attachment.

It also helps bring order to a messy computer desktop — another notorious clutter zone! Just install AOL Desktop Gold and all your toolbar shortcuts, toolbar icons, usernames, passwords and mail will be easily transferred, along with your favorites and contacts. It gives you free background images, custom sounds and color options, too. And everything is virtually hacker-proof.

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Create folders and labels as a filing system for emails.

Your built-in email organization tools will vary depending on the email service you use, but one thing they have in common is folder and labeling systems. Get familiar with what your service offers. Start creating new folders for the various types of emails you get — correspondence with loved ones, e-newsletters, retailers, services you’re subscribed too, for instance. Or you can create folders specific to frequent senders or folders for common categories like banking and shopping.

Your email inbox should also offer labels that help you further classify and easily access emails that are important or that you might need for reference. Some services provide a “star” label that lets you essentially “favorite” an email and create a shortcut for finding it later. Others let you add it to a “Tasks” section if it pertains to something you need to get done at a later time.

Automate things by creating filters for incoming emails.

Put email management on autopilot by implementing filters that intercept emails and put them in their place for you. Filters are like built-in email assistants. Depending on your email provider, you’ll usually filter by sender — the email address the message is coming from — and make it so that every time an email comes from this sender, it goes straight to its designated spot.

Some popular filters include ‘newsletters,’ ‘important,’ and, of course, ‘spam,’ which makes sure the sender doesn’t clog up your inbox with anything further. But you can also customize your own, like ‘business-related’ or ‘travel deals.’

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Archive emails to keep them out of sight.

Archiving emails basically means you’re getting them out of your main inbox and saving them for later. It’s kind of like the file folders you move from the main cabinet and put into storage — you don’t need to access them necessarily, but you might need to later.

If someone responds to an archived email, though, the message will reappear in your inbox so you don’t miss their reply. You can either respond and keep the email in your main inbox, or choose to archive it again. If you leave it there, it’ll remain there indefinitely. Don’t worry, it won’t be deleted.

Delete emails you definitely don’t need.

An unsolicited service, a newsletter you never subscribed to, an unwanted political donation request — if it’s an email you definitely don’t want and will never want again, into the Trash it goes. But when you delete emails, remember to empty your Trash too. Yep, permanently deleting emails is a two-step process.

If you’re constantly receiving unwanted emails from the same sender — or even if it’s a new sender, and you’re sure you never want anything from them again — don’t hesitate to mark it as Spam. That will signal your email provider to filter messages from that sender going forward, so you can give your delete finger a bit of a rest.

Unsubscribe from unwanted emails.

It’s easy for e-subscriptions to get wildly out of hand. Maybe you remember signing up for two or three of these newsletters, but not 30! Brands that have something to sell you or organizations with an agenda to push have sneaky ways of signing you up unbeknownst to you, but that’s another story altogether.

In this case, you can manually unsubscribe from emails that come from a particular sender either by clicking a link in the email itself or by selecting the ‘Unsubscribe’ option, if your email provider offers it. Otherwise, search for third-party apps that uncover emails that you barely ever open and surface those senders en masse. After running it by you on a sender-by-sender basis, the service will quickly and efficiently auto-unsubscribe you.

Create a separate email address for subscriptions and other services.

Here’s a proactive trick to make sure your inbox won’t runneth over: divide and conquer. If you create a second email to separate your personal emails from your commercial emails — things like subscriptions, newsletters and sales announcements — you can keep the chaos out of your main inbox.

This way, important things you don’t want to miss —things like personal notes, social media updates, event reminders and important bills — will be easy to access and won’t get buried. Then you can check your secondary email at leisure, and your inbox won’t feel like a free-for-all.

Implement a daily routine for checking your emails.

No matter how many filters you use, folders you create or senders you unsubscribe from, the pile-on will continue in your email inbox until you implement a disciplined approach. In other words, check your email! Check it daily, check it every few days — whatever frequency makes sense for you, stick to it.

Like most things in life, cleaning up regularly is the way to avoid a big, unmanageable mess later.

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