What’s The Best Way To Organize Your Mail?

In years past it was common advice to simply delete older emails to save hard drive space and make what you have easier to manage. Today we’re (correctly) told never to delete email unless it’s spam. We have many gigabytes of space on our local hard drives, Yahoo! Mail and Hotmail have unlimited storage, and Gmail at the time of this writing currently offers 7.5GB.

Over time you amass tons of mail and have probably tried several ways to organize it all. By filter, by attachment, by sender and so on.

The easiest way to organize mail is by year. This can be accomplished easily using a mail client or web-based email. In an email client or webmail, you simply create year-titled folders (like "2007", "2008" and so on) and dump any mail from that year to that folder.

What are the advantages of doing this?

For you:

Having mail sorted into folder or label by year saves clicks and time. Clicks are saved by having quick access to older stuff without having to specify a date range; time is saved by far less scrolling.

For your mail client:

You’re most likely using Windows Live Mail or Mozilla Thunderbird.

Windows Live Mail stores emails maildir style in a local store folder, however folders with large amounts of mail may cause the client to stutter/pause from large index files. Having the mail separated into folders by year means WLmail "thinks less" because smaller folder index files are easier for the client to handle.

Mozilla Thunderbird stores mail in mbox format. Each folder in Thunderbird uses a separate file. Folders with large amounts of mail turn into big single files. If you separate mail into folders by year, Thunderbird has a much easier time with this for the same reasons WLmail does.

For webmail users:

Whether you use Yahoo! Mail or Hotmail, these respective mail services "don’t like" folders with huge amounts of mail in them. And by huge I mean over 5,000 individual messages in a single folder.

Placing your mail into separate folders by year breathes new life into your webmail you never knew it had. Why? Because like with a mail client, the webmail server doesn’t have to "think" as much to display smaller lists of email.

As for Gmail, yes it’s true your entire mail account is nothing but a single folder, however, separating into by-year labels will help out greatly if you use IMAP. See next section.

For IMAP users:

IMAP is a complicated mail protocol that has very clunky operation by nature. Part of the blame goes towards mail servers and the other part goes to mail clients themselves. IMAP is just an unruly beast, but some people swear by it.

Nothing will cause an IMAP connection to time out faster than having an email folder with multiple thousands of individual messages in it – even if you’re doing nothing but downloading headers.

Sorting your mail into folders by year will greatly increase IMAP speed and reliability, because the mail server doesn’t have to deliver as many headers to you and mail sync works perfectly (most of the time.)

What about the "Sent" folder?

It may be true that your Sent folder is the largest one you have. If that’s the case, all email clients and webmail do allow you to drag messages outside that folder into another for archiving.

My suggestion is that if you want to do this, create specific folders just for sent emails, such as "2007 – Sent", "2008 – Sent" and so on. You don’t want to mix sent mail with your received, because that can turn into a nightmare in short order.

Special note for Yahoo! Mail users: Yes, you can move mail to and from Sent, but not by the "Move" button. You must physically drag and drop mail within Y! Mail to do it.

What if I already have a sorting method that works for me?

If you already sort your mail in a way that accommodates the way you use email, I’m not telling you to dump it for the by-year method. Continue to use your mail as you always have if the way you sort works.

Be warned, however: Pay close attention to your folders that have multiple thousands of messages in them. If you have any, consider splitting them up to make it easier for your mail client or webmail service to handle.

Telltale signs one of your mail folders has too much mail in it and you need to split it up:

  • Whenever you click on that folder, the mail client or webmail "thinks" about it longer than other folders – enough so you notice.
  • In webmail: You routinely encounter timeouts whenever trying to access that specific folder – especially when you try to scroll through it.
  • In a mail client: Attempts to scroll through your mail in a specific folder crash the client.
  • In webmail: Mail searches in a specific folder result in periodic server timeouts.
  • In webmail: Mail searches for mail you know is in the folder don’t show up in the search results (this happens regardless of webmail provider, by the way.)


  1. can you use your laptop as a terminal and do all of your work on a main frame?

  2. Basically, yes. If you want to go super old-school you can access email using Telnet. It still works for most mail systems and essentially is accessing email mainframe-style.

  3. Some great Tips!

  4. The idea of leaving mail on someone’s server (via IMAP) seems crazy. Am I the only one who remembers the Chinese hacking Gmail users’ accounts and reading all their stored messages? How about the Google admin who was reading random users’ email accounts?

    Much better to use POP via Thunderbird or TrulyMail and download the messages to your local hard drive where you can keep them safe.

  5. Hey, Rich! Just a quick defense of IMAP – the protocol itself doesn’t necessarily lead to slow implementations. I routinely open folders with 3000+ messages with no problem. I can even search through them! And the convenience of having my complete e-mail database available at all times without having to use a clunky, web-based interface is important to me.

    BTW, I use Alpine on Linux & Windows with FastMail.fm. (Which, to tie in to another of today’s post, was recently bought by Opera!)


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