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The Life-Changing Magic of the Inbox Sort Folder

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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.


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.)

Author: Cal Newport
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